UN votes yes on Palestinian statehood: Not ‘just’ a symbol

While commentators say the vote is merely symbolic, at least for Palestinians and the international community, the vote could be a game-changing  kind of symbol.

UN votes yes on Palestinian statehood: Not 'just' a symbol
Celebration in Ramallah over the Palestinian statehood bid, November 29, 2012 (photo: Activestills)

One week ago, the request to the UN General Assembly to grant Palestine status as a non-member observer state looked like a poor stepchild of the highly anticipated first “UN route” just over one year ago. The buildup to September 2011 was long; yet until about a week ago, it wasn’t even clear whether the current vote would really happen.

The 2011 application for UN membership turned into an anticlimax. This year, the dark-horse diplomacy won: 138 member states voted in favor and the emotional echoes of 1947 were hard to ignore.

But, detractors say, the vote cannot change the Palestinians’ main complaints against Israel: settlement expansion, restrictions on movement, division between Gaza and the West Bank, life under military occupation. Therefore it’s “symbolic,” meaning, meaningless. And it’s true that at present, the vote may mean more in people’s minds than in their daily lives. But when did hearts and minds become insignificant? Consider how the lead-up and the vote itself has already resonated for three major actors: Palestinians (leaders and people); Israel; and the international community. Each of those, of course, contains essential sub-communities – this is just a broad-strokes starting point.

International Reaction

Despite anodyne comments like this New York Times editorial, the international community put on a fairly nail-biting drama leading up to the vote. That the U.S. rejected the bid is no surprise; but France’s support was a powerful victory for the Palestinians. Germany’s decision to abstain, when translated from diplo-speak into English, is a critical shift: given historical constraints on defying the Israeli government, this is a clear sign of support for Palestinian statehood. The UK first rejected the idea, then very nearly found a way to say yes, and settled on abstaining – a very weak no.  Spain’s support for the resolution is also major statement, considering that it breaks Spain’s with its own policy of not recognizing Kosovo. Spain has steadfastly resisted recognizing the latter, despite being one of the last five EU holdouts; it has cited unilateralism as the reason, but clearly Spain feared the repercussions on its own separatist tensions. So Spain overcame both unilateralism and separatism (although its support for Palestine actually pre-dates even the 2011 bid).

Actually, on a historic level, the only question about the UN and Palestine is: What took it so long? The lack of recognition has been a glaring gap between rhetoric and practice. The United Nations (and many elements of the international community) has legitimized Palestine officially since 1947, with General Assembly Resolution 181 – the Partition Plan. UN resolution 3236 in 1974 explicitly cited the Palestinian right to self-determination – something the other unrecognized state-seeking entities can only dream of. Prior to today’s vote, Palestine already enjoyed more official recognitions from other states than any other such entity, over 120.

In other words, whether one is personally for or against the Palestinian statehood bid, at least certain international bodies are showing signs of internal consistency. Spain – and of course (conversely) the U.S. and its stalwart support for Kosovo – reminds us that for individual states, ad hoc, case-based policy still trumps logical or rule-governed decision-making.

Palestinian Reaction

Among leaders, the latest conflagration between Hamas and Israel set off a legitimacy-and-achievement competition: Hamas proclaimed its triumph despite civilian casualties, loss of top people, and destruction of its weapons. The PA was clearly itching for a victory. But Abu Mazen and the Fatah leadership need more than just an expedient success. They want to entrench the image of Fatah as an alternative to Hamas, which consistently pursues diplomatic, rather than military, strategy: Hamas plays dirty, we do things the good, acceptable way. Beyond immediate political points, they must show rewards for the whole approach. The audience for this statement is both internal and external: Palestinians, and the international community.

For Hamas and some Palestinians, the fact that the UN vote accepts Palestine based around the 1967 lines, implicitly accepting Israel, is a compromise. On Wednesday one Palestinian university student at a conference angrily insisted that “most Palestinians do not support the PLO [sic] in this UN vote!”

Interestingly, though, Hamas itself was conflicted: Political leader-in-exile Khaled Mashaal didn’t, then did, then confirmed that he supports the move. Gaza’s Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh reportedly denied it, then accepted it. That certainly throws Hamas’ major backer, Iran, for a loop – having totally rejected the idea over one year ago (Iran did in fact vote yes). But perhaps even hard-line Palestinians are reconsidering the wisdom of 1947-style rejectionism, or at least the wisdom of showing a fractured front. There have been renewed hints of unity efforts between Hamas and Fatah following the war, even talk of elections – and maybe Hamas doesn’t want to be seen as the spoiler by any party.

Israel’s Reaction

It is mildly interesting that Israel briefly worked with the U.S. to “soften” the resolution.  Israel does seem grudgingly prepared to refrain from severe economic or political punishment, but the vote continues to be portrayed as a blunt anti-Israel instrument. At first, just a few voices mainly from the Meretz camp called to recognize Palestinian statehood as a pro-Israeli position. And yet, on Thursday, Haaretz reported that former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (a former Likudnik) views the vote as a positive foundation for a two-state solution; that could shift perceptions among the center-camp.

But mainly, the papers report, Israel is just trying to do “damage control,” whatever that means.

Here’s what it will NOT mean: any rollback or restraint on further settlement construction, any openness towards greater de facto Palestinian control in the West Bank; any softening of the increasingly entrenched separation between Palestinian and Israeli populations in the West Bank, who live under different infrastructures, under separate and unequal systems of law. Instead Israel is digging in: Haaretz reports  (Hebrew) that the government is planning to adopt the “Levy Report” (which concluded that Israel’s control over the WB is not an “occupation”), pave the way for further settlement construction and look to legalize existing settlements.

A brief historical glimpse does show declining panic: in the 1999 Israeli election campaign, the Likud made television ads showing a scary, shaky hand (supposed to be Arafat) counting down the days until Palestine would declare a state. It was intended to evoke nightmares. In 2011, Israel was much more outspoken against – read, worried – about the UN bid than today. Now, there’s “resignation.” Fear seems to be diluted. But I do not believe this is because Israeli elites have come to accept the idea.

Rather, as many Palestinians fear, I believe it reflects the current Israeli government’s overall plan to dissolve any remaining physical and conceptual basis for a Palestinian state. This is the best and perhaps only explanation for the government’s lengthy delegitimization of the Fatah leadership, the relentless and explicit policy of separation of Gaza and the West Bank, which is physical and, the government probably hopes, conceptual. The “Israel-Gaza” war was a good way to try and change perceptions (it was a conflict with Gaza, not the Palestinians), and get Egypt to take some responsibility for Gaza. The shifting frame became a new manifestation of the idea that “Palestine” can be broken up like crackers in soup: Gaza is Egypt’s charge, and only small enclaves of autonomy in the West Bank remain, circumscribed by Israeli military law. Notably, on the very same day as the vote, the president of the military court in the West Bank called to impose Israeli law over the whole West Bank – one small bite into the separation problem, and a giant leap towards an Israeli-dominated one-state reality.

Israel probably now hopes that following the war, the notion of “Palestine” has no real meaning on the ground. In calling the UN vote “diplomatic theater,” it certainly hopes that the vote will be “merely” symbolic. History may have other things in mind.