UN recognition of Palestine on November 29 2012 as a “non-member state” was a largely symbolic move. However, it did imply a de-facto recognition of Palestinian sovereignty by the United Nations General Assembly for the first time, potentially creating a diplomatic milestone whose real significance will become clearer further down the road.
What Does the Recognition Mean For Palestine’s International Status?
It’s worth keeping in mind that the UN General Assembly didn’t award Palestine with full UN membership. The Palestinians sought full recognition of statehood unsuccessfully in September 2011 and backed down after opposition by Western states in the UN Security Council.
The November 2012 vote upgraded the status of the Palestinian Authority (PA) from a “permanent observer” to a “non-member state”, the status also enjoyed by Vatican. Some Western diplomats made it clear that their vote in favor of the resolution didn’t amount to a formal bilateral recognition of a Palestinian state.
But the language counts and inclusion of the word “state” in Palestine’s new status nevertheless has important legal implications. It enables Palestinians to apply for membership of UN agencies, including the possibility of becoming a signatory to the International Criminal Court, potentially opening the doors to lawsuits against Israel for expansion of illegal settlements on the territories the Jewish state occupied in the 1967 war.
What It Means For Palestinian Politics?
The UN recognition had no immediate impact on the depressing reality of Palestinian economy and politics. Palestinians remain bitterly divided politically and geographically between the Fatah movement which controls most of the West Bank, and its rivals Hamas who govern the Gaza Strip.
The UN membership bid was spearheaded by Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah leader and the president of the Palestinian Authority. It was a rare boost to his popularity, which had suffered due to the lack of progress in peace negotiations with Israel and corruption in the PA administration. Most Palestinians greeted the UN vote with enthusiasm and a sense of vindication, but Abbas’ triumph was likely short-lived, surpassed by Hamas' military resistance to Israel and new-found support in the region.
Was This A Serious Setback for Israel?
More than two-thirds of the 193 General Assembly members voted in favor of the resolution, despite intense opposition from Israel and the US. Only nine countries voted against, and while UK and Germany abstained, other European heavyweights such as France, Italy and Spain backed Abbas’ bid.
It was a clear message of the tide in the global public opinion, but one that Israel more or less saw coming. Unlike in the 15-member UN Security Council, Israel can’t count on the US veto in the General Assembly, where most African, Asian and Latin American states traditionally sympathize with the Palestinian cause.
And let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture. Israel, backed by the US, still enjoys enormous military and economic advantage over the Palestinians. It will continue to reserve the right to use force against any security threats, expand settlements, and apply pressure on PA by blocking its bank accounts. To ram this message home, Israeli government approved construction of 3,000 new settler homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem just days after the UN vote.
How Does It Affect the Peace Process?
Israel argues that the Palestinians’ unilateral approach to the UN violated the 1993 Oslo Accords, which launched bilateral talks toward a negotiated settlement based on a two-state solution. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed these concerns by calling the vote "unfortunate and counterproductive".
The truth is that we didn't need the UN vote to realize that any serious breakthrough in peace talks was almost impossible, when looking at the divisions in Palestinian politics and the presence of around half a million Jewish settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But there is no alternative road map on the table, and real independence for the Palestinians remains just as distant as before the UN vote.