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Palestine: The role of recognition

Mahmoud Abbas: one man and a letter.
Photo by Abode of Chaos under a CC Licence.

While populations across the Middle East take to the streets in defiance of stubborn regimes, Palestinians have, for the time being, chosen a different path. As night fell on Friday, thousands amassed in Ramallah’s main square, but all eyes were on the large screen that connected the West Bank to New York, as Mahmoud Abbas delivered Palestine’s bid for recognition as a state with full membership to the United Nations.

The bid, which will first go to the Security Council for approval, is not a direct cry for liberation but for legitimization. After years of stalled negotiations with Israel, it proposes that the State of Palestine must come before a state of peace. But although the submission by Abbas signaled the start of formal procedures, few harbour any illusions about the immediate outcome.

A vote from the Security Council is likely to be delayed in the hope of encouraging Israel and Palestine back to the negotiating table. Beyond that, the vote will almost certainly fail. The US have already made clear their intention to use their power as a Permanent Security Council member to veto Palestine’s bid and so prevent it from achieving full membership.

But for once, the US does not hold all the chips. Palestine has the opportunity to turn to the UN General Assembly, where at least 120 member states have individually recognized the State of Palestine. However, despite the fact that this equates to the majority of the world’s population voting in its favour, they are only able to offer a minor upgrade from Palestine’s current status: from a 'UN observer' to a 'non-member state', similar to the Vatican. Although a positive step, the practical consequences will be less significant as Palestine already holds a lot of additional privileges, bolted on over the years, to its 'observer' status.

In the light of these options, there doesn’t seem much to celebrate. Even among the Palestinians, there is a fundamental acceptance that UN recognition will not change daily life. So why is the bid it so important to them? And why has there been a frantic attempt by Israel to stop Abbas from reaching the UN?

Historically, the recognition of statehood has been both a product and producer of international relations and diplomacy. It has political and legal ramifications. A transition for Palestine from a UN observer even as far as a non-member state based on the 1967 borders would affirm its position as a state under occupation. It could also offer Palestine better access to the International Criminal Court; deeply concerning for Israel as it could be brought to account for the deaths of civilians during the 2008/9 war on Gaza.

Beyond the legal and political consequences, there is a more humble act of affirmation being sought, which is just as crucial, despite its simplicity. For the Palestinians, whose national narrative is one of challenged identity and enforced isolation, acceptance from the UN is an essential source of empowerment. In the same way that Israel is buoyed by international support, this is a chance for Palestine to say: ‘We too have friends. We are not as alone as you would like us to be’. To this end, the standing ovation that Abbas was given at the end of his speech was one of the most important things that happened on Friday.

The applause in Ramallah was equally crucial. It signaled a surge in Palestinian popular approval of the President, which has been thin on the ground. A solemn leader, shy of emotive language, Abbas is no Arafat. The leak of the Palestinian Papers back in January, detailed hefty concessions to Israel during negotiations and left Abbas scorned by many. Yet his persistence in delivering the bid into the hands of Ban Ki-moon, along with his speech, peppered with key references to the Palestinian struggle for liberation, has been widely celebrated.

Yet the reach of recognition is bound to fall short in the case of such a prolonged conflict. For the five million displaced Palestinians, especially those living as refugees in neighbouring Arab states, the bid represents a dangerous moment in history, when borderlines are drawn that may not include them. Hamas and their supporters reject the bid entirely, insisting that the State of Palestine cannot be begged for but has to be won.

But any UN recognition will be hard won. It has taken nerve to defy US threats and a powerful Israeli counter-campaign to get to this point. While their neighbours are redefining themselves through mass revolution, Palestinians are seeking change in the guise of one man and a letter. The question is now, after the applause has faded, will they be rewarded for this move?

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