Middle East

Palestinian UN status vote more than symbolic?

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, right, meets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the UN's headquarters in New York, 28 November 2012
Image caption Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian application for full UN membership faced US opposition last year

The UN General Assembly is set to upgrade the Palestinians' status to that of "non-member observer state". The BBC's Barbara Plett at the UN headquarters in New York asks whether the move is more than symbolic.

With Hamas claiming a victory for its military strategy during this month's eight-day conflict with Israel in Gaza, the Palestinian president is hoping for a diplomatic victory at the United Nations.

It is the second time around - last year Mahmoud Abbas applied for full UN membership, but that got bogged down at the Security Council amid opposition from the United States.

This time he is asking the General Assembly for a lesser upgrade, from "observer" to "non-member observer" state, like the Vatican.

This is a largely symbolic move. But the Palestinian leadership argues that at least it will define the territory it wants for a state, which is being eroded by aggressive Israeli settlement building, and grant it formal recognition.

The Palestinian UN Ambassador Riyad Mansour described the move as "a very important step to save the two-state solution".

Raised stakes

There is no doubt the Palestinian Authority has enough support to win the vote, because of strong sympathy from the post-colonial nations which dominate the General Assembly.

But it faces significant opposition from Israel and its powerful US ally - they say a Palestinian state should emerge only out of direct negotiations, without reference to the UN.

The Israelis have branded the move a violation of the Oslo Peace Accords, which charts a bilateral route to peace, and the Americans fear the bid will severely complicate any attempt to return to peace talks despite Palestinian vows to do just that.

Perhaps the greater fear is that the Palestinians will use their new status as observer state to join the International Criminal Court and try to prosecute Israel for alleged war crimes in the Occupied Territories.

Alongside the US, European countries, especially the UK, have been pressing the Palestinian Authority for assurances that it will not take this path.

The PA has made clear this approach will not be its priority but has so far refused to relinquish the option.

It would have been difficult for Mr Abbas to make such a concession to the West under any circumstances, but events back home have raised the stakes.

Hamas has gained in Palestinian eyes by confronting Israel (and its Western backers) in the recent Gaza offensive aimed at stopping Palestinian rocket-fire - and not losing. It even achieved some dividends.

Arab foreign ministers flocked to Gaza to demonstrate solidarity, while Egypt mediated a ceasefire that included provisions to ease Israel's blockade of Gaza.

Meanwhile, Mahmoud Abbas remained side-lined in Ramallah, with nothing to show for his moderate policies.

But the Arabs insist their support for the Palestinian president and his UN bid is just as strong, and they stand ready to provide him with material help should he need it.

That "includes financial and economic assistance to mitigate any negative economic effects of the decision", said Egypt's UN ambassador Mootaz Ahmadein Khalil, noting Israeli and US threats to cut finances to the PA.

Reality on the ground

Israeli foreign ministry documents had warned that Israel might go further by nullifying the Oslo Accords - they even suggested toppling Mr Abbas.

But as the vote approaches Israel has moderated its tone - officials now say they'll wait to see how the Palestinians use their new status.

"If they use this resolution as a platform for confrontation, we will have to act accordingly," a spokeswoman told the French news agency AFP.

Strong European support could also help temper reactions. It would certainly strengthen the diplomatic clout of the bid.

The European Union is split but so far more than a dozen countries have said they will vote yes, some partly motivated by the desire to give Mr Abbas a diplomatic achievement to counter the rise of Hamas.

He will need more than that.

Regardless of what the Palestinian president achieves on paper at the UN, when the celebrations are over he will have to revise a political strategy that has so far failed to translate the Palestinian dream of statehood into a reality on the ground.

More on this story