Friday 10. July 2020
#156 - January 2013


Europe and the Upgrading of the Status of Palestine at the UN


European attempts to dissuade the Palestinians from presenting their initiative for full UN membership to the Security Council were in stark contrast to the enthusiastic European support for other Arab peoples’ quest for freedom.


In 1980, Europe voted for the Venice Declaration which symbolised the first real official and strong political position of Europe on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The member states voted in favour of: the recognition of the right to self-determination of the Palestinian people; the end of the Israeli occupation; the illegality of the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and of all acts modifying the status of Jerusalem; and the necessity for including the PLO in the peace negotiations. This was an historical position!

No less historic was the position taken by the United Nations General Assembly when on 29 November 2012 it recognized Palestine as a state. The request of President Mahmoud Abbas was met by an overwhelming majority. The confirmation of this request by the ‘yes vote’, reinforced the legitimacy of the Palestinians to have an independent and sovereign state, while marginalising those who support violence. In order to reach this political objective it was essential for two equally political events to happen first, and without any further delay.


Palestine’s Change of Tactics

As rightly stated by Muriel Asseburg (Head of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin), the Arab Spring has brought renewed impetus to efforts to overcome internal Palestinian divisions. As early as May 2011 both Hamas and Fatah, together with other Palestinian factions, signed a power-sharing agreement. Unlike in other Arab states, Palestinian protests in mid-March 2011 focused on overcoming internal strife, rather than the overthrowing of the respective leaderships. Furthermore, the Palestinian leadership focused its political efforts on mobilising international support for full membership within the United Nations. By this new rapprochement they tried to improve their international standing and universalise the ‘conflict resolution’. Consequently, they succeeded in gaining widespread international empathy as well as recognition of its efforts in state- and institution-building from international organisations (see: EGMONT PAPERS. 54, 87-88). All this has paved the way for the acceptance of Palestine as a full member of UNESCO (November 2011) and the eventual upgrading of Palestine to a non-member observer state of the United Nations – a triumph for Palestinian diplomacy and a sharp rebuke to the United States and Israel. This notwithstanding that full membership within the UN could still be far distant!


The Reaction of the EU

It should be said that European attempts to dissuade the Palestinians from presenting their initiative for full UN membership to the Security Council as well as (some) European countries’ votes on the Palestinian UNESCO membership bid and their stance in the Security Council in November 2011 were in stark contrast to the enthusiastic European support for other Arab peoples’ quest for freedom and self-determination. They were also out of sync with the agreed European approach towards the Arab-Israeli conflict: Europeans have held that the conflict should be settled through a two-state arrangement for its Israeli-Palestinian dimension, complemented by peace agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbours… as spelt out in the Arab Peace Initiative (ibid., 89). Notwithstanding the clear stance taken by the EU since the beginning of the Oslo Process (1993) in supporting the building of the Palestinian state with financial and technical assistance, nevertheless the Europeans – in alliance with the US and Israel – tried to block the Palestinian initiative rather than using the opportunity to turn it into a constructive step towards conflict settlement (ibid., 89). However, this latest event of upgrading the status of Palestine to non-member status has seen European support divided. France and Italy voted in favour – an important boost to Palestinian efforts to secure greater international recognition. The Palestinians have lobbied for support from European countries for their bid. Israeli, British and US diplomats, apparently realising that they can no longer sway the Palestinians from their inclusive bid, sought guarantees that Palestinians would forego filing complaints against Israel in the International Criminal Court (ICC). Palestinian officials have refused. But, appearing to moderate their tone, they said the timing and strategy for their eventual ICC application is a matter for later internal discussion. According to Ashrawi, It is our right, and we will not abandon it. We will decide on the proper timing, given our priorities and best interests. She also told Reuters news agency, that: It's not for any country to get the Palestinians to relinquish their rights. And if Israel is innocent, it has nothing to fear from the court. Britain, which in recent weeks had persuaded European countries to abstain on the statehood vote, has requested that Palestinians renounce applying to the ICC in return for changing the British vote to a yes.  The Palestinians, to their credit, said, nothing doing; we are not going to have our rights dismantled before we even get them. Then, Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, once more expressed the EU’s support and wish for Palestine to become a full member of the United Nations as part of solution to the conflict... [and] reiterated its readiness to recognize a Palestinian State when appropriate… (Brussels, 29 November 2012, 16079/2/12 REV 2, Presse 470).


Upgraded Status: Implications

The status of Palestine has now been raised from a non-member entity to a non-member state. The vote was 138 in favour of the resolution; 9 against; and 41 abstentions. It is very significant that the U.K. and Germany, which would have been the last among the Europeans to hold out with opposing votes, came on board at the end and agreed to abstain, trying not to make it look as if they were opposed to it. Most of the Europeans were in the abstention category, more than those voting ‘yes’. According to Phyllis Bennis (Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.) when being interviewed by Paul Jay (Senior Editor) on The Real News Network, stated that the decision to grant non-member observer state status in the UN to Palestine is not that it’s going to change anything about the Palestinians' presence at the UN. They still will not be members of the UN and they still will not be able to vote or to introduce resolutions. What they will have is a recognition from the UN General Assembly — a very high body of the UN — saying, you’re a state; you’re a non member state, but you’re a state. The significance of that is that it gives them the opportunity to use that status of a state to do other things, most notably, to sign the Rome Treaty creating the International Criminal Court, and thus become a member of the International Criminal Court. As a member of the court, there's at least the possibility — if there were to be political will, there’s at least the possibility that they could initiate an effort to bring criminal charges against Israeli officials, military and political, and potentially even U.S. officials, who may be responsible for supporting them, for enabling them, and for funding them for war crimes that may have been committed on Palestinian territory. That's a long way off, it's not going to happen anytime soon, but it's an interesting step towards that.

Over the years, Israel enjoyed the unfailing support of the U.S. Having had this absolute support, Israel did not much care what the world thinks. Yet the world is changing and this notwithstanding the threats by the U.S. that called for a series of punishments against the Palestinian Authority (cutting 50% of the aid), against any UN agency that recognizes this new status (cutting their dues by 50%), and, crucially, cutting 20% of U.S. foreign aid to any country that had the audacity to vote in favour of Palestinian rights. Despite all these threats, public opinion takes a different view, and, crucially, the Middle East is in the process of change. The statement from the foreign minister of Turkey was greeted with huge applause and a great deal of enthusiasm as he spoke about being part of the Palestinians - we will never abandon you. It was a very powerful speech. Indeed, as the German Chancellor Angela Merkel rightly remarked: Israel is risking diplomatic isolation!


Dr Joe Vella Gauci


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