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What Happened, What Does it Mean and What Next for Palestine?

The United Nations General Assembly has now voted emphatically in favour of granting the Palestinian delegation to the UN, non-member observer status. This is a symbolic victory, not a material one, for the territories seeking to one day be recognised with official statehood by the United Nations

So what happened? What does the vote mean? And what is next for Palestine?

Leading up to the vote, the Palestinian mission to the UN thought that they had secured about 132 votes of the 193 nation-state members of the General Assembly. This in itself would have been more than enough for a ballot victory, with ballots in the UNGA only requiring a majority ‘yes’ vote of 50% of the member countries, plus one.

The Palestinians received 138 votes in favour of them reaching the status of non-member observer state. This means that just over 70% of countries on the floor voted in favour of the motion.

Nine UN members voted against the motion. Most notably, this included the United States of America and Israel, both firm allies on the other side of the long-running Israel-Palestine conflict. The other states joining the USA and Israel in voting against the resolution were Canada, Czech Republic, Panama, Palau, The Marshall Islands, Nauru and Micronesia.

There were also forty-one abstentions which included large powers, including the United Kingdom and Germany. Australia also decided to abstain earlier this week.

Germany had been planning to vote against the motion. The Australian Government through Prime Minister Julia Gillard had also planned to vote ‘no’ to the idea of strengthening Palestinian observer status, but in the end, the caucus decided that Australia should instead abstain.

In the end, because of the nature of the General Assembly, as opposed to the Security Council, the vote was soundly won by the Palestinian Authority.

The next important question is: What does the new non-member observer state vote mean for Palestine in terms of what the position offers?

Well, it is a tokenistic position in terms of territory.

The vote does however grant Palestine an implied recognition of sovereign statehood, the equivalent stature to that of The Vatican as far as the United Nations is concerned.

The new-found recognition also means that the Palestinians are now able to become members of all UN member organisations. This includes the ability to petition the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes.

The ability to join UN bodies and sign up to conventions and treaties are probably the two most significant aspects of the victory at the United Nations for the now implied state of Palestine.

Perhaps the most important question is: What comes next for Palestine?

In light of the UN vote, answering this question and charting a possible future for the peace process, perhaps becomes even more difficult than it was before the Palestinian victory at the UN General Assembly.

Israel and the United States of America are mightily annoyed. Officials from both countries are saying, as they did prior to Thursday’s vote, that it is a step backwards in terms of territorial negotiations and a lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

Israel and the US are particularly annoyed that the decision now opens the door to proceedings of war crimes and broader crimes against humanity being levelled at the Israeli Government at the International Criminal Court.

The process required for charges to be brought by the Palestinians is prohibitive, even though they have flagged the possibility of referring individual Israelis to the ICC. Israel for one, along with the United States, does not recognise the jurisdiction of the court and would obviously not cooperate in handing over suspects.

Perhaps any intentions on the part of the Palestinian Authority to pursue Israel at the ICC should be immediately put off as an act of good faith. Proceedings could be instigated at a later stage, either if settlements in Palestinian territories continue, or the peace process becomes further intractable after a period of time.

Israel and the United States of America are also annoyed at the way in which the Palestinian territories have obtained the status of implicit statehood.

Really, both Israel and the USA should not be particularly concerned about Palestine now enjoying implied statehood. The change guarantees nothing in terms of actual territorial claims. That can only be determined by either a petition to the UN Security Council or by negotiations between Palestinian groups and the Israeli Government.

A direct petition to the Security Council by Palestinian representatives would never succeed. A similar petition last year by Mahmoud Abbas was never introduced because it was going to be blocked.

Official recognition of statehood at the Security Council would require 10 of the 15 member states to vote in favour of a resolution to create an official Palestinian nation-state. The USA, being a key and almost unwavering ally of Israel, even under President Barack Obama, have already indicated on previous occasions that they would use their veto power in the Security Council.

The best way forward is direct negotiations between Israel and Palestine, preferably with the United States of America involved as well as key powers in the Middle East. The key players have alluded to this, although their actions and words, particularly in the wake of the UN decision, seem to indicate little interest in strengthening negotiations over a two-state solution.

Negotiations too, have failed for decades. The recent increased tensions between Israel and Hamas, not just Thursday’s vote, have undoubtedly contributed to, at best, an even more protracted peace process.

The future of Israel-Palestine relations is at best tenuous. However, the present should be accepted for what it is and that is, in reality, a largely painless development.

If it’s not seen as such, then questions should rightly be asked about the actual intentions of Israel and the US, in terms of pursuing an enduring tw0-state solution.

Symbolism and Statehood are Two Different Things

The Australian Government was reportedly engaged in an especially robust party-room debate today. The Labor caucus was discussing the position to take on the United General Assembly vote set to take place in the coming days. This motion, if successful, would grant the Palestinian territories non-member observer status in the UN. Currently, the Palestinians have observer status.

After looking like the ALP caucus might vote ‘no’ to the motion, it soon emerged that the party-room, in the end, voted in favour of the Australian delegation abstaining from this highly non-controversial vote.

Not surprisingly, the United States of America and of course Israel, have indicated they will be voting against the motion in the UN General Assembly.

Unlike in the Security Council though, the US and Israelis voting against the measure will not matter. There is no veto power in the General Assembly and 132 of the 193 member countries have pledged recognition of Palestine as a state. Despite this, official recognition of statehood has been blocked in the United Nations Security Council.

During the ALP caucus discussions this morning, members of the left faction reportedly indicated that granting observer status would provide some assistance in promoting peace between Israel and the Palestinian territories.

This is an interesting concept. The position argues that by granting non-member state observer state status, the longstanding conflict would suddenly lurch closer to some form of mutually agreeable conclusion.

Clearly it will not. Hostilities on the part of Palestinian terror groups will not stop, at least until a broad solution involving Palestinian statehood is reached.

Terrorist acts on the part of some Palestinian factions would quite likely continue, even in the event of a negotiated peace between authorities on both sides of the conflict. They would however be more isolated and not necessarily linked with representative political organisations.

However, such heinous crimes would still not be tolerable, no matter how infrequent. The point must be made too, that both sides are and have been in the wrong on this issue, albeit in different ways.

The reluctance on the part of the Israelis and the USA to recognise Palestine as an official state would also continue, virtually leaving the situation at the status quo. Non-member state observer status will be a symbolic act.

Granting non-member state observer status is however one that the Israeli government should not be scared of. But they are and they will probably be annoyed. They need to realise, however, that there is a clear difference between a vote for non-member state observer status and a peaceful two-state solution. The latter should be negotiated outside the United Nations.

It is curious that Australia will abstain from the vote. Abstention, to some, gives the appearance that Australia is basically hedging their bets.

Abstaining from the vote will likely be seen by the representatives of the Palestinian territories as a vote against their motion, since the Australian Government does not feel a compulsion to vote for what is ostensibly a sensible concept.

This week’s vote is not about statehood and probably will not provide much of a catalyst toward the Palestinian territories becoming a recognised state.

So why such a fuss?

Small Cause for Hope in a Grim Situation

Israel and Hamas have agreed to the terms of a ceasefire after over a week of rocket attacks perpetrated by both sides of the conflict. Hamas had been rocketing Israel and in return the Israelis sent missiles hurtling into Palestinian territories. Approximately 150 people died in the conflict, the vast majority being Palestinians.

Perhaps surprising to some, Egypt, now controlled by an Islamist government was crucial in negotiating the terms of a ceasefire agreement with Palestinian group, Hamas.

There are four elements of the agreement brokered between Israel and Hamas.

First, it calls on Israel to halt land, sea and air assaults and incursions in the Gaza Strip. This includes, as part of the deal, Israel agreeing not to target individuals in Palestinian territories.

The first part of the ceasefire agreement would appear likely to hold now, with the world’s attention, for at least as long as the Palestinians stop firing rockets into Israel.

Although Israeli incursions into Palestinian territories are a major factor in the ongoing tensions between Israel and Palestinians, this part too seems likely to hold as long as rockets from Palestinian territories are not fired.

The second condition of the ceasefire involves all Palestinian factions. Under the ceasefire, they must not target Israel in any way, be it from the Gaza Strip or the border regions.

The second condition, largely the reverse of the first one, is less likely to hold. There are multiple groups on the Palestinian side with factions that will prove very difficult to control and there is the distinct possibility that possible militant attacks from outside groups might easily be mistaken as originating from Palestinian terrorists.

Ceasefires in general are tenuous and, as such, it will probably be just a matter of time before both the first and second elements of the accord are broken.

The third and perhaps most significant element of the ceasefire is an agreement to open all border crossings. This includes an understanding that the movement of both people and goods must be facilitated and must in all cases be free. Again, this involves an understanding that border residents not be targeted, this time when attempting border crossings. However, this clause of the ceasefire is not immediate. After 24 hours of the ceasefire have passed, this tenet will come into effect.

The third part of the pact is very important. However, if the ceasefire does not last more than a day, then Israel will again close her borders and the free movement of people will cease again.

If the ceasefire does hold and that is very unlikely, then Israel stopping incursions and allowing border crossings will be seen quite favourably by most factions on the Palestinian side.

The final clause is potentially important too in terms of long-term considerations in that it opens up the possibility of further dialogue. The fourth part of the ceasefire equation allows for the negotiation of further issues involved in the dispute between Israel and Palestine.

The fourth part of the ceasefire does provide the opportunity for ongoing dialogue which might lead to discussion of the important and substantive issues in the medium to long-term. However getting to that point would almost certainly hinge upon a well-maintained ceasefire between Israel and Hamas at the very least.

There are a number of small positives but it would appear that they are largely overshadowed by the likelihood of an enduring ceasefire being minimal at best.

The part that Egypt played is interesting and provides hope, but the assistance provided to Hamas from Iran would give pause for concern, over and above the usual fragility of ceasefire agreements.

Having so many disparate groups on the Palestinian side is also a challenge in terms of maintaining order in Israel and the Palestinian territories on any given day.

Add to that the realisation that the conflict involves far more than just territorial considerations, but also regional issues and extremism, and seeking a lasting peace becomes an even more challenging task.

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