Palestine joins the UN: So what next?

Gregg Carlstrom is an online journalist with Al Jazeera English, based in Doha. He can be contacted at https://twitter.com/glcarlstrom.

Gregg Carlstrom

After nearly 18 months of diplomatic drama, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas finally got a victory, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to recognise Palestine as a “non-member observer state”.

It is a symbolic victory, and a counterpoint to the fiasco last year when Abbas pursued full membership in the world body, which requires approval of the Security Council. The Palestinians could not wrangle enough votes to even bring the matter to a vote.

So what now? I asked that question - what will you do on November 30? - to a range of Palestinian officials and analysts over the past few days.

Their unanimous answer was not to answer. “Let’s leave that until the day after,” said Husam Zumlot, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. “I don’t want to speculate,” said Hanan Ashrawi, another PLO official. And so on, perhaps with good reason: The diplomatic upgrade carries few tangible benefits.

The most significant is that the Palestinians could ratify the Rome Statute and accede to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which would allow them to bring cases against Israelis - for war crimes committed in Gaza, perhaps, or for the ongoing construction of illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Thousands of people, from military leaders to individual settlers, could be subject to prosecution.

The Israeli government has lately tempered its rhetoric about the Palestinian UN bid, and has toned down the talk of consequences.

But sources in Jerusalem say that, if the Palestinians join the ICC, the Israeli reaction will be harsh, and would include measures like cutting the flow of taxes and customs duties to the Palestinian Authority.

A symbolic upgrade at the UN is one thing; a wave of indictments that effectively bar Israeli officials from traveling abroad would be another entirely. 

And so the Palestinians have been coy about their intentions: None of the PLO officials I interviewed would talk about their plans vis-a-vis the court. (Several European countries, most notably the United Kingdom, reportedly offered to vote “yes” at the UN in exchange for a Palestinian promise not to join the ICC).

Admission at the UN also allows the Palestinians to join dozens of UN organisations, bodies like the World Health Organisation.

But that, too, has been discouraged, because the US is required by law to cut funding to any UN organisation that recognises a Palestinian state. UNESCO accepted Palestine as a member last year, and the US cancelled $80m in annual funding, more than one-fifth of the organisation’s budget.

“It feels good, but it won’t end the occupation,” was how many Palestinians summarised their feelings about the UN bid.

Symbolic or not, it is a high-profile diplomatic defeat for an Israeli government that has spent months aggressively lobbying the world to vote “no.”

But it is ultimately another piece of paper from a world body that has often disappointed the Palestinians. “You have more than 200 [or] 300 resolutions in the United Nations without implementation,” said Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas official in Gaza.

The most intriguing result of Thursday’s vote, perhaps, will be the effect on the long-delayed reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas.

The latter has been remarkably positive about Abbas’ bid, even holding a public rally today in Gaza to show support - a stark contrast to last year, when Hamas officials largely kept quiet and discouraged any public demonstrations.

Officials in the West Bank have described the UN vote as “their resistance,” a victory that Abbas can hold up alongside what is widely perceived as a win by Hamas in last week’s eight-day war with Israel.

Reconciliation talks have collapsed dozens of times before. But perhaps the victory at the UN gives Abbas a bit of momentum to bridge his differences with a newly-empowered Hamas.

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