Joining the push for lasting peace
For Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, wins on the world's diplomatic stage tend to be rarer than heatwaves in Tasmania. But on Thursday the United Nations is almost certain to vote to upgrade Palestine's status from ''permanent observer'' to ''non-member observer state'', handing President Abbas and his government a political boost - if at the cost of provoking a fierce backlash from Israel. An affirmative vote also has the potential to isolate and even embarrass the United States. This is because Palestine will be eligible to join UN agencies like the World Health Organisation, UNICEF and UNESCO, and under a law passed in 1990 the US government is prohibited from funding any agency that recognises the Palestinians as full members. Palestine will also be able to raise allegations of war crimes or territorial violations with the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice respectively, potentially straining its relationship with Israel and the US even more.
Given the vote's problematic outcomes (including the possibility the US government will cut funding to the Palestinian Authority, it might be wondered why Mr Abbas bothered. Falling popularity at home - and a poisonous rivalry with Hamas, the group that governs the Gaza Strip - are possible answers. A more obvious explanation is that the Palestinian Authority felt it had nothing to lose by seeking greater international recognition of its aspirations for statehood. It has been obvious the Middle East peace process is moribund, and that the prospects of restarting negotiations on a two-state solution are close to zero. Indeed, some commentators have now declared a two-state solution to be a practical impossibility as a result of Israeli settlement building in the occupied territories.
Mr Abbas explored the possibility of full recognition by the UN last year but abandoned the plan after it became obvious the US would exercise its vote in the Security Council to veto the bid. If an inferior outcome, partial recognition will still be celebrated as a victory by ordinary Palestinians, the more so since they have obviously had little to rejoice about in recent years. The granting of non-member observer status will have little practical effect on their lives, however. Nor will it alter the region's always fragile geopolitical fault line.
Israel's right-wing government says it will resume talks if Hamas ceases terrorist attacks against its citizens and agrees to recognise Israel's right to exist. Its actions in authorising and condoning new settlements in the West Bank do not appear to be those of a party particularly anxious for peace. The Palestinian Authority sensibly recognised the state of Israel in 1993. The chances of Hamas - funded and patronised by Iran's authoritarian and avowedly anti-Zionist regime - doing the same in the interests of furthering peace efforts do not appear to be good. Indeed, there is a possibility this vote will cause Hamas to intensify its anti-Israel rhetoric and perhaps embolden other terrorist elements operating in Gaza.
Palestinian statehood is an entirely worthy cause, though some members of the international community have tied themselves in knots balancing support for this outcome while opposing efforts by the Palestinian Authority to seek UN recognition of their aspirations. This is, in part, because of the contradictory nature of the two governments that rule the separate parts of Palestine - Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Fatah, a secular organisation that recognises Israel's right to exist, is known to be a corrupt and ineffectual ruling party. Hamas, which the US State Department rightly includes on its list of foreign terrorist organisations, is a democratically elected government popular among Gaza Palestinians for its social welfare programs but which thinks nothing of indiscriminately firing rockets into Israel.
Like its counterparts elsewhere in the developed world, the Gillard government has struggled to strike the right balance in the Middle East while maintaining its strong, even unequivocal, support of Israel. On Tuesday, Labor MPs (with the strong support of senior party figures like Gareth Evans and Foreign Minister Bob Carr) prevailed on cabinet to ensure Australia would abstain from the UN vote rather than oppose it as Prime Minister Julia Gillard wanted. The shift seems based not on any great sympathy for Palestine's leaders but rather on the plight of their long-suffering citizens. Exasperation with the stonewalling methods of recent Israeli governments may also have been a factor. Most Australians are strong supporters of Israel but a resumption of peace talks is long overdue. This vote, though largely symbolic in effect, may push matters along.