UN vote gives Palestinians new diplomatic powers

When the weak November sun rose on the West Bank city of Ramallah on Friday morning, it revealed, naturally enough, a city little changed from the night before.

Palestinian society remains divided politically and geographically between the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and the West Bank governed by the Palestinian Authority (PA).

The economic weaknesses remain of course, as do all the difficulties of living under an Israeli occupation, which stretches back to the Six-Day War in 1967. And of course there is the chronic problem of the moribund peace process with Israel.

For all those reasons the decision of the UN in New York to upgrade the status of the Palestinians by an overwhelming majority could be seen as largely symbolic. But the point is that in the Middle East, symbolism matters.

Plenty of attention in the build-up to the vote was centred on a technical question about UN procedures which could have far-reaching political implications - would this upgraded status give the Palestinians access to UN agencies including the International Criminal Court?

If it did, then they would be able in theory to pursue Israel for its settlement policies on the West Bank - widely seen as a clear breach of international law.

Israel rejects that legal interpretation - but it may not be anxious to see the issue tested in court.

Even if the Palestinians didn't decide to exercise that option immediately, the threat that they might do so at a moment of their choosing would be a powerful diplomatic tool.

Israeli officials say all of this is already pushing back any prospects of peace talks. Palestinians I've spoken to argue that process was already so moribund that it was simple common sense for them to pursue an alternative path.

Israeli reprisals

In the build-up to the vote in New York, Israel worked hard to derail the Palestinian strategy - or at least to try to ensure the backing of a network of powerful allies.

But that strategy failed - France voted for the Palestinians, and both Germany and the UK abstained.

The United States naturally remained in Israel's corner but, alongside it, was to be found largely a small collection of diplomatic minnows including the Western Pacific Territories of Palau and Micronesia.

There is a natural tendency at such moments to look forward and try to work out what events in New York might mean for the future of the two-state solution and relations between Israelis and Palestinians in general.

But it's worth looking at last night's vote in New York as a snapshot of where international sentiment lies right now on an issue which has bedevilled global diplomacy for decades.

Palestinians see the scale of the vote as clear evidence that a tide of opinion is turning their way. Whether they can translate that sentiment into some sort of concrete political progress is hard to determine.

And nothing in the Middle East is simple.

The recent conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza would have boosted the standing of the Palestinian militant organisation in the eyes of the Arab world.

It is the more moderate PA based in the West Bank which has invested in the diplomatic strategy through the UN.

So some of the countries which abstained on the vote or voted for the Palestinians may have intended to boost the more moderate secularists of the PA against the Islamists of Hamas rather than the Palestinians in general against the Israelis.

It's not yet certain how Israel will respond to its diplomatic defeat. It may delay any reprisals until it's clear when and in what circumstances the Palestinians would make their move on the issue of the International Criminal Court.

Having failed to block the Palestinian bid - or rally a large number of significant countries against it - Israel suddenly switched its own diplomatic tack earlier this week and began playing down the significance of the proceedings in New York, in effect hoping that toning down its own response would somehow play down the Palestinian achievement.

A first indication of Israeli anger, though, came less than 24 hours after the vote was taken at the UN.

A senior Israeli official confirmed that the government is approving the construction of 3,000 new homes in settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and speeding up the processing of 1,000 existing planning permissions.

The Palestinians may well have been expecting this - or something like it - but it's a reminder that the gulf between the two on the settlement issue remains huge - and that events in New York and this reaction to them will do nothing to solve it.

It's also worth re-iterating that a shift in status at the UN to the same status as that enjoyed by the Vatican won't fix a single road or feed a single child here in the West Bank or in Gaza.

But symbolism really does matter.

And on that subject, here's a final point to consider.

We have grown used to referring to this dispute as one between Israel - the proper noun denoting a nation state - and the Palestinians - the use of a collective noun describing a people rather than a defined political entity.

Does the UN's upgrade mean that the use of the title Palestine for that entity now enters the daily lexicon of diplomacy and journalism? And if it doesn't, when does it ?

Something for them to ponder over in the foreign ministries and editorial conference chambers of the world in the coming days.

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