Palestinians celebrate in the West Bank city of Ramallah after the UN General Assembly voted to recognise Palestine as a non-member state. (AFP)
New York, Nov. 30: With only nine countries opposing, the UN General Assembly yesterday overwhelmingly put its stamp on Palestine as a country that is under occupation and irrevocably set the terms for eventual negotiations with Israel on its withdrawal to create a new state in the albeit distant future.
In one of the most electrifying moments in the General Assembly’s recent history, Mahmoud Abbas, the President of Palestine, told an overflowing crowd of member nations, visitors and houseful media: “The General Assembly is called upon today to issue a birth certificate of the reality of the state of Palestine.”
The vote came on the 65th anniversary of the division of the British mandate of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. The Jewish state is reality, but the latter is still a distant dream for the Arab people there, mired in a seemingly endless conflict with Israel.
The anniversary is observed since 1977 as the annual International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. It was India’s turn yesterday as the current president of the UN Security Council to express the Council’s commitment to “the vision of a region where two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, live side by side in peace within secure and recognised borders”.
Hardeep Singh Puri, India’s Permanent Representative to the UN said in his capacity as the Council’s president that the 15-member policy-implementing body of the UN, its most powerful arm, had set its “ultimate goal of… the realisation of the legitimate and inalienable rights of the Palestinian people for an independent and democratic state”.
The statement which had the unanimous approval of all 15 Council members was a remarkable feat since the US does not hesitate to veto anything that Israel does not even tangentially like or helps advance the political and diplomatic aspirations of the Palestinians. The Council’s presidency said “a comprehensive resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict…should end the (Israeli) occupation that began in 1967 and result in the emergence of an independent, democratic, contiguous and viable Palestinian state”.
The Obama administration may have agreed to sign on to the statement as a face saver on a day when America’s isolation within the international community on the Arab-Israeli conflict was stark and complete.
Only seven other countries voted along with the US and Israel against yesterday’s General Assembly resolution to grant non-member observer state status at the UN for Palestine. These included such insignificant states such as Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau. Canada was the only country of any importance among the nine opponents to upgrading Palestine’s international status.
Well over two-thirds of the General Assembly’s membership of 193 states, a total of 138 countries, voted for the resolution which saw 41 abstentions.
India was the first non-Arab state to recognise the Palestine Liberation Organisation as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people as early as 1975 and in 1988 it was one of the first countries to formally recognise the state of Palestine when statehood was proclaimed on November 15 that year. In a cable to the late Yasser Arafat, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi conveyed the recognition with a declaration that “this has been our cherished and single-minded objective all these years”. Gandhi, however, cautioned Arafat that “it is not the end of the struggle”.
Today, in a different capacity, as India’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Puri told the General Assembly that “while we have long supported the aspirations of the Palestinian people and leadership for the full membership to the UN, yesterday’s vote in the General Assembly is an important milestone towards that goal”.
He also expressed the “hope that the positive vote of yesterday will pave the way for the resumption of serious, direct talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis”. On the floor of the General Assembly, a Palestinian flag was unfurled behind Abbas’s delegation, as the impressive tally of votes on yesterday’s resolution came in.
The scenes were not as dramatic as in 1974 when Arafat became the first leader to address the General Assembly wearing a holster. He was also the first non-governmental representative in UN’s history to speak at the Assembly’s plenary. In a memorable speech then, Arafat told the world body: “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”
Some of the jubilation in the Assembly Hall yesterday was related to the anachronism of the Security Council’s structure. Palestine’s application for full UN membership has been stuck for more than a year because of threats of a UN veto despite support for Palestinian aspirations that was overwhelmingly showcased by the Assembly’s two-thirds plus vote yesterday.
Puri’s consensus statement said “the issue remains before the Council following adoption of the report by the committee on admission of new members in November 2011”.
In contrast to the palpable excitement in the General Assembly, the vote triggered fears on Capitol Hill that the Palestinians may use their new status at the UN to formally criminalise Israeli practices in occupied territories at the International Criminal Court.
A group of four Senators, made up of Democrats and Republicans, have already introduced legislation to cut off all American aid to Palestinians. They also plan to press for the closure of an office of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in Washington.
If the Israeli lobby decides to turn up the heat on Capitol Hill, American funding to the UN could also be in jeopardy, creating a major diplomatic crisis.