Palestinians Press Their Case to Upgrade Status at the U.N.

The Palestinians appear determined to press their claim to statehood at the United Nations.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright this week failed to convince the Palestinians to halt their effort to upgrade their status at the world body from observer to what is called “near state.”

Instead, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat told Albright that he would ask supporters at the United Nations to delay a General Assembly vote on the measure until next month.

Sudan, acting on behalf of the Arab states, apparently agreed. Discussion has tentatively been rescheduled for July 7.

Since 1974, the Palestinians have been represented at the United Nations by an observer mission of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Israel has worked feverishly against the move by the Palestinians to change their status, as has the United States.

Israel argues that such a move violates the Oslo peace accords, which call for the parties to negotiate the final status of a Palestinian entity.

If successful, the PLO, whose name was changed to “Palestine” at the United Nations in 1988, could attain most rights accorded a state, including the right to sponsor resolutions.

It would not, however, be able to vote.

The issue last surfaced in December, when the U.N. General Assembly voted against the Palestinian request.

“We view this as a serious violation of the Oslo agreements,” Dore Gold, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, said in a telephone interview.

Gold would not say what retaliatory measures Israel would take if the Palestinians succeeded, but said that “it makes it much more difficult” to move forward on the peace process.

U.S. officials agreed.

“We oppose enhanced status for the PLO in the General Assembly. The PLO is not a state and should not enjoy rights tantamount to those of a state,” said Jamie Rubin, the State Department spokesman.

Echoing Israel’s concerns, Rubin said that U.N. action “will only encourage the parties to be less flexible, it will harden their positions and make it less likely that the peace in the Middle East could be advanced.”

The United States’ veto power over Security Council resolutions does not apply to General Assembly decisions.

The United States is calling on other members of the General Assembly to oppose the PLO’s move, arguing that “passing such a resolution will set a dangerous precedent that could be copied by others, and it would overturn decades of practice and precedent in the General Assembly,” Rubin said.

Officials in Jerusalem have warned that Israel may shut the United Nations out of regional activities such as multilateral peace talks if the body upgrades the PLO mission.

The deputy director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry told reporters in Jerusalem on Wednesday that raising the PLO status could ultimately lead to a situation in which its position was enhanced over Israel’s.

Because Israel is not included in any regional grouping at the United Nations, it has difficulty getting elected to U.N. institutions, said Yitzhak Lior, whereas it is likely that the Palestinians would be able to participate in such groupings.

“Obviously, it creates a paradox that there may be a situation in which the PLO would have an enhanced status to Israel,” Lior said.

After Gold, Israel’s ambassador, briefed the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations during an emergency conference call this week, the umbrella group of American Jewry weighed in on the debate.

“The U.N. should not allow itself to become a venue for undermining the peace process by conferring on the PLO a status that provides attributes of a state,” the group said it wrote in a letter Thursday to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The effort “puts in doubt the Palestinian Authority’s commitment to bilateral negotiations with Israel,” the group’s leaders said in a statement.

As Gold lobbied U.N. ambassadors for support and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu contacted his counterparts from European nations — many of whom support the Palestinian effort — Israel faced criticism on another front at the United Nations.

Arab states have circulated a draft resolution criticizing Israel for a plan announced last week to expand the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem.

The U.N. Security Council could hold a meeting as early as Friday on the matter.

The United States remains sharply critical of the Jerusalem plan but opposes a Security Council discussion.

“It might feel good to engage in such an exercise at the United Nations, but it will do bad to the peace process,” Rubin said.

Countries that pursue this “will only harm those they claim they are supporting.”

But while the Clinton administration focused most of its attention on the PLO status at the United Nations, Rubin also renewed his criticism of Israeli actions that the United States opposes on similar grounds, such as the expansion of Jerusalem and the building of settlements.

“This Palestinian measure would constitute exactly the kind of unilateral action that we have asked both parties to avoid and would therefore undercut our efforts to get Israel to refrain from such acts as well,” the State Department spokesman said.

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