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The benefits and risks of Abbas's historic moment

Date
Upgrade likely … the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, at UN headquarters on Wednesday.

Upgrade likely … the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, at UN headquarters on Wednesday. Photo: AP

WASHINGTON: The President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, returns to the United Nations to seek an upgrade in status in the 193-member General Assembly to ''observer state'', a move opposed by the US and Israel because of the implied recognition of a Palestinian state. Mr Abbas is scheduled to speak at 3pm Thursday in New York (6am Friday Sydney time), and a vote will take place soon after.

Q

What status do the Palestinians now have at the UN?

A

The Palestine Liberation Organisation has been a permanent observer since 1974, giving it the right to speak in the General Assembly. It doesn't have voting rights. The European Union is another entity with observer status, yet unlike the PLO, it has been given almost all the rights of a member state. The Holy See, the diplomatic name for the Vatican, is alone in being a sovereign state with observer status.

Q

What are the benefits for Mr Abbas in a status upgrade?

A

The resolution ''decides to accord to Palestine non- member observer state status'' - an implicit form of statehood that puts the Palestinians on par with the Holy See. It means the Palestinians can join UN agencies and sign treaties, such as the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court. With its new status, the PLO may pursue ICC membership and seek legal action against Israel for alleged human-rights abuses in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In April, after the Palestinian Authority sought to grant the court jurisdiction, the ICC said that could only be done by a recognised state, a requirement the PA didn't meet. The office said the criteria were ''reflected in General Assembly resolutions, which provide indications of whether an applicant is a 'state'''. Passage of the ''observer state'' resolution does not require other nations to recognise Palestinian statehood bilaterally since General Assembly actions are considered only advisory statements.

Q

What will this move cost the Palestinians?

A

At stake is continuation of a US aid package that has averaged $US600 million a year ($574 million) since 2008, according to a November 21, 2012 report by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, the research arm of Congress. Of that total, about $US200 million has been for direct budgetary assistance and approximately $US100 million for non-lethal security assistance. The rest, roughly $US300 million, goes to project assistance. Also, US law requires cutting off US funding to any UN agency that recognises a Palestinian state. A day after UNESCO granted Palestinians membership last year, the US halted funding for the UN cultural agency best known for its designation of ''world heritage'' sites. Israel plans to withhold 800 million shekels ($199 million) of tax revenue it would normally transfer to the Palestinians, and use the funds to pay their debt to Israel Electric Corp.

Q

Will the resolution for the status upgrade pass?

A

Yes. At least 120 nations have already recognised a state of Palestine, so they exceed the simple majority needed for passage. The Palestinians are seeking a two-thirds majority to highlight the level of support for their cause. The US, Israel and Canada are among the countries that will vote against it. No country has the right of veto in the General Assembly.

Q

Can the Palestinians obtain full statehood membership?

A

Yes, but only by going through the UN Security Council, the 15-member executive body in which the US has veto power; the US has indicated it will use it. Mr Abbas attempted to go down this route last year but was forced to abandon it due to US opposition. To become the 194th UN member state would have required approval by the Security Council, followed by a two-thirds majority (129 member states) vote in the General Assembly. Only sovereign states can recognise other states. According to Chapter II of its 1945 Charter, the UN may only admit countries as members. Still, membership at the UN is widely recognised as confirmation of statehood.

Q

Is there no way around the Security Council?

A

Yes, but it is a long shot. Resolution 377, known as Uniting for Peace, was passed in 1950 during the Korean War to break a deadlock. It was a US initiative to circumvent the Soviet Union's actions against UN measures to defend South Korea. The rarely used mechanism enables a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly to override the Security Council and its veto-wielding members when the 15-member decision-making body ''fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression''. An International Court of Justice advisory opinion said the Palestinians could not invoke the measure to override US opposition in the Security Council. The Palestinian leadership has stopped discussing this alternative.

Q

How does Hamas, which controls Gaza, fit into this?

A

Hamas is not part of the PLO, which is taking the action at the UN, so this won't directly affect its standing. Mr Abbas's action is supported by Hamas, which the US, European Union and Israel regard as a terrorist organisation.

Q

How did Israel's bid for statehood go?

A

Israel was recognised by the UN in 1949. In its first attempt in 1948, it failed to win the necessary majority in the Security Council. A year later - following armistice agreements with Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon - its membership was cleared by the Security Council and it was admitted by 37 votes in favour, 12 against, and nine abstentions in the General Assembly.

Bloomberg

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