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Fight for votes as Security Council meets on Palestine

Sept. 30, 2011 6:45 P.M. (Updated: Oct. 5, 2011 12:57 P.M.)
By: Jared Malsin
UNITED NATIONS (Ma'an) -- Palestinian and American officials are waging a diplomatic tug-of-war for the votes of a handful of countries as Palestine's application for UN membership faces a crucial test in the Security Council.

Officials and experts say the United States is using diplomatic pressure to convince Security Council member states to vote no or abstain, with the aim of preventing the PLO from securing a majority in the 15-member council.

“This is a huge diplomatic battle. It will be continued with massive pressure in the capitals of the countries in the Security Council,” said Riyad Mansour, the PLO’s ambassador to the UN.

China, Russia, India, Lebanon, and South Africa have all declared support for the Palestinian bid. Brazil is also expected to vote for the measure.

The United States has threatened to veto the application out of support for Israel, but it would not have to exercise this option if the PLO fails to win the backing of a majority, saving Washington the political consequences of publicly blocking a measure believed to enjoy the support of most of the world’s nations.

With diplomatic wrangling underway, particular attention from both sides has focused on three countries perceived to be swing votes: Nigeria, Gabon, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, all of which have recognized Palestine bilaterally but have not declared which way they will vote.

Mansour declined to say how he expected these countries to vote. “What we know is that we have nine states that have recognized the state of Palestine in the Security Council,” he said.

“I also know there is a power that is threatening to veto,” he added, referring to the US.

“We have friends in the Security Council and we expect the Security Council to show its responsibility with respect to Palestine,” he said.

Mansour said earlier this week that the PLO would be sending high-level delegations to the capitals of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Gabon and Nigeria in the coming weeks with aim of countering the US diplomatic effort.

On Friday, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted an unnamed Palestinian official as saying President Mahmoud Abbas would travel to Colombia next week as a part of the same diplomatic push.

Abbas submitted his country’s application, a set of documents that includes a declaration of statehood, to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last Friday. Ban transmitted these documents to the Security Council the same day. On Wednesday the Security Council referred Palestine’s application to its admissions committee for consideration.

The council's admissions committee, which includes representatives of each of its 15 members, met Friday to examine the application before returning the matter to the full council.

Given the known controversy over the Palestinian application, the admissions committee is unlikely to reach consensus anytime soon, which could force a vote in the Security Council.

To pass the Security Council all resolutions need nine votes and no vetoes from any of the body’s five permanent members: Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.

As the negotiations proceed, officials from the undeclared states have refused to hint at their potential future votes.

“We are waiting for instructions from our capital,” said Adi Durmi, a spokesman for the Permanent Mission of Bosnia-Herzegovina to the United Nations. Asked Tuesday when he expected to receive orders from Sarajevo, he said, “We are expecting it every day.”

Representatives of the UN missions of Gabon, Nigeria, and Colombia did not return calls. A spokesman for the US mission also did not respond to requests for comment.

Gabon and Bosnia-Herzegovina still 'shaky'

John Whitbeck, an international lawyer who has advised the PLO in negotiations with Israel, said that of the nine Security Council member states that bilaterally recognize Palestine, only Gabon and Bosnia-Herzegovina were still “shaky” in their position on UN membership.

“The one that worries me most is Bosnia, simply because I don’t know how decisions are even made in Bosnia: you have a three-headed presidency, one Muslim, one Serb, and one Croat, and you have a civil servant who can fire all of them,” he said.

“How actually the decision is going to be made is very murky. And of course the US still has troops there and probably all sorts of ways to intimidate the Bosnians,” he added in a phone interview from Paris, where he lives.

As for Gabon, Whitbeck noted that the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat maintained good relations with Omar Bongo, father of current Gabonese president Ali Bongo.

He also said, “It would be very awkward for any African country, when only three African countries out of more than 50 do not recognize the state of Palestine, to have one of the two African representatives, itself having recognized Palestine, vote no.”

Further confusion surrounded Nigeria’s position on the Palestine application after both Israeli and Palestinian officials claimed the West African country’s support.

Speculating on the thinking of officials from the undeclared countries, Whitbeck said, “When people are getting intense pressure from two sides on any issue they may be telling each side what it wants to hear and keeping their options open.”

In the event that their application is blocked by the Security Council, the PLO is also keeping its options open too. Mansour said the PLO is weighing a number of possibilities, including taking the issue to the General Assembly, which has the ability to upgrade Palestine from its current status as an observer entity to an “observer state,” a UN status equivalent to that of the Vatican.

Whether the PLO’s application succeeds or not, the political implications of UN membership, or upgraded status, remain unclear. Israel has vowed not to recognize Palestine except as a result of direct negotiations, meaning a UN vote would not alter the reality of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Abbas, however, has said he launched the UN bid out of frustration with the US-brokered negotiation framework. Abbas has also not yet explained what his strategy will be after Palestine’s UN application is addressed.

Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the Palestine Center think tank in Washington, said the aftermath will depend on the American and Israeli reaction to a potential UN vote.

“The outcome of this bid is going to have less impact than the way the United States and the Israelis respond to it, and also the domestic pressures that are going to be facing the leadership in Ramallah,” said Munayyer.

Members of the US Congress have threatened to cut funds to the aid-dependent Palestinian Authority if it wins UN membership. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has called for the cancellation of the Oslo accords, the 1993 peace agreement which led to the creation of the PA.

Regardless of the outcome, Munayyer believes the UN bid has exposed the US’ inability to act as a neutral arbiter in the Israel-Palestine question.

Because of this exposure, he said the UN initiative “can be a game-changer because it makes returning to Washington-led negotiations for the Palestinian leadership that much more difficult.”

“We know that the United States is working really hard to try to make sure that they don’t get the nine votes, so they won’t have to use their veto, which in itself is a very interesting thing because the United States in the past has never shown a hesitation to be the only vote in the Security Council in support of Israel.”

He also said: “I think what that says to us is that the Palestinians truly hit a nerve with the United States and in the wake of the revolutions going on in the region is truly doing this (opposing the Palestinian bid) recognizing their waning influence in the region.”

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