Thursday, November 29, 2012

UN Assembly, In Blow to US and Israel, Elevates Status of Palestine

November 29, 2012

U.N. Assembly, in Blow to U.S., Elevates Status of Palestine

New York Times

UNITED NATIONS — More than 130 countries voted on Thursday to grant Palestine the upgraded status of nonmember observer state in the United Nations, a stinging defeat for Israel and the United States and a boost for President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, who was weakened by the recent eight days of fighting in Gaza.

The new ranking could make it easier for the Palestinians to pursue Israel in international legal forums, but it remained unclear what effect it would have on attaining what both sides say they want — a two-state solution.

Still, the vote offered a showcase for an extraordinary international lineup of support for the Palestinians and constituted a deeply symbolic achievement for their cause, made even weightier by arriving on the 65th anniversary of the General Assembly vote that divided the former British Mandate of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and the other Arab — a vote that Israel considers the international seal of approval for its birth.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, about 2,000 Palestinians gathered to celebrate in a central square named after the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Security forces fired into the air and people applauded, danced in the streets and honked car horns when the results were broadcast to the crowd.

“We are witnessing exceptional moments after 65 years of injustice, suffering and pain,” said Jibril Rajoub, the member of Fatah Central Committee. “We are going to witness an Israeli American efforts to keep this resolution ink on paper.”

The tally, in which 138 members voted yes, 9 voted no and 41 abstained, took place after a speech by Mr. Abbas to the General Assembly, in which he called the moment a “last chance” to save the two-state solution amid a narrowing window of opportunity.

“The General Assembly is called upon today to issue a birth certificate of the reality of the state of Palestine,” he said before the vote.

But in the run-up to the vote, he and Ron Prosor, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, blamed the other side for not doing enough to pursue peace.

”We have not heard one word from any Israeli official expressing any sincere concern to save the peace process,” Mr. Abbas said.

“On the contrary, our people have witnessed, and continue to witness, an unprecedented intensification of military assaults, the blockade, settlement activities and ethnic cleansing, particularly in occupied East Jerusalem, and mass arrests, attacks by settlers and other practices by which this Israeli occupation is becoming synonymous with an apartheid system of colonial occupation, which institutionalizes the plague of racism and entrenches hatred and incitement.”

“The moment has arrived for the world to say clearly: enough of aggression, settlements and occupation,” he said.

Mr. Prosor, speaking after Mr. Abbas but before the vote was taken, said the United Nations resolution would do nothing to advance the process.

“Today the Palestinians are turning their back on peace,” he said. “Don’t let history record that today the U.N. helped them along on their march of folly.”

As expected, the vote won backing from a number of European countries, and was a rebuff to intense American and Israeli diplomacy. In an indication of the bitterness of the blow to the Israelis, the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement calling Mr. Abbas’s speech “defamatory and venomous” that was “full of mendacious propaganda against the IDF and the citizens of Israel.”

“Someone who wants peace does not talk in such a manner," the statement continued.

Among the countries that had forecast their yes votes were France, Spain and Switzerland. Germany and the United Kingdom were among the countries that abstained, and a few countries joined Israel and the United States in voting no.

After the vote, Susan E. Rice, the American ambassador to the United Nations, explained the American vote as a reaction to an “unfortunate and counterproductive” resolution that placed “further obstacles in the path to peace.”

“Today’s grand pronouncements will soon fade,” she said. “And the Palestinian people will wake up tomorrow and find that little about their lives has changed, save that the prospects of a durable peace have only receded.” Her comments dovetailed with those of Mr. Prosor ahead of the vote. He reiterated that Israel favors a two-state resolution reached through negotiations, with some parts of the occupied territories remaining in Israeli hands, a strong focus on Israel’s security concerns and formal recognition by the Palestinians of Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state.

“That’s right. Two states for two peoples,” Mr. Prosor said. “In fact, President Abbas, I did not hear you use the phrase ‘two states for two peoples’ this afternoon. In fact, I have never heard you say the phrase ‘two states for two peoples.’ Because the Palestinian leadership has never recognized that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people.”

The Israelis also say that the fact that Mr. Abbas is not welcome in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian coastal enclave run by Hamas, from which he was ejected five years ago, shows that there is no viable Palestinian leadership living up to its obligations now.

“This resolution will not change the situation on the ground,” Mr. Prosor said. “It will not change the fact that the Palestinian Authority has no control over Gaza. That is 40 percent of the territory he claims to represent.”

The vote came shortly after an eight-day Israeli military assault on Gaza that Israel described as a response to stepped-up rocket fire into Israel. The operation killed scores of Palestinians and was aimed at reducing the arsenal of Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, part of the territory that the United Nations resolution expects to make up a future state of Palestine.

The Palestinian Authority, based in the West Bank city of Ramallah, was politically weakened by the Gaza fighting, with its rivals in Hamas seen by many Palestinians as more willing to stand up to Israel and fight back. That shift in sentiment is one reason that some Western countries gave for backing the United Nations resolution, to strengthen Mr. Abbas and his more moderate colleagues in their contest with Hamas.

Mr. Abbas directed harsh criticism toward Israel, saying that the “aggression against our people in the Gaza Strip has confirmed once again the urgent and pressing need to end the Israeli occupation and for our people to gain their freedom and independence.”

“This aggression also confirms the Israeli government’s adherence to the policy of occupation, brute force and war, which in turn obliges the international community to shoulder its responsibilities toward the Palestinian people and toward peace,” Mr. Abbas said early in his speech.

When the General Assembly voted to divide Palestine into two states in 1947, Arabs rejected the division of the land and the creation of Israel. But since the late 1980s, the Palestine Liberation Organization has officially endorsed two states, with the state of Palestine defined as comprising the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza — areas beyond Israel’s pre-1967 borders that it captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

Mr. Prosor also mentioned that day 65 years ago and what it meant to the Israelis, saying: “The Palestinians could have chosen to live side by side with the Jewish state of Israel. Sixty-five years ago they could have chosen to accept the solution of two states for two peoples. They rejected it then, and they are rejecting it again today.”

Palestinian officials said it was Israel that had violated its agreements and international law by building settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. They say 20 years of failed negotiations with Israel pushed them to seek this kind of international recognition in the hopes that it would press Israel and its allies in Washington to step up peace talks.

Realizing that they could not head off the vote on Thursday, Israel and the United States worked to contain the fallout from it.

A major concern for the Americans is that the Palestinians might use their new status to try to join the International Criminal Court. That prospect particularly worries the Israelis, who fear that the Palestinians might press for an investigation of their practices in the occupied territories.

Another worry is that the Palestinians might use the vote to seek membership in specialized agencies of the United Nations, a move that could have consequences for the financing of the international organizations as well as the Palestinian Authority itself. Congress cut off financing to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, also known as Unesco, in 2011 after it accepted Palestine as a member. The United States is a major contributor to many of these agencies and plays an active role on their governing boards.

Western diplomats anticipated approval of the resolution, which upgraded Palestine’s observer status at the United Nations from that of an “entity,” and pushed for a Palestinian commitment not to seek membership in the International Criminal Court and United Nations specialized agencies, a privilege that has been open to other nonmember observer states.

Another step would be an affirmation by the Palestinians that the road to statehood was through the peace process. And a third could be a Palestinian commitment to open negotiations with the Israelis.

Such assurances do not appear to have been provided.

Reporting was contributed by Michael R. Gordon and Mark Landler from Washington, Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem, Khaled Abu Aker from Ramallah, and Nicholas Kulish from Berlin.

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