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Nations vote to bring Palestinians into the edges of the fold

Steve Bell in the Guardian, November 28, 2012.    See 4th item on UK abstention. Also in this posting, 1] Al Jazeera vox pop on Palestinians reactions, 2] overview from Deutsche Welle, 3] interview with Stephen Szabo on Germany finding a role in the Middle East.

Palestinians react to status upgrade 

West Bank and Gaza celebrate UN vote, but not everyone is convinced the new status will help Palestine’s cause.

By Al Jazeera
November 30, 2012

Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip have celebrated the UN General Assembly vote accepting Palestine as a non-member observer state at the United Nations in New York.

Nine countries voted against the Palestine upgrade, which was approved by the General Assembly with 138 votes on Thursday. Forty-one countries abstained. Voting “no” were Israel, the United States and Canada, joined by the Czech Republic, Panama and several Pacific island nations: Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau.

The mood overnight on the streets of Ramallah was jubilant, but not all Palestinians believe that UN recognition will change anything on the ground.

Sahar Safi, 30, visiting family from Jordan

The importance of this is that it means we will have a state and will have a stance and we will have better leverage to negotiate with Israel. Now when Abu Mazen [PA President Mahmoud Abbas] sits at the negotiating table, he will be stronger than before. Technically Palestine exists on the ground and in our hearts but we are being ignored, especially by Israel. Israel can no longer ignore us. The UN bid will show that we exist. We have a flag and a people and hopefully this means Palestinians in the Diaspora will come home. This UN step will unify us all.

Mazen Ibrahim, 53, teacher

The Palestinians are people with rights to a state that includes the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a state with a capital and borders, living side by side with a state of Israel. We don’t have a problem abiding by international agreements. But Israel thinks it’s above the law because unfortunately it is being backed by the US, which in turn is being affected by AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] and other pro-Israel lobbies. Israel ignores all international treaties by the UN. This is considered a first step towards creating our own independent state with Jerusalem as its capital. So tomorrow we can take Israel to the ICC [International Criminal Court] in our capacity as an occupied state. The UN will no longer be able to accept having an independent state live under occupation. So this UN bid can in effect make some change.

Maher Qashou’, 31, barber

We are extremely happy that we have a state. We are the only people in the world that don’t have a country or stability or security or freedom. We hope that our new state will provide us with all these things that other people around the world take for granted. Our people are denied the most basic of rights. We cannot even move from one city to another without dozens of checkpoints stopping us or turning us back or without [Israeli] settlers attacking us. God-willing all of these things [will] change. We hope this UN step will bring safety to our children and allow us to take our grievances to international courts. And hopefully this will pave the way for peace between us and [the Israelis].

Sameh Abu Jamous, 24, baker

This step is not in Israel’s favour and that’s what counts. This will help us take them to international courts to hold them accountable for what just happened in Gaza. Why did these children, women and elderly have to die in Gaza? What did they do to deserve such a dreadful fate? It will change things for the better, I think. We will be a state with an economy and we will see an increase in investments. Our economy has been suffering of late, wages have been intermittent and our standard of living has shot through the roof. Hopefully this step will bring positive changes to our economy.

Maher Abu Kwaik, 30, vegetable vendor

I’m not really sure how this will translate on the ground. As vendors, we always have problems with exporting and importing our goods. Israel controls the crossing points and has a stringent hold on the cities in the West Bank.This makes transporting our fruits and vegetables more expensive, because of the back-to-back system they have created. Will this step mean that Israel cannot control us like this any more? I’m not sure. I want to believe that things will change. We have been fighting our whole lives just for a moment like this, so we have our own independent state. I just hope that this will pave the way for tangible changes on the ground, and that it’s not just one more disappointment.

Mahmoud Issa, 23, student

I think this step will make things worse for the Palestinian people. By asking for a state based on the 1967 armistice line, [PA President] Mahmoud Abbas is effectively giving away the Palestinian right of return and only accepting 22 per cent of historic Palestine. So the way I see it, Abbas is doing more harm to us than good and I also think this step will not bring any changes on the ground. We have more than one hundred settlements in the West Bank and I have my doubts that this UN move will have any impact on these settlements, which are obviously an obstacle to peace.

Reham Al-Ghoul, 29, housewife

I think this UN step will change things for us as Palestinians. It will be easier for us to move more easily between cities and in and out to other countries around the world. We hope that it will pave the way for easier living conditions, especially the removal of Israeli checkpoints. This time is different from [the Palestinian Declaration of Independence] in 1988. Unlike back then, this time all the Arab and European countries are supporting us, including first-timers like Spain, France and Denmark.

Hazem Abu Hilal, 29, youth activist

There will be no changes on the ground in the aftermath because the Israeli occupation is the one in control of the political and economic facets of our life here. Another problem is there is no political will, meaning there is no strategy for the aftermath, such as a roadmap to take Israel to the ICC for example. This UN step is a knee-jerk reaction to the political stalemate and an attempt to break out of a political deadlock that is facing the Palestinian Authority specifically and the Palestine Liberation Organisation in general. This is the real problem. If this UN vote came in the context of a united national strategy related to the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) for example, it would have been a positive step. But now the fear is that this will be used to go back to negotiations, which have proved fruitless for many years.

UN upgrades Palestinian status to non-member observer state

By Deutsche Welle
November 29, 2012

The United Nations General Assembly has voted and approved an upgrade to Palestine’s status. The displaced population is now classed as a non-member state.

The 193-member assembly overwhelmingly voted in favor of granting Palestinians non-member observer status, a result that was widely expected. Palestine achieved its new status by a tally of 138-9 in a late Thursday vote in New York City. Germany was one of 41 countries to abstain from the ballot.

The new status, which was sought by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, recognizes Palestinian statehood without granting Palestinians any voting rights at the UN. The only current observer state, the Vatican, is classed by the UN as a non-member state. The United States and Israel voted against the upgrade, calling it an “obstacle” to building lasting peace between Palestine and Israel.

US expresses disappointment
Following the vote, both the US ambassador to the UN and the US secretary of state expressed their disapproval of the move.  “This resolution does not establish that Palestine is a state,” US UN Ambassador Susan Rice told reporters. “Today’s grand announcements will soon fade and the Palestinian people will wake up tomorrow to find little of their lives has changed, save [that] the prospects of a durable peace have receded,” she said. In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed her own warnings from earlier this week, calling the vote “unfortunate and counterproductive.”

A Palestinian bid for full membership status was thwarted by opposition from the US in the UN Security Council last year. A “no” vote by any permanent member of the Security Council, commonly called a veto, automatically stops any Security Council motion. The non-member status vote, by contrast, only needed a two-thirds majority from the UN General Assembly and therefore did not require approval by permanent UN Security Council members.

Recognition grants Palestinians access to bodies, such as the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where they could file complaints against Israel.

Abbas demands “birth certificate”
In the lead-up to the UN’s decision, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas addressed the Assembly in a final plea for approval. “Sixty-five years ago on this day, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution 181, which partitioned the land of historic Palestine into two states and became the birth certificate for Israel,” said Abbas. “We must repeat here once again our warning: the window of opportunity is narrowing and time is quickly running out. The rope of patience is shortening and hope is withering,” he said.

In reaction to the speech, Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement. “These are not the words of a man who wants peace,” said Netanyahu’s statement, which added that Abbas’ words were “hostile and poisonous.”

Over the past week, Western leaders rallied in support of Palestinians’ demand for international recognition, with some countries, like France, confirming their vote ahead of time. The US, however, attempted to dissuade President Abbas from seeking the new status, contending that bypassing direct negotiations with Israel would undermine his goal of statehood.

Germans are going to have to play a larger role

Germany abstained from the UN General Assembly vote on whether or not to grant the Palestinians observer status. Stephen Szabo, an expert on US-European relations, says Berlin walks a fine diplomatic line.

By Deutsche Welle
November 29, 2012

Deutsche Welle: Earlier this week, Germany signaled that it would vote against the Palestinian bid for UN observer status. But then Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle announced that Berlin would abstain. Why would Berlin decide to abstain from this vote?

Stephen Szabo: They don’t really agree with what the Israelis have been doing in Gaza. Obviously Germany has a special relationship with Israel, so it has to be careful. But at the same time, I think it’s not sympathetic with the American position on this and wants to show they have some independence … without being too critical of Israel.

During the Libya uprising in March 2011, Germany abstained from the Security Council vote authorizing the creation of a no-fly zone, which its NATO allies ultimately enforced.

Does Germany find it difficult to take a clear position on high-profile international issues?

Yes it does, because it’s going through a transition period from having a foreign policy that was sort of contracted out to the United States, to one now that is essentially more of a German foreign policy. Also, it is confusing because the Europeans don’t have a consistent or coherent policy, so the Germans are sort of caught in the middle. They’re expected to play a more independent role, but they’re not used to it.

I think at this point they’re still feeling their way, but they’re moving toward having what I would call a more “normal” foreign policy. The kind of foreign policy a country like France or Britain would have.

Practically, what would it mean to have a more “normal” foreign policy from the German perspective? In other words, being willing to take positions that are more independent from the United States or (Germany’s) key European partners, if it thinks its national interests are involved.
I do think that part of the story is that German foreign policy is pushed a lot by its economic policy: Its exports, its relationships in whatever region it is – whether it’s Russia, China or the Middle East. And so to some extent, the Germans have economic interests that are much stronger and somewhat different from some of the other players, and they have to worry about those (interests).

Are those economic interests playing any specific role here in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the vote at the UN?
I think only in the sense that Germany has major markets in the broader Middle East, particularly the Gulf, and that it needs to be careful about alienating Arab public opinion and Arab elites as well. So I do think there’s something there. I wouldn’t want to be too crass about it – it’s not a one-to-one relationship. But certainly this is a major factor in German thinking.

Has Germany damaged its relationship with the US by abstaining from votes on key international issues, such as on Palestinian observer status at the UN?
I think that there’s a lot of sympathy with the German position in Europe at least, and even in the United States. So I don’t see this as being as dramatic a break as the Libyan situation. And it may even gain Germany some respect in that it’s now sending signals that it has to be taken seriously as an international player, and its interests have to be taken into consideration.

Although there was some division in Europe on the Palestinian initiative, the reception has been mostly positive, and a host of countries – including France – pledged to support observer status. The US said clearly it would vote no. Does the US have a clear difference of opinion with many European nations on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
There’s always been that difference; it’s always been there because of US domestic politics. I think that the Obama administration is actually probably more sympathetic with the European position in private. But in public, because of the politics of the situation here (in the US), it can’t take that position.

I don’t think the real gap has been as great as it seems. Since the election, if you look at the Obama-Netanyahu relationship, it’s pretty clear that Obama is not exactly wildly enthusiastic about (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu’s policies.

Does Germany have difficulty reconciling its close relationship with Israel and the US on the one hand, with the views of its key partners in the European Union on the other hand?
I think that’s the case, and that’s why it makes it so difficult for the Germans. It would be a little bit easier for the Germans if there was a more coherent and consistent European policy – that’s not the case right now. So they can’t be part of a broader consensus, they are having to push things a little bit from their own position, as they’re doing with the euro issue as well.

I think you’re going to see more of this; the Germans will be taking more of a lead in pushing Europe on a European position. This is difficult for them because of their relationship with Israel obviously, and the Germans are always sensitive about that. But I think they realize now that they have to take a more independent position.

Does Germany view itself as a leader internationally – does it want to be a leader? Or is leadership something that Germany is uncomfortable with?
(Germany) is not used to it, and it’s uncomfortable with it, and I think for obvious reasons it’s been reluctant to take on a larger role. If you see what’s happening with the euro crisis, for example, every time the German government tries to take on stronger role, it sets off all kinds of anti-German sentiment and makes life more difficult for them.

It’s the old German problem – you don’t want to be encircled by hostile countries. To that extent, Germany has a much more difficult position than the United States. It has to be sensitive to a lot of different neighbors and opinions and it’s difficult. What’s happening is that the US role in European politics is declining, and the EU is not picking up the slack at this point, so who’s left? It’s going to be the Germans who are going to have to play a larger role. They’re not going to like it. It’s going to make them more uncomfortable and more unpopular – but that’s life.

Stephen Szabo is the Executive Director of the Transatlantic Academy in Washington D.C., an institute that brings together scholars and policy experts from Europe and North America to work on projects addressing the challenges facing the transatlantic community. Dr. Szabo is also a fellow with the German Marshall Fund, where he specializes in German politics, US foreign policy andtransatlantic relations. DW.DE


William Hague says UK may abstain in Palestinian UN vote

BBC News
November 28, 2012

Foreign Secretary William Hague has said UK may abstain in a key vote on upgraded diplomatic status at the UN for Palestinians.

He said the UK would not oppose moves to recognise the Palestinians as a “non-member observer state”. But he said he needed a number of assurances, principally that the Palestinians would seek negotiations with Israel “without pre-conditions”.

Palestinian diplomats said they had rejected the “unrealistic” demands.

The vote on upgrading the Palestinians from their current “permanent observer” status is seen as a symbolic milestone in Palestinian ambitions for statehood. However, a yes vote would also have a practical diplomatic effect as it would allow the Palestinians to participate in debates at the UN and improve their chances of joining UN agencies, although the process was neither automatic nor guaranteed.

In a statement to MPs, Mr Hague set out the conditions he said were needed for the UK to back the move, suggesting they would not be “difficult” to achieve.

‘Public assurances’
The first was an “indispensable” assurance had to be given by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that the Palestinians were committed to return to negotiations with Israel without any conditions. He said the Palestinians must also agree not to seek membership of International Criminal Court (ICC), as any move to extend the jurisdiction of the court over the occupied territories could derail any chance of talks resuming.

“Up until the time of the vote itself, we will remain open to voting in favour of the resolution, if we see public assurances by the Palestinians on these points,” he said. “However, in the absence of these assurances, the UK would abstain on the vote. This would be consistent with our strong support for the principle of Palestinian statehood, but our strong concern that the resolution could set the peace process back.”


Mr Hague said he had made it clear to Mr Abbas that he believed pushing the issue to a vote was premature as the focus should be on a return to negotiations but the UK must make its position clear in the run-up to the decision.

The Palestinians’ ambassador to the UK said Mr Abbas had rejected the British conditions in a phone call with the foreign secretary. “He told Mr Hague the resolution would remain unchanged and called the conditions unrealistic and would provoke a public anger,” Manuel Hassassian told the BBC. The request not to join the ICC was “absolutely unworkable”, he stressed, and entering negotiations without any strings attached meant abandoning the key demand that the construction of settlements on the West Bank must be frozen.

Mr Hassassian said he considered Britain’s planned abstention as a “face-saving” gesture. “The UK is keen on striking the right diplomatic balance; namely, it is committed to the two-state solution but it also wants to stick to the US line on the Palestinian statehood bid, which is totally opposing it.”

‘Two-state solution’

Observers say the application is likely win approval in the 193-member UN General Assembly when it is put to a vote, because it needs only a simple majority to pass. According to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), more than 130 countries now grant the Palestinians the rank of a sovereign state. France, Spain and Norway are among those to be urging the General Assembly to raise the Palestinians’ UN status. The US and Israel oppose the move, citing concerns that the Palestinians are trying to seek full statehood via the UN, rather than through negotiation as set out in the 1993 Oslo peace accords under which the Palestinian Authority was established.

The Labour leadership have long backed the call for recognition, arguing it is an opportunity to “support the cause” of a two-state solution and would boost the position of moderate Palestinians.

In a short debate in the House of Lords – the UK Parliament’s second chamber – to mark the 95th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, independent peer Baroness Tonge said the Palestinians had been “totally betrayed” by successive British governments. The 1917 Declaration, in the form of a letter by the then foreign secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild, is regarded as the first significant assertion by a world power of their support for a Jewish “national home” in what was then known as Palestine.

Baroness Tonge, a frequent critic of Israel who quit the Lib Dems earlier this year, added: “By making our government’s support for the UN bid conditional on Palestine not pursuing Israel through the ICC, is the government not admitting Israel has committed war crimes in Gaza and the West Bank and is seeking impunity for that country?” But Labour peer Lord Turnberg said he thought the UN application was “more of a distraction than a help” to efforts for peace.

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