On Thursday the United Nations General Assembly voted to upgrade the international status of the Palestinian Authority despite strong and well-justified warnings from the Obama administration that the decision will not help and could set back prospects for peace in the Middle East.
The vote (138-9, with Israel and the United States voting “no” and 41 nations abstaining) will give the Palestinian Authority the right to participate in General Assembly debates, but without a vote. And it will allow the Palestinian Authority to apply for membership in the specialized agencies of the United Nations, including UNESCO, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the International Criminal Court and the International Telecommunication Union (a source of demands for Internet taxes and government censorship rights).
But it is not likely to change “Palestine’s” real international standing. About 130 nations recognize the Palestinian Authority as a state. These do not include its principal donors, the United States and the EU. The vote gives it “non-member state observer” status at the U.N., some distance away from full membership.
The vote was greeted with joyous demonstrations in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority. But sadly for most Palestinians, it could end up harming their standard of living and hopes for the future. First, it could lead to reduced foreign aid, as the Obama administration has warned. Second, it will create a barrier to further peace talks with Israel and could freeze efforts to improve Israel-Palestinian trade.
The vote does not mean automatic victory for the Palestinian Authority in its efforts to join UN agencies. Congress has declared that the United States must withdraw funds from any international organization that grants membership to the Palestinians. Presumably this law will be enforced, putting many agencies at risk of losing a significant part of their operating funds if they agree to admit Palestine. That will be a difficult obstacle for the Palestinian Authority to overcome, a price it will have to pay for going against the advice of its major international backers.
The vote does open the door for Palestinian membership of the International Criminal Court, where the United States, not a member, has little leverage. That could eventually lead to threats of criminal action against Israel. While such threats might satisfy the Palestinian sense of victimhood, they could present yet another obstacle to the necessary negotiated settlement with Israel of disputed territorial claims.
As U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice declared after Thursday’s vote, “Today’s grand pronouncements will soon fade. And the Palestinian people will wake up tomorrow and find that little about their lives has changed, save that the prospects of a durable peace have only receded.”