x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Palestinians risk retaliation from Israel and US by seeking UN status

Designation as UN observer state would give Palestine the right to control its airspace and territorial waters and to press charges against Israelis before the International Criminal Court.

UNITED NATIONS/RAMALLAH // The Palestinian Authority risks retaliation from Israel and the United States if it goes ahead with a planned vote in the United Nations General Assembly by the end of the month to have Palestine become a UN observer state.

Such a designation would give Palestine the right to control its airspace and territorial waters and to press charges against Israelis before the International Criminal Court.

As 132 nations having already recognised Palestine as a sovereign state, with some having exchanged ambassadors with Palestine, a simple majority vote of 97 countries is certain in the 193-nation Assembly, where the United States does not have veto power as it does with matters before the UN Security Council.

Israel and the United States appear determined to punish Palestine if it goes ahead with the vote.

Israeli officials say the Palestinians stand to lose US$100 million (Dh367m) a month in tax revenue. "If the Palestinians continue to advance their unilateral move they should not expect bilateral cooperation," Israel's finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, told a town-hall meeting in Beersheba, Israel on Saturday. "We will not collect their taxes for them and we will not transfer their tax revenues."

The US Congress has threatened to cut off $500m in security and economic aid to Palestine 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.

The Palestinians would have to look for alternative funding, either from Europe, oil-rich Gulf nations or elsewhere if it calls the vote and the Israeli and American threats are realised.

Mohammed Shtayeh, a senior Fatah official, told reporters in Ramallah yesterday that the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which Fatah controls and which is leading the UN effort, would not back down from pressure exerted by the US and Israel.

"The train has left the station," Mr Shtayeh said. "We will ask members of the General Assembly to vote on a resolution no later than the 29th of November."

Arab states, Mr Shtayeh said, were prepared to provide the West Bank's Palestinian Authority (PA), which suffers from a deepening financial crisis, $100m a month in emergency support in case of punitive measures imposed by other countries.

Mr Shtayeh said the "most important thing we intend to achieve" with the UN bid is a two-state solution. It would also create "new terms of reference" for any future peace negotiations with Israel that would replace any previous ones - such as the road map introduced by the United States in 2002 - with "international law" and the backing of the UN.

"We consider this a peaceful means through a multilateral forum," Mr Shtayeh said. "No one can claim the UN is an umbrella for war."

Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, has denounced the proposed vote as a "unilateral action" that would undermine the chances to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations aimed at achieving US and Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state.

But the PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, believes that becoming a UN non-member state would spur a resumption of talks with Israel.

Mr Abbas would not oppose future peace talks with Israel as long as they were no longer "humiliating", Mr Shtayeh said.

Israel had to commit to a full freeze on settlement construction and agree to use the boundaries that prevailed before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war as a basis for negotiating the contours of a Palestinian state, he said.

As an observer state in the UN, Palestine could participate in Assembly debates, but could not vote, sponsor resolutions or field candidates for Assembly committees. But more importantly, the observer status would allow Palestine to accede to treaties and join 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.

If Palestine joins the Law of the Sea Treaty it would gain control of its national waters off Gaza, a highly contentious move as those waters are currently under an Israeli naval blockade. The Palestinians could then theoretically challenge the Israeli blockade at the International Court of Justice as well as dispute Israel's claim on a gasfield off Gaza.

Even more troubling for Israel and the US would be Palestine joining the International Criminal Court. Liechtenstein's UN ambassador, Christian Wenaweser, president of ICC Assembly of State Parties, said in an interview a Palestine observer state could join the ICC and ask the court to investigate any alleged war crimes Israel committed on Palestinian territory after July 2002, including Israel's 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead war against Gaza that killed 1,400 Palestinians.

Faced with the American and Israeli threats, the Palestinians, however, could still back down, diplomats say. Last year, Palestinian leaders withdrew a bid to become a full UN member after the US said it would veto the move in the UN Security Council.