Israel’s standing in the United Nations continues to deteriorate as the Palestinian voice grows stronger. The overwhelming vote by the UN General Assembly Tuesday (124 to 4) upgrading the Palestinian’s status gives Palestinian representatives the power for the first time to raise issues regarding the peace process before the 185-member international body.
It also allows the Palestinian’s “observer mission” to co-sponsor UN resolutions for the first time — under the name “Palestine.” But the upgrade stops short of giving Palestinians full membership privileges, such as voting in the General Assembly.
While Israel’s leaders and supporters sought to downplay the UN action, American Jewish leaders admitted it is symbolic of a return to the days of Israel as a pariah state at the UN.
“It’s getting really bad again,” said Harris O. Schoenberg, director of UN affairs for B’nai B’rith International.
“I think we’re headed in that direction,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “It’s back to those days of very close scrutiny of every Israeli move and an overwhelmingly automatic majority against it.”
Indeed, only Micronesia and the Marshall Islands joined the U.S. and Israel in voting against the upgrade. Ten nations abstained, including Poland and Romania. England, Australia and Turkey voted for the upgrade.
American Jewish groups criticized the UN vote as yet another blow to the comatose peace process. Some observers called it one more step on the inexorable road to Palestinian statehood.
“When a Palestinian state is announced, the newspapers will have timelines of events leading up to it, and this will be a blip on that chart,” said Judith Kipper, co-director of the Mideast program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
The UN vote comes on the heels of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement of a plan to expand Jerusalem, angering Arab nations. Some Jewish leaders said the initiative helped exacerbate the size of the UN upgrade approval.
Jewish leaders were also concerned this week that a draft resolution is circulating in the powerful 15-member UN Security Council to condemn Israel for its plan to expand Jerusalem’s municipal borders to some West Bank settlements.
“I think the focus on the Jerusalem resolution is more important” than the upgrade, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. He said a Jerusalem resolution could force a confrontation next week between the U.S. and Israel.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian’s UN observer, Nasser al-Kidwa, hailed the Tuesday vote as a “small victory for Palestine.” He said he hoped in the near future for “a big victory” — when the Palestinians would be made full members, with voting power.
Overshadowing all this is the threat by Al-Kidwa’s uncle, PLO president Yasir Arafat, to declare statehood in May 1998 if no final peace agreement is reached with Israel.
Israeli officials including Netanyahu and UN Ambassador Dore Gold downplayed the importance of the UN upgrade on Tuesday calling them “technical changes.” They thanked the U.S. and European Union nations for working to weaken the resolution.
Netanyahu and Gold emphasized the fact that the Palestinians had failed to win full UN status, as they had sought.
Further, they declared that the Palestinians quest for the upgrade itself amounted to a violation of the Israeli- Palestinian peace accord, which calls for bilateral agreement on changes in status.
“It represents a violation of the Oslo agreement,” Gold told The Jewish Week. “We are pointing that out, and that it comes at a bad time.”
Netanyahu said he was “satisfied that the Palestinian effort to upgrade their standing at the UN to virtually the status of a state did not succeed.”
Gold refused to call it an upgrade but rather “an improvement in certain rights and privileges that are largely technical in nature.”
He contended that even after passage of the UN resolution the PLO “remains in the same status as was before in the UN system — it remains an observer organization only.”
But Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-Rockland), chairman of the House International Relations Committee, thought the vote to give “additional privileges” to the PLO was serious enough to call “deplorable.” He called it “a slap in the face to a sovereign state” that will only undermine the peace process.
AJCommitee’s director of international affairs, Jason Issacson, said “There is no getting around it — it is an upgrade.”
And B’nai B’rith’s Schoenberg, the only full-time Jewish organization representative to the UN, said the upgrade signifies a symbolic achievement for the Palestinians.
“They are going to be able to participate in general debates, and they can make points of order on Middle East issues,” he explained.
“They will now be seated next to Switzerland and the Holy See [representing the Vatican],” which are full observer states. Their name can be listed as co-sponsors [on resolutions]. It means a psychological boost to them every time they see the name ‘Palestine’ on a resolution.”
Schoenberg chided the UN for constantly changing its own rules and procedures to accommodate the PLO. “They are treating the PLO special, ever since 1974,” when it was first granted observer status by the General Assembly, enabling it to have a New York office, but not the same privileges as UN member states.
Even more, Issacson said the vote symbolized the return to the days of constant UN actions against Israel — before the peace process flowered in 1992 under the late Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin.
“I think unfortunately we’ve returned to an old phase many of us had hoped had changed for all times,” he said.
U.S. Ambassador Bill Richardson indirectly criticized the Palestinian Authority for seeking the resolution instead of pursuing its negotiations with Israel.
“Supporting unilateral gestures which will raise suspicion and mistrust between negotiating partners will not take us closer to our goal,” he said.
Kipper said the UN vote may “make the Israeli government more intransigent. They will say it breaks Oslo, that it represents outside interference.”
In the longer term, she said, it will be part of a cumulative process that will provide international backing for the Palestinians “in May when a Palestinian state is announced. When the international community has accepted it, what can Bibi do?”
Washington correspondent James D. Besser contributed to this report .