As September 20, 2011 marks the beginning of sixty-sixth regular session of the UN General Assembly, the diplomatic maneuvering prompted by the frustrated efforts from the Palestinians to obtain international recognition of their statehood seems to increase. The Obama administration has reignited stalled negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Its new special envoy on the Middle East is engaged seriously to restart the stalemated talks between the parties to avoid the UN vote on Palestinians’ statehood.
Moreover, the four parties grouped under Quartet accommodating the UN, EU, U.S. and Russia is asked to play a constructive role in persuading the president of Palestinian Authority, Mr. Mahmoud Abbas to abandon his tireless attempts to seek UN recognition for Palestinians’ state. The Quartet with the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as its coordinator faces obstacles in its endeavor as the trust between the concerned parties has sunk to its lowest level.
The history of Israeli-Palestinian conflict is characterized by recognizable turbulence with a number of wars fought between the Arabs and the Israelis since the birth of the Jewish state in 1948. Of them Six-Day War of 1967 is considered to be the most decisive one ever fought between the Arabs and the Israelis as the huge track of Arab territories were annexed then. More frustratingly the East Jerusalem, so pious to three different religions like the Islam, Christianity and Judaism was also confiscated from the Palestinians along with large parts of West Bank, Gaza strip and the Syrian Golan Heights.
While final borders, status of Palestinian refugees and that of Jerusalem are some of the thorniest issues dividing the conflicting parties, negotiations have been launched at the behest of U.S. as it exercises heavy influence in the Middle East. Since Obama took over as new American president in January, 2009 efforts were initiated to advance negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians and his most active involvement was demonstrated in September 2010 in demanding a 90-day freeze on Israeli settlements to create congenial atmosphere. But failure of peace talks during that suspension period paved the way for stalemate as Israeli construction boom in the occupied territories resumed following expiry of freeze.
This lack of progress in Israeli-Palestinian conflict also has reflected poorly on the credibility of president Obama. The Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular, saw the visionary leadership in Obama making him capable of delivering peace in the wake of his emphatic focus on a two-state solution to the problem. At a time when Obama finds himself in an awkward position either to veto Palestinians’ diplomatic drive or alienate his own political supporters in the Congress, his UN speech in September, 2010 concerning resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian problem is worth-recalling. Then in addressing the sixty-fifth session of the UN general Assembly he declared that he would like to see a new Palestinian state in September, 2011.
Actually, the president of Palestine Authority started his diplomatic move for obtaining international recognition through the UN vote after he was convinced that by the time they have to sit with the Israelis for final status negotiations, there will be no occupied territories to be returned if the current trend of Israeli settlements go unabated. By expediting the settlements in the annexed territories from the Arabs the Israelis would succeed in creating a different dynamics that denies any chance of return for the Palestinian refugees to their place of origin. Such apprehension among the Palestinian leaders persuaded them that seeking UN recognition for their state has no alternative.
As the Palestine Authority looks determined to go ahead with their UN plan, seemingly president Obama faces a dilemma of being forced to choose from two options. Worryingly, neither of these two is prudent and beneficial in terms of cementing relations with the Arab world that is just reeling from democracy movement.
With declared intention of American government to veto the proposed resolution seeking UN membership, the Palestinians have one practical move to proceed with, which though does not grant statehood straight way but still offers an opportunity of elevating its current observer status at the UN. At present the observer status enjoyed by the Palestine Authority is akin to any organization or entity unlike that of a state like Holy See. Should the Palestinians be able to get their observer status elevated through votes of the UN General Assembly, which is very likely in view of growing support from the members, they would be at par with Holy See. Consequently they will increase leverage for rolling back Israeli settlements, and even pursue cases against Israel in the International Criminal Court besides being able to join dozens of UN bodies and conventions. Being an observer the Palestinians will enjoy no voting rights at the UN.
Those who support Palestinian statehood drive are inclined to evoke the Arab Spring in which millions of people across the Middle East have sought freedom from oppression as a propitious background for an endorsement of the Palestinian people’s release from Israeli occupation stretching over four decades. The people from Egypt, Tunisia and lately from Libya have successfully freed themselves from the oppression of their tyrant rulers.
European Union members themselves are divided on the issue of Palestinian statehood. Nine out of total twenty seven have already recognized Palestinian state. The Arab states too seem to favor the General Assembly vote to grant higher observer status to the Palestinian Authority instead of creating friction with the western powers by explicitly supporting the membership bid under the present circumstances. The U.S. may reconsider exercising veto to block Palestinians from attaining UN membership and assist elevation of observer status as in the opinion of Martin S. Indyk, the Americans will be blamed for Palestinian awakening leading to renewed violence that may follow the UN move.