by Rebekah Mintzer
UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 21 (Xinhua) -- Leaders from all over the world will stand at the iconic rostrum of the UN General Assembly this week during the assembly's 66th plenary session, but few speeches are likely to reverberate so strongly as that of Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA).
On Sept. 23, the PNA president is expected to announce officially in front of the General Assembly that he will submit an application for Palestine to become a UN member state.
Abdallah Schleifer, professor emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, told Xinhua in a recent interview that this bid for UN statehood could in the long term reinvigorate the stalled peace process with Israel, despite the reality that Palestine's move will most likely be thwarted by a veto in the UN Security Council by the U.S., a close ally of Israel.
The government of Israel, under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has responded negatively to Palestine's decision to pursue official UN member statehood, but Schleifer said that the Israelis might eventually be compelled to move closer to the negotiating table due to the situation at the UN.
"Short term, according to the rhetoric that is coming from the Netanyahu government, it will not help the renewal of negotiations because the Israelis are saying that this is outrageous, and if you do it everything's off the table," he said of the bid. "But long term, I think it will because it's going to intensify pressure on the regime, particularly if opposition elements in Israel pick up on this, and it's already happening."
In order to become a UN member state, Palestine, currently only a permanent observer in the global organization, must first gain a recommendation in the form of a resolution from the UN Security Council. The U.S is one of the five permanent members of the council, and has indicated that it will use the veto power that comes with permanent status to prevent such a resolution from passing.
Alternatively, Abbas could seek a lesser level of UN membership, non-member observer statehood, by skipping the Security Council and going straight to the General Assembly, where Palestine's statehood already has plenty of support.
FEELINGS OF FRUSTRATION AND WINDS OF CHANGE
Schleifer said that the timing of the proposal for UN statehood is in part prompted by the mounting frustration of Palestinians at the lack of progress in peace talks with Israel.
"Suddenly, I'm sure, just from talking with Palestinian colleagues, that there is a sense among Palestinians of almost desperation, that they are being left behind, that the focus for the achievement of a Palestinian two-state solution, a Palestinian state living alongside an Israeli state based on negotiations, has collapsed," he explained.
Direct negotiations between Israel and Palestine have been suspended since Oct. 2010, when Israel decided not to renew a moratorium on settlement building in the West Bank, prompting Palestine to disengage. The September 2011 deadline for a peace settlement set by the diplomatic Quartet for the Middle East -- comprised of the UN, the U.S., the Russian Federation, and the European Union (EU) -- will also come to pass soon, without any concrete progress thus far in bringing the parties back to the negotiating table.
Another factor in Palestinians'growing frustration has been the Arab Spring, Schleifer said.
"Now, while you could say that the Arab Spring has yet to be as transformative as its ambition, it nevertheless has led to the downfall of the previous president of Tunisia and a commitment by transitional powers that there will be elections," he said. "Same thing in Egypt, and in Libya it has led to what looks like the end of the Gaddafi regime. So these are momentous changes that are taking place in the Arab world."
These dramatic changes, according to Schleifer, have likely only made the political stagnation in Palestine more conspicuous to its people, including Abbas.
"He's very self-conscious I think of the overall atmosphere of change in the Arab world, which dramatizes the lack of accomplishment in terms of achieving a Palestinian state through negotiations," said Schleifer of the PNA president.
He also noted that Abbas has called for the demonstrations favoring a Palestinian seat at the UN to be peaceful, directly echoing the non-violent tactics used in several Middle Eastern and North African nations during the Arab Spring protests.
The Palestinian delegation's proposal for statehood has prompted responses of support from the Arab world and many countries beyond, but Israel and the U.S. have expressed decided disapproval.
Netanyahu has deemed the Palestinian steps to gain statehood at the UN "unilateral," saying that direct peace negotiations must be concluded with Israel before such a measure can be taken.
"The leadership of the Palestinian Authority has consistently evaded peace negotiations with Israel," Netanyahu said in a statement. "When the Palestinian Authority abandons these futile and unilateral measures at the UN, it will find Israel to be a genuine partner for direct peace negotiations."
Abbas has explained that Palestine would still like to re-enter negotiations under the right conditions, including a guarantee that the peace process would begin with the 1967 borders, and that Israel would not allow new settlements to be built on occupied lands.
He has said that he does not believe that seeking statehood at the UN would contradict bilateral peace talks or make them null and void.
"We want to gain the full membership from the UN in order to resume the peace negotiations on the permanent status issues, mainly the question of refugees," he said in a Sept. 16 televised speech on his statehood plans.
Schleifer said that although Abbas'decision to make a run for statehood has further antagonized Israel and the U.S. for the time being, in the end it may help the peace process resume by exhibiting, on the most global of platforms, how alone the two nations are in their objections to Palestine's statehood.
Even if the U.S. exercises its veto power to end the statehood run in the Security Council, according to Schleifer, the staggering number of countries that would disagree with the veto would be proof enough of widespread international support for Palestine's goal.
"It isn't actual statehood but it's a recognition of the validity, of the desire for statehood, that would be manifest in a seat at the United Nations and manifest in a vote because we are all assured that the United States will veto that, therefore they are not going to have a seat as a member of the United Nations," said Schleifer. "But they will have this sort of global attention to the way and the fact that just about everybody outside of the governments of Israel and the United States believes that it's time for a Palestinian state and that will be reflected in the UN General Assembly vote, which will be overwhelming."
Schleifer said that this may make Israelis and Americans rethink their governments'stances on Palestine.
"The basis of the twostate solution is there, its sitting in the air so to speak and it would take an aroused Israeli public and an aroused American public which may happen with these events to say, 'Wait a minute, what is going on? Why are we allowing ourselves to become so isolated?'and certainly that's a pressing question for Israelis," he said. "So that's where I think the Palestinian leadership is hoping that there will be more movement above and beyond satisfying the emotional needs of their own people to see some accomplishment."
A SECOND OPTION
Even the lesser upgrade of Palestine to a non-member observer state would be, in Schleifer's estimation, a viable alternative that would still make a comparable point to Israel and the world.
"There's no loss in that as long as they go from the point of view of Palestinian leadership refusing to knuckle under to American and Israeli demands," he said.
As a non-member observer state, like the Vatican, Palestine would not be allowed to cast votes, but it would be allowed to greater participation in the affairs of the UN and potentially the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Schleifer said that possible ICC membership is particularly significant because it would allow Palestine to exercise legal remedies against Israeli officials who they believe have violated international law.
"This would now make it very formal if they go to the international court," he said.
"Also there's another fact, which is establishing a precedent, and that is a number of countries, which are now member states of the United Nations started out as non-member states."
If Palestine becomes a non-voting member state, it will still have a path to full statehood. Nations like Finland, Bangladesh, and Vietnam have completed this transition successfully in the past.
Schleifer said that Abbas will no doubt stress these examples to Israel and Palestine if his bid does not pass the Security Council.