Osama Al-Sharif
Arab News (Opinion)
August 2, 2011 - 12:00am

Compared to East Timor, the first state to be welcomed into the UN community in the 21st century, or South Sudan, the latest newcomer into the 193-member organization, Palestine may fare much better as a state in terms of political, economic and social indicators. It certainly qualifies, in the view of many, in relation to the four accepted elements that are needed to be recognized as one. The elements are permanent population, a defined territory, a government and the capacity to enter into relations with others.

Legal experts, and politicians, will differ on meanings and interpretations of these elements and how they apply to Palestine, but as Martin Waehlisch, an international lawyer writing in last week’s Al Ahram Weekly says, the UN Charter is clear in that it states that “membership in the United Nations is open to all other peace-loving states” conditional to “a decision of the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.”

So far 122 countries have pledged their recognition of Palestine as a state; it needs seven more to secure the two-thirds majority in the General Assembly to be admitted. But that is not where the real challenges lie in wait. The US has made it clear that it considers the Palestinian move towards gaining international recognition as a state on the 1967 borders in September as a unilateral act that contravenes a negotiated peace settlement. If the request is submitted to the Security Council it is almost certain that the Obama administration will veto it. But as Waehlisch writes: “Basing its decision solely on respect for international law, it would be very hard for the US not to support UN membership for Palestine.”

Washington and Israel are putting pressure on President Mahmoud Abbas and the PNA to skirt the Palestinian move. But they offer nothing in return. Attempts to revive talks or hold a peace conference to be hosted by France in September are bogged down for the moment.

The Palestinians have declared their independent state back in 1988. But it was a symbolic, some say desperate gesture, in a changing world. Since then the US had taken the lead as a sponsor and mediator of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. But almost two decades later the Oslo Accords and the Washington Agreement have become irrelevant in relation to the reality on the ground. A two-state solution remains the declared goal of all parties, but the mechanisms to achieve it have crashed. Israel has backed down from concluding a deal on final status issues along previously agreed upon terms of reference. For the Palestinians protracted negotiations have become a political trap — a never-ending tunnel with no light at the end.

Going back to the UN is important in many ways. It breaks the US monopoly over the management of the conflict, puts Israel face-to-face with its obligations as an occupying power under international law and key UN resolutions, and underscores global support for the legitimacy of national Palestinian rights for independence and statehood. Moreover, it resonates with the changing realities in the Arab world as it struggles to shed decades of authoritarian and undemocratic rule.

The Obama administration may appreciate the magnitude of a bungled Palestinian request at the Security Council and its repercussions on itself and Israel. After all, the president has already recognized the 1967 borders as the basis of a final settlement. In his speech last May, Barack Obama said “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.”

A US veto will make little sense outside Washington and Tel Aviv. But even if the Palestinians lost their first bid—Israel was admitted after two failed attempts in 1948 and 1949—they can still come again next year. And in between bids they can continue to promote their cause and influence world opinion. A successful application, however, would be catastrophic for Israel. It will change the rules of the game altogether and allow Palestinians to take the lead in putting pressure on Israel which could become a rogue state.

For the Palestinians to play their cards right they need to get their act together, secure reconciliation and unity and mobilize their people towards peaceful resistance. Hamas and Fatah squabbling will deny Palestinians the international sympathy and support they badly need now. A resort to terror tactics by Hamas and other militant groups will prove disastrous.

The September showdown will mark a major and irreversible change in the course of the conflict for the first time in decades. The US and Israel understand this but they need to abandon their uncompromising and self-serving policies in favor of a workable and effective offer that could, along with a surprise backing of Palestinian statehood bid at the UN, secure a negotiated and lasting settlement.


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