x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

For Palestinians, the work begins anew

The Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas said after the winning UN vote that Palestinians should be reasonable in their expectations for the near future.

Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas  celebrates after the UN  General Assembly voted to approve to upgrade the status of the PA  to a nonmember observer state
Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas celebrates after the UN General Assembly voted to approve to upgrade the status of the PA to a nonmember observer state

NEW YORK  // After the celebrations die down in Ramallah and elsewhere, Palestinians will be faced with wrenching questions about what becoming a United Nations observer state means and whether it will lead to a significant difference in their daily lives.

The Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, told a small gathering at the Turkish mission to the UN just hours after the General Assembly voted that Palestinians should be reasonable in their expectations.

"I do not want to dampen the spirits of this evening, but this is just the beginning and there is a long road ahead," he said.

The 138 to 9 vote with 41 abstentions came on the 65th anniversary of the General Assembly's resolution on November 29, 1947 that created Israel by partitioning British-mandate Palestine into Israeli and Palestinian states.

The feeling at Mr Abbas's Turkish reception was that Thursday's vote was likewise historic. But along with the celebrations, came the questions:

Ÿ Will it spur or further delay the resumption of final settlement talks between Israel and the Palestinans?

Ÿ How will it affect the equation of power between Mr Abbas' Fatah party, which rules the West Bank, and Hamas, which runs Gaza?

Ÿ Will the Palestinians use their new status to join UN agencies and treaties that would give it legal control over their territorial waters and air space and allow it to bring war crimes charges against Israel?

"Palestine comes today to the General Assembly because it believes in peace and because its people, as proven in past days, are in desperate need of it," Mr Abbas said. He called the vote "the last chance to save the two-State solution" at a "defining moment regionally and internationally" to "protect the possibilities and the foundations of a just peace that is deeply hoped for in our region".

The few countries that opposed the move, denigrated it as nothing more than a feel-good exercise in futility that would do nothing to resolve more than six decades of conflict.

Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN said the world body had made an "unfortunate and counterproductive" decision in voting to change the Palestinians to non-member observer status.

The US has long opposed the change and voted against it. Ms Rice said the vote "places further obstacles in the path of peace", adding, "we have been clear that only through direct negotiations between the parties can the Palestinians and Israelis achieve the peace that they deserve."

The reaction from Israel appeared to dash any hopes that the UN vote would lead to an early resumption of talks.

Diplomats say a groundswell of support for the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its UN upgrade gained momentum because of last week's eight-day war in Gaza. The war had politically strengthened Hamas at the expense of the more pro-Western PA. But the resolution received as many votes as it did because nations wanted to bolster the PA at Hamas's expense - the US and European Union have both designated Hamas a terrorist organisation.

The PA has renounced violence, recognised Israel's right to exist and is considered a more reliable negotiating partner than Hamas, diplomats said. Recognising the political implications, Hamas, which had consistently opposed the UN bid, dramatically reversed course on Sunday, declaring its sudden support.

The vote was "not good news" for Hamas, said Ephraim Sneh, a former Israeli deputy defence minister, in a telephone interview from Tel Aviv. "Hamas's goal is a grand Islamist state in the region, they don't believe in a nation" or a two-state solution, he said. "They will have to learn the hard way."

If Israel however does not take this opportunity to restart talks, Hamas could gain, he added.

As an upgraded observer state, the Palestinians could join treaties and specialised UN agencies, such as the International Civil Aviation Organization, the Law of the Sea Treaty, and the International Criminal Court (ICC). That would give the Palestinians legal rights over its territorial waters and air space, allow them access to the International Court of Justice (IJC) and to bring war crimes charges against Israel in the ICC.

"I hope the Palestinians will not be stupid enough to use this new status for defying the legitimacy of Israel in the ICJ and places like that," Mr Sneh said.

Mr Abbas made no reference to joining the ICC or other treaties. But he issued a warning to Israel. "What permits the Israeli government to blatantly continue with its aggressive policies and the perpetration of war crimes stems from its conviction that it is above the law and that it has immunity from accountability and consequences."