Following a month of contradictory statements from various Palestinian Authority (PA) officials, on September 5 Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas confirmed that he would seek non-member observer status for Palestine at the United Nations when he addresses the General Assembly on September 27. In his announcement, he pointed to support for the bid from the Non-Aligned Movement, the Arab League's Council of Foreign Ministers and the Islamic states. Yet the Palestinian approach still seems hesitant and half-hearted, suggesting a lackluster result even if the UN vote goes in Palestine's favor.
As in 2011, when Abbas petitioned for full UN membership, the PA appears to lack political commitment to its own bid; instead, it appears to be using it for tactical purposes. It is noteworthy that the Non-Aligned Movement, which issued three statements concerning Palestine at the end of its conference in Tehran this past August, did not formally commit its 120 member states to supporting the UN bid. This probably reflects the fact that the PA has not fully made up its mind to proceed with the UN application, and so has not formally requested a collective commitment from the movement.
The PA has a good chance of securing the simple majority vote it needs in the 193-member General Assembly, but last year's experience among the non-permanent members of the Security Council shows that some states in the Non-Aligned Movement may oppose or abstain if they come under sufficient US pressure. The PA assumes that all countries that have already recognized Palestinian statehood — 126 at present, according to the Palestinian count — will automatically support a bid at the General Assembly, but this may prove to be overly optimistic.
Much depends on the European position. Palestinian officials have claimed that some members of the European Union (EU) have threatened financial sanctions if the Palestinians go ahead with their bid. This reverses the position that the EU took in 2011, when it promised to support the PA if the Palestinians applied for non-member status at the General Assembly. European and US opposition in 2012 may be related to the timing: With presidential elections less than two months away, the Obama administration cannot afford to accommodate any type of Palestinian application to the UN, and the Europeans are reluctant to support a bid that will necessarily bring them into open conflict with the American position.
So the UN vote could be much closer than the PA may wish or choose to acknowledge. And even though the stakes are much lower now than they were in 2011 (since the PA no longer seeks full UN membership), Israel and the US could still impose financial and diplomatic sanctions. Israel, which this month transferred nearly $60 million in advance tax credits to the PA to ease its financial crisis, could decide to delay future transfers for several months at a time, as it has done more than once in the past. It could also tighten restrictions on Palestinians' movement within the occupied territories, having issued a record number of permits for entry to Jerusalem and to Israel from the West Bank and Gaza last month. The US could increase the conditions and restrictions on its assistance to the Palestinians as it did in 2011, a threat that is higher in an election year. The PA is also likely to face a renewed congressional move to close its representative office in Washington, DC.
Partly for this reason, and even at this late stage, the PA has not yet determined whether to go through with a formal application. It has good reason to hesitate. The US presidential election might be won by Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who is more likely than President Barack Obama to adopt a punitive stance against the PA in response to populist pressure from his party's strongly pro-Israel, evangelical base. Even if Obama is returned to office for a second term, the clear trend in Congress has been to adopt the outlook of the Netanyahu government in Israel and to endorse right-wing Israeli causes.
What remains entirely unclear is what the PA intends to do next, whatever happens at the UN. In 2011, one of the most regrettable outcomes of the abortive UN bid was the deflation of the two-year state-building plan launched by the PA's prime minister, Salam Fayyad, in 2009. Instead of being a moment when the PA could confidently challenge the US and the EU to deliver on their promises to support Palestinian statehood, brandishing reports from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund confirming the institutional readiness of the PA for independence, the poorly conceived and short-lived UN bid effectively elbowed the Fayyad plan to the sidelines.
So far, the Palestinian leadership has shown no signs of being better prepared to deal with the possible consequences of their bid this time around. It could do worse than to heed the remarks of Robert Serry, special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, to the Security Council on September 17. With another deadline for reaching a settlement looming at the end of the year, as well as a political stalemate and an unstable situation on the ground, he said, "the time has come for the international community to seriously reassess its role in resolving the conflict."
It is about time that the PA learned this lesson, too.
Yezid Sayigh is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. This piece also appeared in Arabic in Al-Hayat.