State of mind
Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert is much more sanguine about the significance of Thursday’s Palestinian UN vote than either his own government or indeed the Palestinians. He said that he saw “no reason to oppose” the Palestinian initiative, arguing rightly that it was “congruent with the basic concept of the two-state solution”. In truth, although the welcome decision of the General Assembly to upgrade Palestinian status from “non-state observer” to “non-member observer” marks a significant diplomatic coup for the Palestinians, it hardly justifies the claim by chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat,that after the vote “life will not be the same”. Life in Gaza and the West Bank, unfortunately, will not change.
Any more than the decision, as Israel and the US will have us believe, necessarily “places further obstacles in the path of peace”, in the words of US ambassador Susan Rice to the UN. It only does so if both countries, notionally committed to a two-state solution, determine that they will use it as an excuse for inertia.
And, significantly, in recent weeks the Israelis have begun to recognise as much, de-escalating their previous rhetoric on the vote. The Palestinians will now only be “punished” if they seek to use their new status to initiate claims against it at the International Criminal Court to which the vote has given them access. The US may also move in such an eventuality to cut off funding to UN bodies, as it did to Unesco in 2011 after it accepted Palestine as a member. Such bullying is entirely unacceptable.
Although some 132 states have already recognised Palestinian statehood, the UN decision has some symbolic importance as what Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas called a “birth certificate” for Palestine. And it gives added legitimacy to its broadly accepted characterisation of Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank. It should also usefully give new authority to the somewhat eclipsed Abbas, who remains, nevertheless, Israel’s best prospect as a partner for peace.