What the UNESCO Vote on Palestine Really Means

By Ziad Khalil Abu Zayyad

In a development that gave the Palestinian leadership a significant hand up, the United Nation’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) became the first international organisation to admit Palestine as a full member last week despite strong opposition from several member countries.

This is the first reward for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ efforts to see Palestine accepted as a member into key international organisations.

While this achievement has not changed the reality on the ground, and despite the gap between Israelis and the Palestinians being wider than ever, the UNESCO vote suggests an opportunity for the UN to become a positive agent of change in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The UN, in charge of protecting human rights and democratic values across the world, is the most appropriate international body to take up an important role in helping both sides reach an agreement. A growing role for the UN could bring certain advantages over other actors, such as the Quartet on the Middle East and the United States.

Even though the UN is currently represented in the Quartet (along with the United States, Russia and the European Union), it may be more effective as an independent actor in the peace process. The Quartet – which is currently trying to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians – suffers from a lack of trust on the part of the Palestinians, with several Palestinian officials commenting that it is failing to bridge the gaps between the sides.

The Quartet’s ineffectuality may be due to the fact that the positions within it mirror Israeli-Palestinian dynamics, with half the members supporting the Palestinian approach, and the other half supporting the Israeli approach. Thus, the Quartet remains divided and ineffectual.

Both the United Nations’ General Assembly (UNGA) and the Security Council (UNSC) may be able to offer a more effective form of international involvement in which a greater range of international actors are represented. However, as things stand right now there is a growing rift between the UNSC, where the Palestinian bid will likely meet with a US veto, and the UNGA, which is much more likely to accept the Palestinian membership bid. Rather than face such an awkward standoff, shouldn’t the two bodies work together to shape a constructive role for themselves in the peace process, a role that is likely to be more dynamic and therefore less likely to end in a deadlock?

The UN has a good foundation to build upon as, along with many Palestinians and Israelis, it agrees on the principle of a two-state solution. Why not enable the UN to fulfil its designated role of helping to solve conflicts and protect human rights and international law?

Despite the price – the UNESCO vote has prompted the Israeli government to announce the construction of 2,000 housing units in the settlements and East Jerusalem, and withhold taxes collected for the Palestinian Authority — for many Palestinians the strategy of pursuing greater international involvement may be the only hope left for generating a process that will eventually end the historical conflict.

The UN General Assembly and other UN organisations are clearly in the process of becoming much more vocal on the subject. Although the United States has condemned UNESCO’s move, saying it is only a symbolic achievement that brings no concrete gains for either side, with the current situation of increased settlement building and the Palestinians moving further away from the negotiating table, there is a role for symbolic achievements to keep hope alive that a solution to the conflict is possible.

From the Palestinian point of view, anything that functions to keep the idea of two states high up on the agenda and put pressure on both sides to move forward is welcome.

Time is running short, however. The moderate Palestinian leadership is in danger of losing the support of the street for its diplomatic approach if it doesn’t bring significant results. Moreover, the region is witnessing tectonic developments with the Arab Spring and escalating tensions between Iran and the West over Iranian ambitions to move forward with its nuclear projects. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in danger once again of being overshadowed, providing yet another opportunity to miss an opportunity for both sides.

The UNESCO recognition of Palestine is a sign that there is a will among many in the international community to push towards a two-state solution. Now is the time for that community to promote the understanding that compromise is necessary to achieve a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Ziad Khalil Abu Zayyad is a leading Palestinian blogger and Founder of the Middle East Post.

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