22nd Oct 2016


Palestine as the 194th state in the UN General Assembly?

  • Portrait of the late Yasser Arafat - the symbol of the Palestinian struggle (Photo: EUobserver)

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' decision to ask UN members in New York on 29 November to grant Palestine the status of a UN "observer state" has prompted intense debate in Europe, both at government level and in terms of public opinion.

In order to understand this new move to save the two-state solution after 65 years of conflict, one has to answer a number of questions.

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1. Is this a unilateral move by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) which threatens peace?

Going back to the UN - the most legitimate and representative body of multilateralism in the world - cannot in any way be considered a unilateral move.

It is in fact the duty of the UN, both the General Assembly and the Security Council, to ensure the implementation of Palestine's new resolution.

Why? Because since 29 November 1947 and the UN's vote in favour of creating two states - Israel and Palestine - the world community has tasked the UN with the task of solving what is called "the Question of Palestine."

The UN Security Council and the General Assembly have voted more than 400 resolutions on the subject - a body of decisions which now constitutes the legal framework for peace: Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, the Madrid principle of land for peace, the Roadmap of the Quartet and the Arab Peace Initiative.

Sixty five years after its first vote, it is high time for the UN to recognise the state of Palestine, its borders and its capital, and to remind the world that its occupation by Israel must be brought to an end - that it is the duty of the world community to ensure that the occupying power, Israel, be made accountable for all its violations of international law and UN resolutions.

This move does not threaten peace. It may save it, if there is political will among the member states of the UN.

2. Is this move compatible with official EU policy?

Since the Venice Declaration of 13 June 1980, the EU has expressed its support for the "full exercise of the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people" and its willingness "to participate within the framework of a comprehensive settlement in a system of concrete and binding international guarantees, including guarantees on the ground."

Since 1980, the EU has also changed from a nine-member Union to a 27-member Union, participated in the Madrid Conference in 1990, accompanied the Oslo peace process, signed bilateral agreements with the Palestinian Authority as part of its neighbourhood policy and financed state-building institutions in the Palestinian Occupied Territories. It has also commended the Palestinian government for its practical achievements in state-building.

In its Council conclusions of 2009 and 2010, it reaffirmed "its readiness, when appropriate, to recognise a Palestinian state."

The resolution submitted to the UN General Assembly refers to all the elements of the EU Council conclusions.

3. Is it appropriate now for the EU to recognise the state of Palestine?

It is vital for EU member states to recognise now the state of Palestine and to vote in favour of its status as an observer state at the UN in order to save the two-state solution.

It is vital to impose now on Israel the respect of and the commitment to the terms of reference of this peace process since its inception in 1990 in Madrid and then in Oslo in 1993, particularly the 1967 borders, East Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Palestine and the right of refugees as stated in the Arab Peace Initiative.

The Middle East Peace Process has failed to achieve an end to military occupation and to ensure Palestinian sovereignty and statehood.

It needs to redefine its framework and to ensure guarantees of terms of reference if it wants to be relaunched on better grounds.

Israel is threatening to destroy the two-state solution, recognised by the EU and the US as the only solution to the Palestinian question, by the pursuit of intense settlement activity in the occupied territories of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, where half a million settlers live today, by annexing almost all the territories of East Jerusalem and by the building of the wall.

This is the last chance to save the Middle East Peace Process.

4. Is the EU ready for such a move?

At the level of public opinion, the vote last week by the European Parliament on a resolution on this question saw 447 MEPs say Yes and only 113 say No. This is proof of where public opinion in Europe stands.

An international poll by Avaaz collected also 1,450,000 signatures of private people in favour of it. Avaaz also organised four polls, in Germany, France, Spain and the UK, where an average of 70 percent of people supported the move.

There is a big gap between public opinion in Europe and the position of those EU foreign ministries and chancelleries which are speaking of abstention as a way to save European unity.

5. Does abstention by EU countries safeguard European unity and its interests in this part of the world?

Abstention would be the worst position that EU countries could adopt, as it means nothing to abstain.

In fact, in terms of UN procedure, abstaining countries are not even counted. But politically, it means the negation of decades of EU policy toward Palestine, from the Venice Declaration, to the EU' Action Plan and the framework of the European neighbourhood policy.

Voting against us is the right of every sovereign state.

But if EU states want to be coherent with the policies they have been defending - since the Venice Declaration, since Oslo, since the 2009 and 2010 EU Council conclusions - it would be wholly inconsistent to abstain.

Abstention amounts to not having the courage to take responsibility for one's own strategy and political choices. It will make a mockery of all that the EU has invested and achieved in this region in recent decades.

In light of the Arab Spring, the EU has taken a fresh look at the Mediterranean component of its neighbourhood policy.

It says that the fall of the Arab dictators has demonstrated the importance of public opinion and of the EU using one yardstick for democracy, rule of law and civil liberties in the whole region.

How could EU countries justify abstention on the Palestinian question? Did they abstain on the changes in Egypt, in Libya or in Tunisia? Abstention means saying that Palestinians are a second class people who do not deserve the same rights given to the rest of the world.

6. Is the split between Hamas and Fatah an argument against recognition?

No it is not, because the Palestinians are not asking the General Assembly to recognise a government of Palestine, but to recognise the right of the Palestinian people to statehood in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

It is a de jure recognition by the most important body for conveying international legitimacy.

It is based on the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, which is the non-negotiable right of all the people of the world. This is why the PLO never included the right of self-determination and statehood in the final status issue to be negotiated in Oslo.

This bid by President Abbas is supported by Hamas and is a step forward on the road to peace. Hamas' support constitutes a positive sign by it to join the PLO and to allow us to organise parliamentary and presidential elections in Palestine very soon.

Leila Shahid is Palestine's ambassador to the EU


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