Like it or not, the state of Palestine is semi-officially on the map

Nearly unanimous support for Abbas’s UN bid shows that even some of Israel’s closest allies blame the Netanyahu government for the impasse in the peace process

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas appeals to all nations to vote in favor of the Palestinians "as an investment in peace," in a statement before the United Nations General Assembly, Thursday, Nov. 29 (photo credit: Richard Drew/AP)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas appeals to all nations to vote in favor of the Palestinians "as an investment in peace," in a statement before the United Nations General Assembly, Thursday, Nov. 29 (photo credit: Richard Drew/AP)

On Thursday night, the world made much more than just a symbolic gesture. In recognizing Palestine as a nonmember observer state at the UN General Assembly — the same status as The Vatican — disregarding Israeli and American warnings that such a step was premature and would impede the resumption of peace talks, the overwhelming majority of nations sent an unambiguous message to Jerusalem: We want a Palestinian state and we’re tired of your obstinacy in preventing it.

Sixty-five years after the United Nations decided to divide British Mandate Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state, and nearly 20 years after the signing of the Oslo Accords, even many of Israel’s friends and allies have grown tired of what they perceive as the government’s lack of initiative and good intentions when it comes to the future of this region. If you want us to say no to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s initiative, then offer us something that we can say yes to, Western diplomats are saying.

Officially, the Israeli government supports Palestinian statehood.

“Israel is prepared to live in peace with a Palestinian state,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday before the vote at the UN General Assembly, “but for peace to endure, Israel’s security must be protected.” The Palestinians must first recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and since this is not mentioned in the resolution, we cannot accept it, he said. “The only way to achieve peace is through agreements that are reached by the parties directly… and not through UN resolutions that completely ignore Israel’s vital security and national interests.”

Addressing the delegates to the General Assembly directly, Netanyahu said: “No decision by the UN can break the 4,000-year-old bond between the people of Israel and the land of Israel.”

But Netanyahu misses the point when he implies that all countries that voted against his recommendation did so because they don’t recognize Israel’s right to exist. This is true for large parts of the Arab world, of course, but the West merely wants to see Israel living in peace next to a Palestinian state, and many countries don’t understand why it’s taking so long.

By defying Israel and the US, the Western capitals that agreed to “accord to Palestine Non-member Observer State status in the United Nations,” expressed their frustration with the lack of progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They no longer find it justified to be paying lip service to a two-state solution but then voting against a Palestinian state, just because Israel and the US are asking them to do so.

The Europeans are not stupid. They are painfully aware that the Palestinians’ status upgrade will change very little on the ground, at least not immediately.

“Only a political solution to the conflict can bring lasting security, peace and prosperity to Palestinians and Israelis,” European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said Thursday. The foreign ministers in Paris, London, Berlin and elsewhere likewise said that nonmember state status for Palestine does not end the conflict. But by delivering a collective slap in the face, they hope to get the powers-that-be in Jerusalem to understand that they expect serious moves toward a peace agreement — or else.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague, for example, said he asked the Palestinians not to go ahead with the statehood bid as it is “divisive” and could endanger the future of the peace process. In explaining why the UK wouldn’t vote against the resolution, however, he said Wednesday that London was also “very critical” of Israel, especially for continued settlement construction and for failing to make a “generous enough offer to the Palestinians.”

Britain’s envoy to the UN made plain that Britain would have voted for the resolution, had it won assurances from Abbas that he would resume peace talks immediately and not seek to exploit the entry of “Palestine” to UN forums to harm Israel. But no such assurances were forthcoming.

The question of who’s at fault for the impasse in peace talks — so important to Israel — played a minor role in many nations’ decision to vote yes. They were sending a wake-up call to Jerusalem that time is running out for a two-state solution.

Israel may argue that Abbas failed to respond to former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s 2008 offer to relinquish the entire West Bank — with one-for-one land swaps to enable Israel to retain major settlements — divide Jerusalem and even relinquish sovereignty in the Old City to international trusteeship. Israel may point out that it dismantled the entire settlement enterprise in Gaza and pulled out in 2005. Israel may assert that Abbas is not serious about peace, refuses to negotiate without preconditions, formally still insists on a “right of return” that would flood Israel with millions of Palestinians, and says nice things to Israelis in English but terrible things about Israel to his people and the Arab world in Arabic — notably including at the UN on Thursday.

Much of the international community registers some or all of this. But Israel, particularly under Netanyahu, is perceived to be the stronger party, the party with the responsibility to make a greater effort, and the party whose ongoing commitment to the settlement enterprise is gradually taking the ground away from under a Palestinian state.

Israeli officials are surely troubled by the nearly universal show of hands in favor of Palestine, yet they downplayed the Palestinians’ upgraded status. It is merely symbolic and nothing is going to change on the ground, they reiterated in the last few days (in stark contrast to several months during which Israel vigorously campaigned against the Abbas plan, threatening to cancel all previously made agreements).

What exactly will happen on the ground remains to be seen. Palestinians have indicated their readiness to turn to the International Criminal Court in The Hague to sue Israel for alleged war crimes.

‘Even pro-Israeli [governments] are very bitter about Israeli policies and don’t understand and don’t accept it. So this [resolution] is the result. There is a general belief that Israel is the one that prevents genuine negotiations’

But the fact remains that just nine countries sided with Israel, despite so many efforts and passionate arguments about why it was wrong to recognize a Palestinian nonmember state. This has been described as a “humiliating political defeat,” although Jerusalem doesn’t see it that way. “Of course we’re disappointed with certain countries, the UK for example,” a diplomatic official told The Times of Israel. “But we’ll live with it.”

The Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry made a grave strategic mistake by even attempting to fight Abbas’s statehood gambit, the official admitted. “As if we could win or even get a draw,” he said. “Hey, this is the UN, where November 29 is officially the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People; where they pass anti-Israeli resolutions year in and year out, without anyone even looking at the text.”

True, every anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian initiative at the 193-member General Assembly will have an automatic majority. But the fact that the US, Canada, Palau, Micronesia and four others were the only states that voted with Israel against the resolution shows that even Israel’s friends are fed up with Jerusalem’s schizophrenic avowals to want a two-state solution but pursue policies that, as they see it, make it more difficult to implement one.

“Even pro-Israeli [governments] are very bitter about Israeli policies and don’t understand and don’t accept it. So this [resolution] is the result,” says Avi Primor, a former Israeli ambassador to Germany and the EU and president of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations. “There is a general belief that Israel is the one that prevents genuine negotiations.”

For example, Germany, usually one of Israel’s staunchest supporters in the international arena, did not vote against the resolution because Jerusalem has not taken the necessary steps to advance the peace process, a senior German official, who took part in the discussions in Berlin, told Haaretz. “The Israelis,” this official said, “did not respond in any way to our request to make a gesture on settlements.”

If it weren’t for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal policy to “support Israel even if Israel is wrong,” Berlin would have voted in favor of the resolution, Primor said, basing his assessment on a long conversation he had last week with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.

Many of Israel’s friends in Western capitals supported the Palestinian proposal because they truly believe that it’s the right step to take at this time, Primor added. “I don’t think they consider their vote anti-Israel. The way they see it, they vote in favor of the Palestinians, believing that this is also good for Israel.”

Palestinians wave their national flag during a rally in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Thursday, November 29 (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
Palestinians wave their national flag during a rally in Ramallah on November 29 (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, who is currently in New York but decided not to attend the vote, believes that the step is actually bad for both sides. Despite the celebrations in Ramallah after the vote was announced, the Palestinians “will end up being the greatest losers on the ground,” he said. “This process only enhances the dispute and pushes both sides further apart.”

One thing seems certain: The day after Thursday’s vote, the settlements will still be there; Israeli security forces will continue operating just as they did before; Hamas will still be running Gaza; and Abbas — partner or not — will still be in charge of the PA in the West Bank. The conflict will still be there, but something will have changed.

Until now, there was no such thing as “Palestine,” at least not for Israelis. People spoke about the Palestinian Authority, or the Palestinian territories, but rarely uttered the word “Palestine.”

Many in Israel will continue to refuse to refer to the West Bank and Gaza as Palestine, but Thursday’s vote made it clear that in the eyes of nearly the entire world, the state of Palestine is on the map, whether Israel likes it or not.

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