x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Palestinians prepare for Thursday's UN status vote

Since 132 nations have already recognised Palestine as a sovereign state, with some having exchanged ambassadors, a simple majority vote of 97 countries is certain.

The Palestinian Authority on Monday submitted a draft resolution to the UN General Assembly that would recognise the Palestinians as a non-member state of the UN, a potentially historic move that could have far-reaching implications for the 65-year old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A vote is set for Thursday in the 193-seat UN General Assembly, the 65th anniversary of the Assembly's resolution that created Israel by partitioning British-mandate Palestine into Israeli and Palestinian states. The Palestinians rejected the resolution and war with Israel ensued leaving the Palestinians without a state. Palestine accepted the partition resolution in 1988 when it formally declared independence.

Since 132 nations have already recognised Palestine as a sovereign state, with some having exchanged ambassadors, a simple majority vote of 97 countries is certain.

The UAE is one of those countries having recognised Palestine in 1988 and exchanged ambassadors.

Israel and the United States have put intense pressure on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to put off the vote, arguing it is a "unilateral" move in the multilateral assembly, and that statehood can only come through direct Israeli-Palestinian talks. The US Congress has threatened to cut off funding to the Authority and to any UN agency Palestinians might join as a result of their UN upgrade. Israel has threatened to withhold tax revenues, which it collects for the Palestinian Authority.

Despite these threats, Mr Abbas is heading to New York to be present for the Thursday vote, which may garner as many as 130 votes in favour, diplomats said.

As the conflict raged in Gaza last week the Palestinians' bid to become a non-member observer state, which had been a focal point in Palestinian-Israeli relations, had essentially become a sideshow.

It wasn't clear as rockets flew from Gaza, and Israeli F-16's and battleships rained munitions on the territory, what effect the eight-day war would have on support for the Palestinian Authority's UN vote.

But now that the dust has settled from the latest round of violence, diplomats say a groundswell of support for the Palestinian Authority and its UN upgrade has been gaining ground because the war politically strengthened Hamas at the expense of the more pro-Western Authority.

More countries are lining up to support the UN bid to bolster the Authority at Hamas' expense, as it has renounced violence, recognised Israel's right to exist and are considered a more reliable negotiating partner than Hamas, diplomats said.

Khaled Meshaal, Hamas's leader in exile, on Monday said his his group would support the UN bid. Previously, Hamas had consistently opposed the UN bid.

The US does not have a veto to block the bid in the Assembly as it does in the Security Council, where last year its veto threat helped kill the Authority's move for full UN membership.

As an upgraded observer state, Palestine could join treaties and specialised UN agencies, such as the International Civil Aviation Organization, the Law of the Sea Treaty, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the International Criminal Court, officials said. That would give Palestine legal rights over its territorial waters and air space, and would allow them to bring war crimes charges against Israel.

"So many doors would open up to us," said Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian UN observer.

But there are serious risks for the Palestinians and for the UN system if the vote is held. Israel has threatened to withhold $100 million (Dh367m) a month in tax revenue, which they collect for the Palestinians, if they go ahead with it.

The US Congress has threatened to cut off $500m in security and economic aid to the Palestinians if it becomes an observer state. Congress cut off funding last year to Unesco, the UN's cultural agency, when it accepted Palestine as a member. Congress has already decided to defund any other UN organisation that Palestine joins as a result of its upgraded status.

The 316-word Palestinian draft, that was shortened from an earlier version, calls for a resumption of talks with Israel, without mentioned a long-standing Palestinian Authority condition of a settlement freeze first. It also makes no mention of joining UN agencies and treaties.

Before it was submitted on Monday, a European diplomat said that to get more EU votes the draft should "make it explicit it isn't an application to join funds and programmes," which could trigger the defunding.

By leaving out direct mention of joining the ICC or the other agencies, the Palestinians could keep those options in reserve as "bargaining chips" with the Israelis down the road, rather than "shoot the whole quiver" on Thursday, the diplomat said.

Another reason a vote on Thursday is a virtual certainty, he said, is because the Palestinians "will gamble that the last thing Israel and the US really want is the collapse of the PA through defunding by Israel and US, which would strengthen Hamas further."

"But that is one hell of a gamble," he added.