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U.N. Status Upgrade for Palestine Presents New Dynamic

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas acknowledges applause before he addresses the United Nations General Assembly on November 29, 2012.

SOURCE: AP/ Richard Drew

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas acknowledges applause before he addresses the U.N. General Assembly on November 29, 2012.

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Yesterday, the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly—138 countries in favor, 9 opposed, and 41 abstaining—to upgrade the status of Palestine from “non-member observer entity” to “non-member observer state.” That the measure passed was not a surprise. What was a surprise, however, was the number of close U.S. partners—particularly members of the European Union—who either voted for the resolution or abstained.

While the conventional wisdom holds that the status upgrade is largely symbolic, it is important to understand that the symbolism serves a political purpose. As Palestinian leaders explain it, the U.N. bid was undertaken in large part out of frustration with the failure of the U.S.-led peace process of the past several years to produce tangible progress toward the end of occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state.

In a conversation last year, Ghassan Khatib, head of the press office of the Palestinian Authority, explained, “The Palestinian leadership [of Mahmoud Abbas] cannot sustain itself in power without some sort of political progress,” and the U.N. bid was in part an effort to achieve movement that the U.S.-managed peace process has been unable to deliver. Khatib outlined three goals of the U.N. effort: 1) to engage the international community effectively and productively; 2) to obtain clear terms of reference for negotiations with Israel; and 3) to enhance international recognition of Palestinian rights.

The policy of the Obama administration has been to oppose the Palestinian effort to upgrade its status, on the reasoning that core issues can only be resolved through direct negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. But the administration would be well-advised not to overreact to the status upgrade, but rather seek to use it constructively as a launching point for reinvigorated peace talks leading to a two-state solution.

Members of Congress have already threatened retaliation for the U.N. bid. In the Senate, an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act was introduced that would not only compel the president to cut funding by 50 percent to the Palestinian Authority in response to the U.N. status upgrade, as well as to any U.N. organization that recognizes that upgrade, but to also cut aid by 20 percent to any country that voted for the upgrade. Such a move threatens to undermine both security cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank and broader U.S. efforts to work with its partners on a range of pressing foreign policy issues, including the Iranian nuclear program.

U.S. policymakers and legislators should consider the words of several former Israeli officials who have come out in support of the Palestinian bid, including former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who said in a recent interview that “the Palestinian request from the United Nations is congruent with the basic concept of the two-state solution. Therefore, I see no reason to oppose it.” Writing in Foreign Policy this week, former deputy Israeli defense minister Ephraim Sneh warned that efforts to punish Abbas and the Palestinian Authority over the U.N. bid—which would likely redound to the benefit of Abbas’ more hardline rivals in Hamas— “would be a shot not in the foot but in the liver—Israel’s.”

In a forum last night in Washington, D.C., Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was asked what comes next. “What’s important is to use this in a productive way,” he said. To those who were previously opposed to the U.N. bid, he said, “It’s behind us now. What we must all do is seize the moment and see if this will provide an impetus for an end to the occupation.”

Rather than punishing Mahmoud Abbas’s government for the U.N. effort, Congress should recognize the considerable work it has done in building institutions and creating security in the West Bank. Congress should also support the Obama administration in bringing Israelis and Palestinians back into a credible negotiating process, with clear terms of reference in which both sides are held accountable to their commitments. Abbas, for his part, having achieved his stated goal at the United Nations, should prepare to rejoin negotiations, as he has been unwilling to do in the absence of an Israeli settlement freeze.

The events of the past weeks—the violence in Gaza, along with the Palestinian U.N. vote—should demonstrate the urgency of the moment. In particular, the violence in Gaza should have shattered once and for all the illusion that the status quo can simply be managed. It must be transformed. Amid the uncertainty of a region roiled by the Arab Awakening, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains the issue upon which views of U.S. power and influence are largely determined, and it remains a key U.S. national security interest to see it peacefully resolved.

In order to achieve real progress toward that resolution, the main parties must rededicate themselves to a process that produces real, tangible steps toward a two-state solution. There’s no question that this will be complicated and difficult, but the lopsided vote at the United Nations demonstrates the overwhelming international consensus that can be brought to bear on achieving this goal.

Matthew Duss is a Policy Analyst with the National Security team at the Center for American Progress and Director of Middle East Progress at the Center.

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