As the celebrations commenced in Manara Square in Ramallah, and the votes were tallied in New York, the Palestinian delegation had done something almost entirely unique to the post-Arafat era: it had unilaterally altered the status quo in the conflict. The upgrade to nonmember observer status for the Palestinian Liberation Organization puts it on the same level as the Vatican, gains it wider international recognition, and grants it greater access to international organizations. Yet as the Palestinians celebrated, the Israelis brooded, chiding the PLO’s UN maneuver as going against the peace process and noting that 65 years ago a similar UN proposal was voted on, and Israel had readily accepted that one. Indeed, the US and Israel were right in their assertion that the vote would hardly change any of the realities on the ground – and it never appeared as if the PLO had any illusions otherwise – yet what has been altered is the political status quo, and a precedent has been set for future Palestinian initiatives.
The history of the PLO at the UN stretches back nearly 50 years when in 1964 the Palestine National Council sent formal notification to the UN regarding the establishment of the PLO. In 1974, the PLO was recognized by the UN General Assembly as the representative of the Palestinian people, and subsequently invited to partake in plenary meetings on the question of Palestine. In 1988, the General Assembly reaffirmed the Permanent Observer Mission status of the PLO to the UN in resolution 42/229 A & B, granting it rights to participate in debates in the General Assembly and co-sponsor resolutions. In 2011 the PLO took a more aggressive approach to the international governing body, seeking official member status through the Security Council. The motion was never voted on however, and a year later the PLO took their case to the General Assembly as a nonmember state, passing on Thursday by a vote of 138 to 9. The history with the UN suggests a learning curve within the Palestinian leadership, and the recent endeavors in international organizations suggest a paradigm shift within the PLO’s approach to the conflict.
For Palestinians, the UN bid was a glimmer of hope in an otherwise gloomy month; the war and subsequent ceasefire in Gaza was still very much prevalent in Palestinians’ minds, and even as celebrations in Ramallah were matched in Gaza City, pessimism loomed. According to a poll published in Ma’an earlier this month, an overwhelming majority (84%) of Palestinians supported the UN bid, but that was tempered with 90% believing Israel would enact policies to punish the Palestinians for the maneuver, and over 50% believing that the bid would have a negative effect on the Palestinians in the short-term.
The Israeli press was likewise divided in its reaction to the bid. In Israel Hayom’s print edition, the vote was labeled an “embarrassment for the State of Israel.” The Jerusalem Post was quick to address a newfound concern for Israeli leadership, running an analysis on the “overblown threat of the [Palestinian access to the] ICC.” In Ha’aretz, an editorial ran praising the Palestinian initiative, saying Israel had “no basis” for its fear of international recognition of Palestine, and that “a recognized Palestinian state will give Israel a responsible partner with international backing.” The variance in Israeli media reflected the spectrum of thought in the Israeli leadership, from Netanyahu roundly opposing the initiative, to former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s surprising support for the measure.
For the peace process, the success of the Palestinians reveals the uncertainty of future negotiations. Could the international recognition and backing of the Palestinian leadership create a stronger position in negotiations? Will the Palestinians having greater access to the International Monetary Fund and possibly the International Criminal Court change the relationship between Ramallah and Jerusalem? It’s too soon to speculate what impact the upgraded status will have in the peace process, but for now, the success at the UN has given the Palestinians something to celebrate in an otherwise bleak November.