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WRMEA, December 2011, Pages 17-18

United Nations Report

Washington Impaling Itself on the Horns of a Diplomatic Dilemma

By Ian Williams

williamsPalestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (l) formally submits papers for admission to the U.N. as a member state to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during the U.N. General Assembly’s meeting in New York City, Sept. 23, 2011. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

In the twisted chains of events in the Middle East, one set of links is clear. Almost 500 Palestinian prisoners—and Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit—released on Oct. 12, with a second group of 555 Palestinian prisoners to be released later, owe their freedom to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' determination to push the U.N. membership issue. Binyamin Netanyahu could have freed Shalit any time on these same terms—but the Palestinian statehood issue, for psychopathological reasons we have discussed earlier in these columns, rattles the Israeli prime minister and his supporters so much that he was prepared to give Hamas a boost against Fatah with the release.

Those of us who savor fine hypocrisies will also relish the irony of long negotiations resulting in a political boost for a movement with which Israel says the rest of the world should have no contact. One almost looks forward to the arrest, indictment and trial of Israeli leaders on their next visit to the U.S., where people are serving long sentences for much less substantial contact and support for Hamas related organizations!

However, back to the main issue, Palestine's application for U.N. membership is now languishing in a Security Council subcommittee, few of whose members seem eager to bring the issue to a head. No matter what the Obama administration does now, it is cruising for a diplomatic bruising. While U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice is not as pugnacious as her predecessor John Bolton, or indeed James Baker, in rounding up votes in the U.N., the Obama administration has been trying hard—despite Washington's weakened clout—to persuade vulnerable states that it is in their best interests not to vote yes in the Security Council. If the resolution accepting Palestinian membership does not garner nine positive votes, then—in the spirit of the toddler who hides behind the drapes and can't understand that everyone can see his feet sticking out—the U.S. hopes to escape the contumely it richly merits for vetoing a resolution fulfilling the wishes expressed by the president just a year earlier.

Twenty years ago, the U.S. scarcely felt the need to justify what it wanted. Now, over-extended militarily, wobbling financially, its carrots are stringy and its stick detumescent, so it has to explain why Russia is being unreasonable in blocking the membership of Kosovo, recognized by about half of the U.N., while a White House-threatened veto of membership for Palestine, recognized by more than two-thirds of U.N. members, is statesmanship of a high order.

Indeed, inquiring minds might well compare the Russian and Chinese vetoes against action in Syria to prevent repression, with those by the U.S. against any resolution that even mildly criticizes Israel for documented repression in the occupied territories—as listed by the State Department's own annual reports on human rights and religious freedom!

And more Israel Lobby-induced mayhem was heading down the turnpike toward Washington, with UNESCO's scheduled late fall vote on its board's recommendation for Palestine's full membership status in the agency's general council. Forty of the 58 board members backed a Palestinian draft resolution proposing membership, with the U.S. among four voting against, and 14 abstentions—countries which do not really oppose it but don't want to upset the U.S.

The Vatican Precedent

This has a double significance. Firstly, the Vatican's convoluted route to acceptance as a non-member observer state at the U.N. began with it being "smuggled" into membership of the Universal Postal Union (UPU) by the devotee who headed the organization at the time. After all, the Vatican had its own stamps—a nice little earner—and its own radio station, which got it into the International Telecommunications (then Telegraph) Union. It was never allowed to join the League of Nations, nor for many decades would Washington countenance U.N. membership—but the Vatican had a long-term strategy, as one would expect, on how a postage stamp state with a population of a few hundred celibates could get more recognition.

The U.N. invited members of the specialized agencies to participate, but not vote, in the General Assembly and, nudged along, gave such entities, which included Switzerland for half a century, a vote in conferences.

Echoing the issue of whether President Abbas represents the PLO, Palestine, or the Palestinian Authority, it is the Vatican City which is a member of the two U.N. agencies. Half a century ago, however, it switched the name of its U.N. observer mission to the Holy See—then separated the Holy See as the Catholic Church from the Holy See as the entity holding sovereignty over the Vatican City!

In a little noticed move in 2004, the General Assembly upgraded the Vatican's status from an entity—Palestine's current designation—to a non-member state. The U.S., which opposes such status for the several million Palestinians, did not object.

So, under existing rules, membership in UNESCO would take Palestinian participation out of the special case situation it currently occupies as a result of 20 years of diplomatic war by attrition, and bring it under general rules that the U.S. and Israel would have no chance of overturning.

Renewed Assaults on the U.N.

But there is, of course, more. After some years of the puzzling sound of silence regarding the U.N., some of the Republican right and their Democratic allies whose hearts beat as one with the Likudnik pacemaker have been building up for a renewed assault on the U.N. and all its works. They have passed legislation that would require the U.S. to pull its funding—and membership—from any body that gives "full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood." The legislation is of course weaselly worded to mean Palestine—but not the Vatican—while interestingly leaving Taiwan in limbo.

That would present an interesting quandary for Hillary Clinton, who, visiting UNESCO headquarters in Paris this year, declared, "I am proud to be the first secretary of state from the United States ever to come to UNESCO, and I come because I believe strongly in your mission." That dilemma could be resolved immediately, of course, if the president and the State Department determined that in fact Palestine does have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood. After all, Kosovo, under U.S. sponsorship, has joined the World Bank and IMF—which should, if U.N. membership were the determinant, have the U.S. pulling out and defunding those organizations as well. Looking at the damage they have done worldwide, that might not be such a bad idea—but in any case, no one has brought it up hitherto.

The diplomatic dilemma on the horns of which the administration is impaling itself becomes more barbed with each passing denial of reality.

By U.N. custom, once one agency has accepted a member, all other U.N. agencies also accord it full rights, as the Vatican demonstrates. Since the World Bank and IMF are quantum U.N. agencies—in and out at the same time, depending on what suits them—Kosovo cannot yet lever membership there into other U.N. agencies. UNESCO membership, however, like the UPU, opens the doors to all the others.

So the U.S. can either pull out of all the U.N. agencies this administration holds dear—including the U.N. itself—if the General Assembly accepts the Holy See way to Palestinian participation, or it can accept Palestine as a state under international law. Washington could, of course, suggest that the case be referred to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague for an advisory opinion. That, however, would then imply accepting other ICJ judgements, such as the one against the U.S. mining of Nicaragua's harbors—and on Israel's occupation wall.

A Hard-Hitting Report

The latter, of course, is long overdue. On Sept. 16, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon submitted the report requested by the General Assembly on Israeli settlement activities. Citing instance after instance of violent discriminatory behavior, the hard-hitting report "seeks to underscore the discriminatory nature of the Israeli policy and practice of promoting settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. While illegal settlement expansion continues to take place in the West Bank, restrictions on Palestinian construction and the demolition of Palestinian homes have been on the rise. The report also addresses settlers' violent acts against Palestinians and their properties during the reporting period and the discriminatory treatment of Israeli settlers and Palestinians in law enforcement. The involvement of Israel Defense Forces in acts of violence, either through their participation or inaction to prevent the acts, is discussed as a growing concern."

But perhaps most timely for those expressing shock and horror at the Palestinians undertaking due process to secure the rights as a state that most nations grant them is the report's conclusion: "The General Assembly and the international community should more actively seek the implementation of their decisions, resolutions and recommendations, as well as those of the Security Council, the International Court of Justice and the United Nations human rights mechanisms, including treaty bodies and special procedure mandate holders, in relation to the situation of human rights and international humanitarian law in the occupied Palestinian territory."

It puts in perspective the U.S. threat to defund all Palestinian activities in retaliation for the statehood bid—as, indeed, does the promise to increase aid to the state that is defying not only the U.N., but U.S. pleas, and continuing to build settlements.


Ian Williams is a free-lance journalist based at the United Nations and has a blog at <www.deadlinepundit.blogspot.com>.

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