In a vote that tilted overwhelmingly in favor of the decision, Palestine was awarded the status of non-member observer state in the United Nations last Thursday. The vote was widely interpreted as a rebuke targeted at Israel and the United States, as well as a show of support for Palestine.
138 countries voted in favor, nine opposed, and 41 abstained. Those in favor included France, Spain, Italy, and Switzerland; Canada was the only major country to join the United States and Israel in opposing the diplomatic upgrade. The United Kingdom and Germany were among those abstaining.
“Today’s grand pronouncements will soon fade and the Palestinian people will wake up tomorrow and find that little about their lives has changed,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice said later that day. The United States and Israel both tried to play down the significance of the UN vote in the days following, portraying it as largely symbolic at best and detrimental to the peace process at worst.
What could prove much more damaging for the peace process, however, is Israel’s overblown retaliation against the vote. Just one day after Palestine’s victory in the U.N., Israel announced its intentions to build settlements in a hotly-contested area east of Jerusalem, referred to as “E1,” as part of an obvious attempt to punish Palestine.
The settlements planned for this area are particularly controversial because they would simultaneously split the West Bank in two and cut off Palestine’s access to East Jerusalem, which Palestinians hope will someday be their capital. American and European officials have advised the Israelis against settling in the area since the late 1990s, and have referred to it as a “red line.”
So far, the most the United States has done has been to gently remind Israel that the intended settlements will set back peace efforts, despite the fact that Israel’s plans fly in the face of previous U.S. criticism of the project. The U.K., France, Spain, Denmark and Sweden, by contrast, have summoned Israeli ambassadors to their countries to discuss the settlements; France and the U.K. in particular are quietly considering the possibility of recalling their ambassadors to Israel if the government does not cave to international pressure.
President Obama’s relations with Netanyahu have been strained at times, particularly over questions of settlements, but this particular development will be the real test of U.S. commitment to Israel. Will the United States remain at Israel’s side, quietly murmuring protests even while defending its actions to other nations, or will the United States finally side, publicly and unequivocally, with the rest of the international community as they rapidly lose patience with Netanyahu’s antics?
Though it’s all very dramatic, I doubt that this question of settlements will come to more than a public spectacle of finger-pointing and side-choosing, because there is still a chance that the settlements will never actually be built. The announcement to build them was largely a bid to drum up domestic political support for Netanyahu with Israeli elections fast approaching, and with enough international pressure, he may simply abandon the plan if and when he secures the office.
Palestine, for its part, has mainly sidestepped the settlement issue, instead choosing to focus on more promising routes to punishing Israel. Back in 2009, the Palestinian Authority attempted to have Israel investigated by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for possible war crimes, but the petition was rejected because Palestine did not have statehood. With its newly upgraded U.N. status, Palestine may now have the tools it needs to challenge Israel in the international legal forum, and a spokeswoman for the ICC has stated that it is reconsidering Palestine’s case.
However, Palestine’s newest bid for international recognition raises some thorny issues regarding the new state’s leadership. Can the Palestinian Authority even bring these charges, given that the alleged crimes occurred in Gaza, which its rival Hamas controls? The two groups were largely cooperative leading up to the U.N. vote, with Hamas backing the bid as Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas made it, but Hamas was quick to criticize the speech made by Abbas afterwards, which he used as an opportunity to take jabs at both Hamas and Israel. Palestine’s two jockeying governing groups may prove liabilities against themselves as the new state attempts to move forward with its legal pursuit of Israel.
The root of the problem, of course, lies in the fact that Hamas is considered a terrorist group by the United States, Israel, and the European Union, and therefore its leadership is unwelcome in many international forums, making Abbas the effective representative despite the fact that Hamas rules all of Gaza after having won power through a combination of popular vote and military victory. Unless the United States and the other nations drop their designation of Hamas as a terrorist group or Hamas simply hands over power to the Palestinian Authority—both very unlikely options—the two groups will have to set aside their political squabbles and cooperate to form a legitimate representation for all of the Palestinian people that is also tolerable for the international community.
Palestine’s first concern, before it starts entering the international community through as many doors as it can find, should be sorting out the disagreements between its two leadership groups. Until Palestine gets a handle on its divided leadership, its ability to reap the rewards of its new status and the international support it conveys will be limited.
—Stacey Nieves ’15 is an English major.