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Palestinians step up UN efforts

Palestinians step up UN efforts

5 min. 14.03.2012 From our online archive
Emboldened by their admission to the UN's cultural agency, the Palestinians plan to seek membership in other international bodies as part of their campaign for statehood.

(AP) Emboldened by their admission to the UN's cultural agency, the Palestinians plan to seek membership in other international bodies as part of their campaign for statehood.

They also are looking into a parallel and contradictory track: Having lost hope in peace talks with Israel, the Palestinians are threatening to dismantle their government in the West Bank — a move that would confront Israel with the uncomfortable prospect of directly ruling millions of Palestinians.

For now, though, the focus is on the United Nations. Elated by UNESCO's decision to grant them membership, jubilant Palestinian officials said on Tuesday that they wanted to seize the momentum and expand their presence at the United Nations.

"We have gotten a precedent that might open the road for us to join other agencies," said Ibrahim Khraishi, the Palestinian envoy to the U.N. in Geneva. He said the Palestinians are now studying whether they can join 16 other UN agencies.

Palestinian officials said that after Monday's UNESCO vote, Palestinian Health Minister Fathi Abu Mughli was so excited that he rushed to the local offices of the World Health Organisation to get information on joining.

The moves come as the Palestinians are increasingly seeking unilateral moves toward statehood that would bypass peace talks.

A key test of those efforts could come as soon as next week. The Palestinians have asked the UN Security Council to grant them full membership in the United Nations, and a vote is tentatively set for November 11.

The United States, as a permanent member of the powerful council, has promised to veto the request. But the Palestinians are still trying to rally the required nine-vote majority that would trigger the veto, believing that would give them a moral victory by placing the US at odds with most of the international community. It remains unclear whether the Palestinians can muster the votes.

If the Security Council bid fails, the Palestinians will instead seek the lesser status of a UN non-member observer state, like the Vatican. This would require approval by the General Assembly, a virtual lock in a 193-member chamber dominated by pro-Palestinian developing countries.

Israel and the United States have opposed the Palestinian attempts to win UN membership, saying that peace can only be reached through negotiations.

UN membership would not change the situation on the ground, but the strong international endorsement of the Palestinians' goals would isolate Israel and likely boost the Palestinian position should peace talks resume.

Omar Awadalla, who oversees UN affairs at the Palestinian Foreign Ministry, said experts are already hard at work assessing which UN bodies they will be eligible to join.

Officials believe that even as a nonmember state, the Palestinians could join influential international bodies such as the World Trade Organization, the World Health Organization, the World Intellectual Property Organization, the World Bank and the International Criminal Court.

While membership on some of these bodies would be largely symbolic, other agencies could provide a platform for the Palestinians to push their agenda. Last year, for example, UNESCO infuriated Israel by defining West Bank holy sites sacred to both Jews and Muslims as "Palestinian."

Israel is especially concerned about the Palestinians joining the International Criminal Court, fearing they would try to pursue war crimes cases against Israeli officials.

The Palestinian prospects of being admitted to the other organizations is unclear, with each having its own admission procedures and political context.

In Jerusalem, Yigal Palmor, spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry, said the Palestinian strategy could cause grave damage to the workings of the United Nations by trying to "hijack" any agencies they join to press an anti-Israel agenda.

He warned the Palestinian effort would be a "dismal omen" for direct negotiations because the ability to accomplish their goals through UN votes would eliminate the incentive for Palestinians to engage in peace talks, leading to continued tensions.

The Palestinians have turned to the United Nations after nearly two decades of peace talks that have repeatedly been derailed by violence and intransigence — and have yielded an autonomy government but not full independence.

They say they will not return to the negotiating table until Israel halts settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem and commits to basing the future borders to its lines from 1967, when it captured the two areas and the Gaza Strip, which is currently ruled by Hamas militants. The Palestinians claim all of these territories for a future state.

Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, opposes a full pull back to the 1967 lines and has refused to freeze settlement building. His office announced on Tuesday that 2,000 new apartments would be built in and around east Jerusalem, a move officials said was in answer to the recent unilateral moves.

While the Palestinians are focused on their UN strategy, officials have quietly begun preparations for what is widely seen as their doomsday weapon, to be used when other options run out: dismantling the Palestinian Authority and placing Israel, as the occupying power, in charge of running the West Bank.

The internationally backed Palestinian Authority was formed in the 1990s as a temporary autonomy government. Frustrated with the deadlock in peace efforts, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recently appointed a committee to look into "handing the keys" back to Israel, officials say.

"All the Palestinian institutions are busy with this issue and are expected to come up with clear answers by the end of the year," said Azzam Ahmed, an aide to the president. "We have to answer this question: Are we an Israeli arm, serving the Israeli security, the Israeli occupation, doing what the occupation should do?"

Critics have charged that the Palestinian Authority enables Israel to continue the essence of the occupation — but makes it more palatable for Israel by maintaining security, handling civilian matters and bestowing a more legitimate veneer on the situation.

Despite the threats, the odds seem slim that the Palestinians would take the plunge. The Palestinian Authority receives hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid each year and is the biggest employer in the Palestinian areas, with tens of thousands of workers.