JERUSALEM – The admission of Palestine as a nonmember state in the United Nations is far more than a symbolic vote. For the Palestinians, the move gives them an important boost of international legitimacy in their quest for independence. For Israel and its key ally, the United States, it is a diplomatic setback with potentially grave implications.
Here is a look at how key players are affected by Thursday's vote:
The vote benefits the Palestinians on many levels. Domestically, it gives embattled President Mahmoud Abbas a boost in his rivalry with the Hamas militant group. As peace efforts have flagged, Abbas has steadily lost popularity with the Palestinian public, while Hamas is riding high after battling Israel during an eight-day flare-up in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip this month.
Internationally, it puts Abbas and the Palestinian agenda back at center stage. The vote grants Abbas an overwhelming international endorsement for his key position: establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, the territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. With Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu opposed to a pullback to the 1967 lines, this should strengthen Abbas' hand if peace talks resume.
It also opens the door to the Palestinians joining U.N. agencies, most critically the International Criminal Court, where they could use their newfound status to press for war crimes charges against Israel for military operations and construction of Jewish settlements on occupied territories. On the downside, the vote does not change the situation on the ground — a point Israelis have repeatedly stressed in an effort to blunt any appearance of defeat.
The vote amounts to a massive international show of displeasure with Israel, particularly over its continued construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. While Israel is used to lopsided U.N. resolutions against it, even key allies are expected to abandon it this time around. Germany, Italy, France and Australia are among the Israeli allies expected to abstain or vote with the Palestinians.
Moving forward, the resolution could weaken Israeli claims to keeping parts of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, the section of the holy city claimed by both sides for their capitals. After four years of deadlock in peace efforts, the world seems to be laying the blame on Israel. If opinion polls are correct and Netanyahu, backed by hard-line, pro-settler allies, cruises to victory in upcoming parliamentary elections, he could find himself facing stiff international pressure to make concessions to get peace talks back on track.
The vote appears to reflect the world's frustration over President Barack Obama's failure to get Israel and the Palestinians to start talking. During his first term, Obama initially spoke out strongly against Israeli settlements and even coaxed Netanyahu into a partial freeze on settlement construction. But after that freeze expired, Netanyahu rejected Obama's calls to extend it and Obama dropped the matter.
The mixed messages ended up alienating both Israel and the Palestinians, leaving peace efforts in tatters. After failing to persuade the Palestinians to abandon their push at the U.N., Obama will likely face international pressure to make another diplomatic push in the region.
The Islamic militant group, which rules the Gaza Strip, has been emboldened by the performance of its forces in fighting against Israel this month and its growing acceptance among the new Islamist rulers rising in the fast-changing Middle East. Since capturing Gaza from Abbas in 2007, both sides have largely resisted attempts to reconcile.
Thursday's vote is an important reminder that Abbas is still the main address for the international community, and could put pressure on Hamas to reconcile. Perhaps sensing this changing constellation, Hamas lined up behind Abbas' U.N. bid, after earlier criticizing it.
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