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Sunday, August 07, 2011

Q&A: Palestinian statehood bid at the UN

Palestinian officials plan to ask the United Nations to recognise an independent Palestinian state within 1967 borders if there is no progress in the peace process by September.
The idea is strongly opposed by Israel and its close ally, the United States.
Palestinians wave their national flag at a demonstration in GazaRecent rally against Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory on the anniversary of the 1967 war.
Here is a guide to what is likely to happen and its significance.

Q. What are the Palestinians asking for?

The Palestinians, as represented by the Palestinian Authority, have long sought to establish an independent, sovereign state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem - occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six Day War. Although the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has said he would prefer to achieve this through negotiations, two decades of on-and-off peace talks have failed to produce a deal.
Late last year, Palestinian officials began pursuing a new diplomatic strategy: asking individual countries to recognise a Palestinian state within 1967 borders. Now they want the UN to do the same. This would entitle them to full member state representation at the UN, where the Palestine Liberation Organisation currently has only observer status. It could also have political implications allowing Palestinians greater access to international courts where they could possibly launch legal action to challenge the occupation of territory by Israel.

Q. What is the process?

The 15-member UN Security Council needs to recommend statehood to the General Assembly. If it does, then a vote on membership by its 192 members could take place on 20 September. Approval requires a two-thirds majority - or 128 votes. Currently 116 countries are said to recognise Palestine but the Palestinians hope they would gain the support of up to 150.
United Nations General Assembly Palestinians believe over two-thirds of the General Assembly would recognise their statehood.
The US is the main obstacle to a General Assembly vote because it has veto power as a permanent Security Council member. In February, the US vetoed a resolution, which was co-sponsored by 130 countries, condemning Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories as an obstacle to peace. This time around, the Palestinians are hoping to persuade the US to at least abstain.
As a back-up, they are exploring other possible legal options. These include a loophole created by a 1950 resolution, which may allow the Security Council to be bypassed on issues of "world peace". The Palestinians and their supporters are also looking at ways to press for UN General Assembly resolution 181 of 1947 to be enforced. The resolution calls for the partition of British Mandate Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab one. At the very least, the Palestinians say they want the General Assembly to accept Palestine as an observer state.

Q. Is this symbolic or would it change facts on the ground?

Getting UN recognition of Palestinian statehood on 1967 borders would largely have symbolic value, building on previous UN decisions. Already Security Council resolution 242, which followed the Six Day War, demanded the "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict." Although Israel disputes the precise meaning of this, there is wide international acceptance that the pre-1967 frontiers should form the basis of a peace settlement.
Israeli settlement of Maaleh Hazeitim within view of the al-Aqsa mosque in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem.Israeli authorities continue to approve new settler homes in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The problem for the Palestinians is that Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not agree with the premise. In May, when President Barack Obama called for border talks based broadly on 1967 lines, Mr Netanyahu described the idea as "unrealistic" and "indefensible".
It is unlikely that UN recognition of a Palestinian state would persuade Israel to concede possession of occupied land. New facts on the ground have been created since 1967, Israelis have insisted over the years. Almost half a million Israelis live in more than 200 settlements and outposts in the West Bank. Mutually agreed land swaps have been suggested as a way to overcome this and could only be agreed by negotiations.
The Palestinians argue that recognition of a Palestinian state would strengthen their hands in peace talks with Israel. They say these would have to resume, in order to resolve other issues such as security, water, refugees and arrangements for sharing Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital. However Israeli officials object to recognition of a Palestinian state in advance of such agreements as "putting the carriage before the horse".

Q. Why is this happening now?

The main reason is the impasse in peace talks. However, the Palestinians also argue that their UN plan fits with an agreed deadline. The Middle East Peace Quartet - the European Union, United States, Russia and UN - committed itself to the target of achieving a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict by September 2011. The Palestinian Authority Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, says that Palestinians have succeeded in building up state institutions and are ready for statehood.
Recent Arab uprisings also appear to have energised Palestinian public opinion. Civil society groups may hold street demonstrations to show their backing for the UN option.

Q. How is this different from previous declarations?

In 1988, the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, unilaterally declared the establishment of a state. This won recognition from about 100 countries, mainly Arab, Communist and non-aligned states - several of them in Latin America. Recognition of Palestine as a sovereign state by the UN would have greater impact as it is the overarching international body and a source of authority on international law.

Q. Who supports and opposes the UN option?

This course of action enjoys wide support among Palestinians. After the recent reconciliation deal between rival political factions, even leaders of the Islamic militant organisation, Hamas, acknowledged there was a broad consensus on the establishment of a Palestinian state within 1967 borders, though they formally still refuse to recognise Israel and their Charter is committed to its destruction. The appeal to the UN is also backed by the 22-member Arab League.
President Obama greeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last SeptemberThe latest US push to bring the Israelis and Palestinians back to negotiations quickly stalled.
The main opposition comes from Israel. "Peace can only be achieved around the negotiating table. The Palestinian attempt to impose a settlement will not bring peace," Mr Netanyahu told a joint session of the US Congress in May. Mr Obama has criticised the Palestinian push. In his major speech on the Middle East he dismissed it as "symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations".
Some major European Union states are looking increasingly favourably on the idea of recognising a Palestinian state. This is mainly because of their disappointment with Mr Netanyahu's government in Israel-Palestinian peace talks and what they see as its recalcitrance over settlements.
In the coming weeks, both Palestinian and Israeli delegations will be on a diplomatic drive to win countries around to their point of view.


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