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Diplomatic triumph, cash losses await Palestinians at U.N.

Palestinians wave flags during a rally in support of President Abbas' efforts to secure a diplomatic upgrade at UN. (Reuters)

By AFP | 28 Nov 2012

The Palestinian bid for U.N. recognition on Thursday could bring president Mahmud Abbas new diplomatic weight and tools but also cost his people hundreds of millions of dollars in much-needed cash.

Abbas is assured of triumph at the U.N. General Assembly when he seeks backing for his bid to go from “observer entity” to “non-member observer state. “The United States and Israel will not be able to spoil his big day.

Victory will not give the Palestinians a vote at the 193-member assembly. But they will be able to join a number of U.N. agencies and sign treaties for which the U.N. secretary general is the record keeper.

The vote “implies recognition of statehood and it gives them certain privileges” and “a certain prestige,” said Vera Jelinek, dean of New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.

The Palestinians will be able to go to U.N. conferences open to all states and to vote like other states. The Vatican used its observer status to raise sensitive issues at U.N. conferences on women and population.

The most valuable prize for Abbas, however, could be recourse to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The prospect of an ICC prosecutor looking into Israeli actions in Gaza and the occupied West Bank is one of the Israeli government’s major worries from Thursday’s vote, according to diplomats.

And it is a threat which Palestinian U.N. envoy Riyad Mansour dangled at the U.N. headquarters on Tuesday.

If Israeli authorities do not “respect resolutions of the Security Council, continue to illegally build settlements, which is a war crime from the point of view of the ICC and the Rome statute, then we will consult with all of our friends” over how to bring Israel into compliance.

The ICC is not a U.N. agency, though. The signatories of the Rome statute which set up the ICC would have to carry out their own vote first to accept the Palestinians, diplomats said.

ICC membership could be “a little trickier”, according to Jelinek. “I am not sure whether it would accept a ratification from an observer state in the U.N.”

Abbas wants super-observer status at the U.N. to boost Palestinian recognition and force Israel back into talks which have been frozen for more than two years. The United States and Israel say the UN vote will change nothing and that Palestinians must return to talks without conditions.

The United States and Israel could also inflict financial damage on the Palestinians -- who are suffering from a grave economic crisis -- and any U.N. agency where the Palestinian Authority gains membership.

US law bans financing for any international body which recognizes a Palestinian state. When the Palestinians were voted onto the U.N. Cultural and Educational Organization (UNESCO) last year, the US administration had to cut more than $70 million in funding.

The United States is also the biggest single provider of development funds to the Palestinians. But about $200 million have been blocked by Congress, and the State Department warned this week that it could be difficult to release the money if the U.N. vote is successful.

Israel has not directly threatened sanctions but has warned there will be fallout from the vote. It is contemplating suspending the transfer of tax and customs funds it collects for the Palestinians to “toppling” Abbas’s regime, as a foreign ministry policy paper proposed last week.

European Union nations fear that they will have to give the Palestinian Authority extra cash if sanctions are inflicted. They also worry about rise of Hamas and other radical groups in the Palestinian territories.

“It is really not worthwhile for the U.S. and Israel to weaken Abbas,” said Jelinek. “And if the U.N. assembly does not approve this he will be weakened in the eyes of his people.”


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