Don't be surprised if PA vote is abandoned

By Sir Malcolm Rifkind - Thursday 15th 2011f September 2011

Palestinian Efforts to encourage a United Nations recognition of statehood are borne out of impatience and frustration. The peace process has come to a grinding halt in the last three years and there is little sign that a marked improvement will be forthcoming.

Those in favour of an early recognition of statehood have a reasonable argument. While there are many refugees around the world, and national minorities who are citizens of countries they would wish to sever from, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are the only places whose permanent residents remain stateless. They are not yet Palestinian nationals and they cannot be considered Israeli citizens.

Some alteration of the status quo must happen at some time. Most observers recognise that the creation of a Palestinian state is an essential component of any lasting peace agreement. Anxiety, however, has been expressed about the nature of the process being employed.

Some fear allowing developments of such prominence to occur outside of a formal dialogue will encourage other unilateral efforts. Others fear passage of the resolution will raise expectations beyond what is feasible, agitating public opinion in the territories.

These are reasonable fears. Yet these concerns should not be exaggerated. For one thing, this cannot be said to be a unilateral declaration of independence, for Yasser Arafat already adopted such a move in 1988 which had little effect. Moreover, only recognition of statehood is being contemplated. The granting of full UN membership would require a Security Council motion for which sufficient support does not exist. Lastly, a UN resolution will do little to change the facts on the ground. A de facto Palestinian state will only emerge when recognised as part of a peace deal by the parties themselves.

While the wording of the motion has yet to be finalised, it is likely that any recognition will be based on the 1967 borders. Adoption of the motion would therefore give UN endorsement to a two-state solution as the only viable solution to the conflict. Holders of uncompromising and maximalist positions would be undermined, especially Hamas, which detests the prospect of a permanent state of Israel.

It might also be the case that recognition of statehood at the UN would strengthen the Palestinian Authority, as opposed to Hamas, in its efforts to become a counterpoint to the Israeli Government.

Israeli policymakers have long sought to generate both symbolic and tangible improvements in the status of the Palestinian Authority as the chances of a negotiated agreement depend on a counterpart capable of acting on behalf of the Palestinians as a whole. Passage of the motion could strengthen its legitimacy in the eyes of Gaza and West Bank residents, allowing it to demonstrate real progress.

Voting on motions of this kind always place countries in a difficult position. It is especially so on this occasion. Britain will be acutely aware of its allies' key concerns. France and Germany are keen to maintain a "united front", while the United States will want as many countries to join it in opposition as possible. In addition, the Foreign Office will be torn between its long standing support for Israel and its desire to see the creation of a Palestinian state.

However, it is worth noting that the final choice is rarely so stark at the United Nations. A myriad of options exist to amend, defer and reconsider such motions.

We could well see a situation in which some reference is made to Palestinian statehood, followed by a longer period of consideration. Indeed, do not be surprised if the much heralded vote does not take place next week.

I am not enthusiastic about this Palestinian initiative and would be pleased if it were withdrawn. However, the success of a UN Resolution on statehood will neither do as much good as some want nor as much harm as others fear.

Ultimately, peace between Israelis and Palestinians will depend on negotiations between them. Nothing will change that reality.