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A Palestinian move for UN membership makes waves in Israel and America

Over the past year, coverage of the conflict between Israel and Palestine has been dominated by news of peace talks falling apart, the battle between Israel and Hamas in Gaza over the summer, and ongoing clashes in Jerusalem. In the background, though, the Palestinian Authority has been continuing its slow push for diplomatic recognition.

It started with a bid for full membership of the United Nations in 2011. That failed, but in 2012, Palestine was given "non-member observer status" by the UN, which was seen as a major development. This allowed Palestine to participate in General Assembly debates, and increased its chances of joining UN agencies like the International Criminal Court (ICC). Meanwhile, Palestinians have pushed for different individual member states to recognise Palestine's statehood; several European governments have done so this year.

The latest stage in this diplomatic push is a Palestinian-Jordanian proposal to the UN Security Council calling for an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank by the end of 2016. France, working with Britain and Italy, has also put forward a proposal calling for a two-year deadline for reaching a permanent agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, with a list of principles attached. The requirements include borders based on 1967 lines, land swaps, and making Jerusalem the capital city of both states.

The proposals have caused anxiety in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other members of his government oppose Palestinian involvement at the UN vehemently, as well as international recognition of Palestinian statehood. Despite the fact that Israel is now in the early stages of an election campaign, Netanyahu is travelling to Rome this week to meet US Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss the UN vote. The Israeli premier is demanding that America uses its veto for any measure that requires a vote. However, it is not definite that this will happen.

Why? Well, President Barack Obama and Netanyahu do not have the best personal relationship. Secondly, the vote puts America in an awkward position. The US is working with numerous Arab states to fight against the militant group ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and will not want to alienate its allies in the region by vetoing the Palestinian proposal. It is for this reason that the White House has been applying such intense pressure on PA President Mahmoud Abbas to withdraw it, and stave off a situation where it has to vote at all. This pressure has not worked.

During a press briefing this week, the Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat played hardball. He said that in the event of an American veto, the Palestinians would seek membership of the ICC. On Monday, the ICC upgraded Palestine's status to "non-state observer", a mainly symbolic move that also gives it the option of ratifying the Rome Treaty, which would allow it to have full member status. Palestinian membership of this court is a particular concern for Israel, as it fears it would be taken to task for war crimes.

The US has cautioned Palestine against taking unilateral action in the UN, and Israeli officials have argued repeatedly that such a move would undermine any chance of a negotiated settlement. However, given that years of peace talks have ended in nothing; that the Palestinian territories remain under occupation after decades; that more and more land is lost to settlements every month; and that the US is not seen as a neutral broker in peace talks, it is difficult to make a good argument against seeking peaceful, diplomatic redress in an international forum.

"We are working to internationalise our cause," said Erekat. Referring to the votes in favour of recognising Palestinian statehood in various European countries, he pointed out that people are telling Israel, "Enough is enough." Whether the UN Security Council upholds the joint proposals remains to be seen.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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