Phyllis Bennis: In a vote of 138 to 9, UN General Assembly votes to give Palestine status of a non-member state.
Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC. She is the author of Before and After: US Foreign Policy and the September 11 Crisis , Ending the US War in Afghanistan: A Primer and Understanding the US-Iran Crisis: A Primer.
Paul Jay, Senior Editor, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
In New York on Thursday afternoon, the United Nations General Assembly made what many people consider a historic vote, raising the status of the Palestinian authority from a nonmember entity to a nonmember state. The vote was 138 yes in favor of the resolution, nine no, and 41 abstentions.
Now joining us to talk about the significance of this vote is Phyllis Bennis. She’s a fellow and director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She’s the author of many books, including Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer and Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the UN Defy U.S. Power. Thanks for joining us.
Phyllis Bennis, Fellow, Inst. for Policy Studies: Good to be back.
Jay: So how important a decision is this?
Bennis: Well, it’s important in two ways. The international sort of institutional importance is not that it’s going to change anything about the Palestinians’ presence at the UN. They still will not be members of the UN and they still will not be able to vote or to introduce resolutions. What they will have is a recognition from the UN General Assembly—a very high body of the UN—saying, you’re a state; you’re a nonmember state, but you’re a state.
The significance of that is that it gives them the opportunity to use that status of a state to do other things, most notably, to sign the Rome Treaty creating the International Criminal Court, and thus become a member of the International Criminal Court. As a member of the court, there’s at least the possibility—if there were to be political will, there’s at least the possibility that they could initiate an effort to bring criminal charges against Israeli officials, military and political, and potentially even U.S. officials, who may be responsible for supporting them, for enabling them, and for funding them for war crimes that may have been committed on Palestinian territory. That’s a long way off, it’s not going to happen anytime soon, but it’s an interesting step towards that.
The other significant reason has nothing to do with the UN and everything to do with internal Palestinian politics, and that is that particularly in light of the recent brutality of Israel’s attack on Gaza, when the Hamas-led government in Gaza emerged much stronger, managed to get a ceasefire, got an agreement from Israel (although it hasn’t been implemented yet) to pull back, to allow Palestinians access to their own land, Hamas’s stature has gone up significantly in the Arab world as a whole, and certainly among Palestinians.
The concomitant side of that is that the status, the stature of the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas, has been diminishing in recent years because they’ve not been able to produce anything through their participation in the U.S.-backed so-called peace process. Having said that he was going to go to the UN and get this status changed, Abu Mazen really had no choice. If he had pulled back at the last minute as the U.S. had urged him to do, he would have had nothing. He would have been toast. So he really had no choice. This was about maintaining whatever shreds of credibility he’s got left.
Jay: Right. Now, if you look at who voted how here, many European countries voted yes and broke with the United States on this and broke with Israel. England and Germany at the—England abstained at the last minute, apparently. Germany changed its vote and went from a no to an abstention. But Canada’s been out there very much in the forefront supporting Netanyahu and Israel’s position on this and spoke at the UN. What was that like? We have a lot of Canadian viewers for The Real News, and I think they’ll be particularly interested in Canada’s role in all this.
Bennis: The Canadian foreign minister was the only other opposing view to speak at the debate on Thursday afternoon following the Israeli. The Palestinian president spoke first, the Israeli ambassador spoke next, and then it went to Canada. It was an extraordinary thing, because Canada hasn’t been that public in the UN context on this issue. But certainly in the last couple of years, since you’ve had a new government in Canada, there’s been a great deal of effort on the Canadian side to follow the U.S. lead in an absolutist defense of Israel. And this was one more example of that going forward.
The nine—we didn’t get to see quickly enough exactly who voted who. The vote was just a few minutes ago, and I haven’t seen the whole breakdown. But as I can tell, the nine votes against were the United States, Israel, Canada, Panama, four small island states that are all completely dependent on the United States (Micronesia and Nairu and others), and the Czech Republic. As far as I can tell, those were the nine. And it’s very significant that the U.K. and Germany, which would have been the last holdouts for opposing votes among the Europeans, at the end came on board and agreed to abstain, not try to make it look as if they were opposed to it. So the—most of the Europeans—well, I don’t know yet. I think most of the Europeans were in the abstention category, more than were in the yes votes.
But it’s an overwhelming statement: 138 yes to nine no. Despite a significant number of absentions, that’s still a pretty overwhelming statement.
Jay: Right. And do you think the Israeli government cares? I mean, how responsive, how vulnerable are they to this kind of international public opinion?
Bennis: Yeah, you know, they’re clearly not vulnerable to international public opinion. They’ve made that very clear over the years. Until and unless the U.S. abandons its absolutist support for Israel, they don’t care what the world thinks. As long as they know that Washington has their back—and they still know that—they’re not interested in what the world thinks. What happened here, and the reason that we saw a relatively soft response, certainly from the U.S.—Susan Rice sat with her mouth closed the entire period of the General Assembly—the UN camera kept going back to her, and she was sitting silently, didn’t say a word, and of course didn’t speak publicly at the hearing, during the vote.
But I think that what we’re seeing is a recognition in the last couple of days that they were not able to do what they have always done in the past, which has been to intimidate other countries even when there’s no veto in the General Assembly. The U.S. has made threats against other countries. We already saw it this afternoon. Even before the vote, there were three separate bills already pending in the U.S. Congress, two of them in the Senate, that called for a series of punishments against the Palestinian Authority, cutting 50 percent of the aid, against any UN agency that recognizes this new status, cutting their dues by 50 percent, and, crucially, cutting 20 percent of U.S. foreign aid to any country that had the audacity to vote in favor of Palestinian rights. It was an extraordinary thing, because they passed that this afternoon, or at least it was introduced—I’m not sure if it’s been passed yet—even before the vote was held.
But despite all of those threats, what’s different now, because there is a different world out there—public opinion is different, and, crucially, the Middle East is different—the statement from the foreign minister of Turkey, who is the last country representative to speak before the vote, was greeted with huge applause and a great deal of enthusiasm as he spoke about being part of the Palestinians, we will never abandon you. It was a very powerful speech.
But with all of that, what became clear was that for Israel and the U.S., their fear had stopped being this is going to work to they might use this to go to the International Criminal Court. In fact, Britain publicly called on the Palestinians to promise they would not try to join the International Criminal Court, and said, if you do that, maybe we’ll vote yes. The Palestinians, to their credit, said, nothing doing; we’re not going to have our rights dismantled before we even get them. So this was the big thing that Israel and the U.S. were afraid of. They’re afraid of accountability. What makes it possible for Israel to continue its war crimes is knowing that the U.S. will prevent any real accountability in the UN or in the International Criminal Court. If the Palestinians are able to go to the court on their own, that’s a whole different ballgame, and Israel does not want to play.
Jay: And which now they are. Thanks very much for joining us, Phyllis.
Bennis: Thank you. Always a pleasure.
Jay: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. Don’t forget we’re in our year-end fundraising campaign, a matching grant. Every dollar you donate gets matched until we reach $100,000. We’re getting close. There’s a Donate button over here. If you click on it, we can keep doing this.