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Palestinians Seek to Upgrade UN Status

  • Margaret Besheer

Palestinians hold placards depicting President Mahmoud Abbas during a rally in support of his efforts to secure a diplomatic upgrade at the United Nations, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, November 25, 2012.

Palestinians hold placards depicting President Mahmoud Abbas during a rally in support of his efforts to secure a diplomatic upgrade at the United Nations, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, November 25, 2012.

The Palestinian Authority is seeking an upgrade in status at the U.N. General Assembly to that of a non-member state. The move follows a bid late last year to obtain full U.N. membership that stalled in the Security Council.

Last November, frustrated by a dormant peace process with Israel, the Palestinian Authority asked a U.N. Security Council committee to consider its membership application. The committee failed to agree to recommend full membership and the bid ended without further action.

This week, the Palestinian Authority is taking a different route, seeking enhanced observer status as a non-member state.

Abbas to speak

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will address the General Assembly on Thursday, the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. A vote is expected to follow.

Palestinian U.N. Ambassador Riyad Mansour said the resolution has nearly 60 co-sponsors, and he expects the simple majority required for the upgrade.

But there are expected to be several European abstentions, and some "no" votes, including from the United States and Israel, which oppose unilateral Palestinian action toward statehood.

Membership privileges

George Washington University Political Science Professor Edmund Ghareeb explained what benefits that enhanced international status could bring the Palestinians.

"So this would, to a certain extent, refocus world attention on this issue and also it is going to legitimize the Palestinian position. It is going to strengthen further the Palestinian Authority's position as well," said Ghareeb. "It may make it much easier for the Palestinians to negotiate with the Israelis without pre-conditions or ending or freezing the settlements."

The status upgrade also opens the door for the Palestinians to join international treaties registered with the United Nations, as well as organizations, such as the World Health Organization, the International Labor Organization, and significantly, the International Criminal Court.

If accepted by the International Criminal Court, the Palestinian Authority could request the prosecutor investigate Israeli actions in Palestinian territories.

Related video report by Meredith Buel:

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Downside of upgrade

The Palestinian move for non-member state status also could have some negative consequences.

The United States has been opposed to the status, saying negotiations are the only road to Palestinian statehood. U.S. State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland said Monday that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Abbas last week that Washington's position has not changed.

"We do not think that this step is going to bring the Palestinian people any closer to a state. That we think it is a mistake. That we oppose it. That we will oppose it," said Nuland.

The Congressional Research Service says the United States allocated about $500 million for the Palestinians in 2010. Some of that aid could be threatened, as well as funds from other sources, said New York University' Center for Global Affairs Dean Vera Jelinek.

"There is a risk of penalties. There is a risk of penalties from the United States, and those penalties have been levied against UNESCO, for example," said Jelinek. "So if UNESCO is a yardstick of what might happen, then obviously aid could be withdrawn; Israel could withhold some of the funding that it gives, some of the taxation."

Financial impact

That would complicate a bleak fiscal picture for the Palestinians, who the World Bank says are facing a $1.5-billion budget deficit in 2012.

Political scientist Ghareeb said short term, it may hurt the Palestinians economically and put them on a confrontation course with Israel and the United States, but he said there is no other option.

"In the long term there is no alternative for the Palestinians but to make their case, to bring it up before international public opinion, because their case has been ignored, marginalized, not taken seriously and it has weakened the position of the Palestinians," said Ghareeb.

Analysts say they do not think enhanced status for the Palestinians will undermine the Middle East peace process, which has been stalled for more than a year.

Ghareeb said it could put pressure on the United States, Israel and others to properly revive the peace process as a real alternative to confrontation. Analyst Jelinek said Abbas likely has calculated that strong support for enhanced status will improve his negotiating position with Israel.

"I think he feels he will have a stronger position if this resolution is passed. He will have a stronger position internationally, and therefore, vis-à-vis Israel. That Israel will feel the pressure - the international pressure - of coming to the table," said Jelinek.

What may not be known for months is the impact an upgrade in U.N. status could have for the Palestinians.

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