By a vote of 138–9, the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday recognized the Palestinian Authority as a non-member state. But the move by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas may turn out to be little more than a symbolic victory, as Abbas’s overall goal—an independent Palestine—remains elusive.
Most members of the European Union supported Abbas’s bid, while 41 countries—including Israeli allies Germany and the U.K.—abstained. “The decision wasn’t taken lightly,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told Haaretz. “Germany shares the goal for a Palestinian state. We have campaigned for this in many ways, but the recent decisive steps towards real statehood can only be the result of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.”
The immediate outcome of Abbas’s success is nothing short of an Israeli diplomatic embarrassment. Israel has vehemently opposed this move and threatened drastic sanctions against the Palestinian Authority in the event the vote passes. If Israel does implement sanctions, analysts say they would be widely condemned by most countries and further weaken the moderate Abbas, thereby strengthening Hamas, the Islamic group, which controls Gaza.
Following the vote, Abbas said the U.N.’s decision marked the “last chance to save the two-state solution.” Israel, meanwhile, called Thursday’s vote both “venomous” and nothing more than an empty declaration. Former ambassador to the U.N., Dore Gold, said the move is a material breach of the Oslo Accords and that Abbas used this vote “as a way of moving further down the road of unilateralism instead of negotiations.”
Not all Israelis agreed. Former prime minister Ehud Olmert and former deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh, for example, have both openly endorsed the bid, claiming that the U.S. and Israel should provide support and that Congress must not cut aid to the Palestinian Authority. The U.S., which opposed the measure, has publicly criticized Abbas’s appeal, but has thus far avoided any attempts to punish the Palestinian Authority.
Beyond the symbolism of Abbas’s victory, U.N. acceptance does offer some practical significance. It will allow a Palestinian state the right to systematically appeal to the International Criminal Court against Israeli officials and policies. On the other hand, it will also allow Israel to sue the Palestinian state for acts of terrorism. An internationally recognized Palestinian state will also put an end to the latest Israeli legal maneuver claiming that the Israeli Army is not an illegally occupying the West Bank.
Exactly 65 years ago, the U.N. General Assembly approved a partition plan, heralding the end of the British Mandate and the establishment of an independent Jewish state in roughly two thirds of the land contested by Israelis and Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority hopes this same date will signify a crucial stage in the establishment of an internationally recognized Palestinian state.
After last year’s failure to enter the United Nations through the front door as a full member of the international community, Abbas has been desperately trying to cement a legacy. Deeply frustrated by the failure to advance peace talks with Israel, the weakened Palestinian government urgently needs an achievement to point to as it confronts both growing civilian resentment in the West Bank and the increasing political clout of Hamas following the latest hostilities with Israel in Gaza.
Despite a bevy of celebrations in the West Bank on Thursday, considerable skepticism remains as to the efficacy Abbas’s bid at the U.N. “Palestinians might be euphoric for the moment, but the morning after they will wake up to find they are living the same reality with the same economic hardships,” said Ghassan Khatib, former Palestinian official and a leading political commentator.
Abbas appears painfully aware that there is still a long way to go toward true independence and an even longer way to go for a peaceful solution in the region. If a renewal of negotiations with Israel does not begin soon, analysts say this frustration may escalate into a new surge of violence, a possibility that the Middle East can ill afford.