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Israel Downplays U.N. Decision to Upgrade Status of Palestinians

July 8, 1998
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Israel is downplaying the significance of a resolution passed this week in the U.N. General Assembly that gives Palestinians additional rights in the world body.

Speaking after less than an hour of discussion and a 124-4 vote on Tuesday, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Dore Gold, called the resolution’s passage an “empty success” for the Palestinians.

For their part, the Palestinians called it a “small victory” and said they looked forward to full-state status in the future.

The Arab-sponsored resolution grants the Palestinians the right to participate in the General Assembly’s general debate and the right to co-sponsor draft resolutions and decisions on Palestinian and Middle East issues, among other privileges.

But the Palestinians are excluded from the right to vote or to put forward candidates for U.N. committees.

In an original draft of the resolution, which was brought before — and deferred by — the General Assembly seven months ago, the Palestinians had pushed for an upgraded status closer to statehood.

Gold credited pressure from the United States and the European Union — which he said Israel considers a friend despite its support for the resolution — in curtailing some of the Palestinians’ demands.

Gold stressed that the Palestinian retains its status as an observer mission, which was first granted to the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1974.

The PLO’s status was changed in 1988 when the General Assembly voted to designate the PLO as “Palestine.”

“There has been a change in small technicalities,” Gold said in a brief interview after the vote, “and that’s all.”

Among the rights the Palestinians had sought but did not get was the right to sponsor draft resolutions. In the resolution that was approved, they are only allowed to co-sponsor such measures, and only on topics relating to the Middle East. In addition, any such measure can only be voted upon at the request of a member state.

In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said of the U.N. resolution: “They achieved certain improvements, which are far from what they had wanted.”

The United States, the Marshall Islands and Micronesia joined Israel in opposing the resolution. Ten countries abstained from voting.

In perhaps the most colorful appeal before the vote, the representative of Swaziland, who abstained on the resolution, appealed to the General Assembly to encourage renewed negotiation rather than a U.N. resolution “to ensure that peace prevails in the Middle East.”

Speaking with sympathy about the Palestinians, Moses Dlamini said, “When all the doors are locked, you try to go through the roof, through the window. But what happens when you go through the window? You break your bones, you break your head.”

In their statements delivered before the vote, both the United States and Israel stressed that the Palestinian effort at the U.N. threatened to undermine the bilateral basis of the Arab-Israeli peace process.

In his remarks, Gold pointed to the preamble of the resolution as a misrepresentation of previous U.N. resolutions, particularly the 1947 recommendation to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states.

He said, “It is ironic that at that time every Arab state, including Palestinian leadership opposed Resolution 181,” which called for the partition.

During Tuesday’s session, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson, told the assembly that “supporting unilateral gestures, which will raise suspicion and mistrust between negotiating partners, will not take us closer to our goal.”

He warned that supporting the “flawed proposal” would overturn “decades of practice and precedent in the General Assembly” by encouraging other non- members and observers to pursue claims for enhanced status.

The Palestinian observer himself, responding to the vote, revealed greater aspirations.

After two false starts at addressing the assembly in Arabic — in which he said “raise” and then “enhance” — Nasser al-Kidwa switched to English to thank supporters for their decision to “upgrade” his mission’s status.

He called Tuesday’s vote a “small victory” and said he hoped the General Assembly would accept Palestine as a member state as early as the General Assembly’s 53rd session, which opens in the fall.

“That shall be the big victory,” he said.

Some member states who voted in favor of the resolution, including Canada and Australia, stressed that their support had no bearing on the issue of Palestinian statehood, which they said must be determined in negotiations, as was indicated in the Oslo peace accords.

Speaking on behalf of the European Union, Austria’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ernst Sucharipa, said in a telephone interview that, rather than making a political statement, the resolution represents a “practical accommodation of the necessities of daily work of an observer delegation in the United Nations.”

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