Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ attempt to upgrade the Palestinians’ status at the UN, despite US and Israeli opposition, signals a bolder approach by a leader keen to forge a legacy after years of failed peace talks.
However, Palestinians are divided on the merits of the diplomatic offensive. In the West Bank, Abbas’ Fatah movement bills it as a turning point in the Palestinian struggle, while in Gaza, a politician from rival Islamist Hamas dismissed it as hot air.
Israel is wary. The Palestinians will likely emerge from next month’s UN General Assembly meeting with a status upgrade that will give them access to dozens of UN agencies.
However, talk in Israel of a looming “diplomatic tsunami” has subsided.
Abbas’ Plan A — to secure full UN membership for Palestine — is destined to fail. The US, which has veto power in the UN Security Council, is expected to oppose a move viewed in Washington as unhelpful to its Middle East diplomacy.
Plan B, as outlined by Palestinian officials, is to ask the General Assembly to upgrade Palestine to a non-member state from its current status as an observer. That would not need Security Council approval and elevate the Palestinians’ UN status to that of the Vatican.
Some say unless it is part of a deep rethink of Palestinian strategy, the upgrade would have little more than symbolic value and bring Palestinians no closer to independence in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
“It’s a first step, but without further steps it is politically meaningless,” said George Giacaman, a political scientist at Birzeit University in the West Bank. “If the Palestinian Authority has a plan for after September, it hasn’t announced it.”
Born of paralysis in the peace process, next month’s move is being portrayed by Palestinian officials in the occupied West Bank as a step toward leveling the playing field in the struggle with Israel.
Though they have stated an intention to seek full UN membership, the Palestinians have yet to submit their application to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the first step in the process.
However, they are confident of success in the General Assembly thanks to support from states including Brazil and Argentina, among the most recent to recognize Palestine.
The move brings with it risks, particularly to the international aid upon which the Palestinian Authority depends. The US Congress last month passed a resolution urging a suspension of aid to the Palestinians over the initiative.
However, it will produce some tangible results, giving the Palestinians access to UN agencies and potentially allowing them direct recourse to the International Criminal Court, where they could pursue cases against Israel.
“It’s about opening new doors for the cause of Palestine,” said Mohammad Shtayyeh, an official involved in the bid.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not seem overly concerned by that prospect.
When discussing next month, his aides say he invokes a catchphrase from an old Israeli television commercial: “Unpleasant, but not terrible.”
Israel seems more wary about the potential for next month to trigger Palestinian protests inspired by the Arab Spring.
The Palestinian leadership has called for mass protests in support of the bid under the slogan “Palestine 194,” referring to their aim of becoming the 194th member of the UN.