What the Palestinians will get from U.N. recognition

The Palestinian Authority is asking the United Nations General Assembly for a mostly symbolic status upgrade. How much good would that really do?

Joyous Palestinians
(Image credit: REUTERS/Abed Omar Qusini)

As of Thursday morning, it appeared likely that the United Nations General Assembly would approve the Palestinian Authority's bid for recognition as a state. (Update: The General Assembly has indeed voted in Palestinians' favor.) Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' plan to make a personal appeal to upgrade the Palestinians' status from an "entity" to a "non-member observer state" gained momentum this week as France, Spain, and other powerful nations ignored opposition from the U.S. and Israel, and vowed to back the move. Israel at first declared Abbas' bid a dangerous provocation, saying that a Palestinian state could only be established as part of a peace deal negotiated with Israel, but as the measure gained support Israeli officials backtracked, and dismissed the status change as meaningless. What do the Palestinians stand to gain? Here, five theories:

1. This gives the Palestinians a diplomatic victory over Israel

"As a non-member state, [Palestinians] won't gain a U.N. seat" or even formal recognition as an independent country, says Abby Olheiser at Slate. That can only come from the Security Council, and the U.S. would veto it. Still, Thursday's vote, if it goes as expected, will "hand Palestinians an important diplomatic victory" over Israel. It "may not sound like much, but the move would put the newly recognized state — Palestine — "roughly on par with the Vatican in the eyes of the global body." Palestinian leaders think the upgrade will "bolster their hand in future negotiations with Israel," and they may be right. At the very least, in the words of the Financial Times, the vote will highlight "Israel's growing international isolation."

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2. The Palestinian Authority is mapping out the land it wants

This won't be just a symbolic, or diplomatic win, says BBC News. Palestinian leaders are betting that getting the General Assembly to define a "Palestine" that includes the West Bank, the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, and east Jerusalem will help the Palestinian Authority "define the territory it wants for a state, which is being eroded by aggressive Israeli settlement building." The Palestinian U.N. ambassador, Riyad Mansour, says that makes this move "a very important step to save the two-state solution."

3. Support from Europe could offset Washington's influence

"The Palestinians have an interest in bringing Europe into the debate over issues such as U.N. status," says Harvey Morris at The New York Times. The U.S. will always stand up for Israel at the Security Council, and Israel insists that its closest ally is the only acceptable option to be the "ultimate mediator" on "the broader issue of a comprehensive peace." Nevertheless, the European Union is "one quarter of the so-far largely ineffectual Middle East Quartet," and Europe is "the major source of the funds that prop up the economy of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories." Getting those supporters more deeply involved (France, Spain, Norway, Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, and Turkey plan to vote for the status upgrade) can only strengthen the Palestinians' hand.

4. In theory, the Palestinians could gain access to world courts

"Semi-statehood" could give the leaders of the Palestinian territories access to the International Criminal Court and other international bodies, says the First Post. After the recent eight-day conflict between Israel and Islamists in the Gaza Strip, "who are pledged to Israel's destruction," many Europeans were only too eager to help. That possibility gives the Palestinian Authority leverage over Israel, David Makovsky of the Washington Institute For Near East Policy tells PBS, since the threat of action at the International Criminal Court "would impair Israel's ability to defend itself" if there were another situation like the recent one in Gaza.

5. It gives the Palestinian Authority a boost over Hamas

The U.S. and Israel should welcome the Palestinian Authority's proposal, says Rabbi Michael Lerner at Tikkun. "The authority has agreed to return to negotiations with Israel without conditions once that status has been granted," with the goal of "a state living in peace with Israel in borders roughly approximating those of the [era] before than 1967 war, with minor border changes mutually agreeable through negotiations." Hamas, on the other hand, wants nothing short of Israel's destruction. And the only way it can achieve that is by provoking war to keep the Palestinian people living in fear. "So the last thing Hamas wants is for the Palestinian Authority to win popular esteem by being seen as having 'delivered' a real tangible accomplishment to the Palestinian people in the form of statehood."

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