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This Might Finally Be Palestine’s Year at the United Nations

Though many uncertainties remain, an American veto of any UN Security Council resolution seen as targeting Israel may no longer be a foregone conclusion.
Photo by Majdi Mohammed/AP

Late last year, ambassadors from the 15 members of the United Nations Security Council shuffled into the Council's chamber to vote on the future of Palestine. After months of negotiations, the Arab states threw caution to the wind when Jordan introduced a text that called for Israel to withdraw from Palestinian territory within three years. The resolution fell one vote short of passing, and Palestinian ambitions were squashed yet again.


Three months later, much has changed. The day after the December 30 vote, over loud objections from the US and Israel, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ratified the International Criminal Court's Rome Statute. In January, ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda launched a preliminary inquiry into possible crimes committed in Palestinian territory, possibly leading to eventual prosecutions for everyone from Hamas fighters to Israeli settlers and soldiers.

Israeli elections in March unearthed festering distrust between the Obama administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who promised voters that he wouldn't allow a Palestinian state. Previously, an American veto of any UN resolution seen as targeting Israel was a foregone conclusion — but US officials have indicated that may no longer be the case.

Related: Little comfort taken as Palestine joins the International Criminal Court 

On Thursday, one day after Palestine officially joined the ICC, the US and Iran agreed on a framework for a nuclear deal that Netanyahu has fought against for years.

Now, a more Palestine-friendly cast of elected Security Council members, along with the permanent five members — the US, UK, China, France, and Russia — are once more looking toward a resolution on resolving a Middle East peace process that has dragged on for more than half a century.

'Once you get a resolution that has American fingerprints on it, it's not going to be as much to Palestinian liking.'


France has been the most publicly outspoken member of the Council, doubling down on efforts to put forward an updated version of a resolution they floated last year that was ultimately vetoed behind the scenes by the US.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius outlined what a new text would entail, telling reporters Friday at the UN that, "France has been supporting a resolution of the UN defining the parameters and helping and accompanying the necessary negotiations between [Israel and Palestine.]"

"We have not changed our minds and in the coming weeks in relations with different parties, France will be part in proposing a resolution at the UN," Fabius said.

The draft of at least one version of such a French resolution, viewed by the Associated Press, would set parameters for a lasting peace deal and assign borders as they stood prior to 1967, while allowing for land swaps. In most ways, it's similar to past peace initiatives floated in speeches or accords, but it stops short of the timetable for an Israeli withdrawal that was included in the failed December text.

But observers say France's outspoken stance belies Council dynamics that, in many respects, haven't shifted since last year. The US still ultimately holds the reins, and, for now, the Americans appear content to let rumors fly on their potential vote, or involvement in drafting a two-state resolution. Asked about French plans, a US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told VICE News "we are aware of Foreign Minister Fabius' comments, but I am not going to speculate on a hypothetical resolution."


Related: Palestinian leaders are taking their quest for statehood global — consequences be damned 

Sources close to the Obama administration, speaking on condition of anonymity, told VICE News that the US is indeed considering a resolution in some form, but they aren't keen to push it before political realities force the issue. The French, meanwhile, have always maintained they want the US involved in drafting a text.

Last week, in his final briefing to the Council, Robert Serry, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, told diplomats that, in lieu of peace talks, "the international community should consider presenting a framework for negotiations, including parameters, to achieve this."

Council members insist the appetite for a resolution is there. "The negotiations will have to take place between the parties, but the international community can help to provide the framework, the parameters of a negotiation through a Security Council resolution," one council diplomat told VICE News, requesting anonymity due to ongoing talks.

Another Council diplomat told VICE News that, during Serry's visit, "there was a sense around that table that it was time for the council to do something."

Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told VICE News that, if the US were to decisively step into the ring, the Americans would inevitably want to heavily influence the end result.


"I think that kind of resolution is one America ends up owning and shaping," Levy said. "Once you get a resolution that has American fingerprints on it, it's not going to be as much to Palestinian liking."

Levy said the French, despite their public statements, are probably still testing the waters. "My sense is that the French are not in as much a hurry as is being suggested," he said. "They are a bit uncertain of what the Palestinians are actually trying to do."

Related: Rockets and Revenge: Watch the VICE News dispatches

Though there was some expectation that the Palestinians would lodge specific complaints with the ICC after they joined the world court on Wednesday, Palestinian officials indicated they would hold off — at least for now — and rely on Bensouda's existing inquiry, which could last years.

Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said it's not clear to what extent the events of the past months — and what appears to be a weakened Israeli position internationally — will infiltrate the upper echelons of the diplomatic corps at the Council.

"Obviously some of the obstacles have moved away, so that indicates there is less reason to not go ahead, but that doesn't necessarily mean there is a real energy to go ahead," Sayigh told VICE News.

Sayigh added there's a risk that an eventual resolution ends up being a cynical but well-trod attempt to head off further moves by the Palestinians to lodge specific cases at the ICC.


"If they were to go forward at the ICC, that is going to create some diplomatic challenges for Western countries," Sayigh said. "Very often Western initiatives at the UN are attempts to preempt more challenging initiatives from the Palestinians and Arab states."

The December resolution, Sayigh said, was as in large part a play for domestic audiences by the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank and fields a permanent observer at the United Nations. That same political dynamic would influence any future moves, he said.

Sayigh added, "The real question is, will this result in a document that is a UN Security Council resolution that has some importance, or will this prove entirely to be a piece of theater designed with its own intention of deflating and delaying the Palestinians?"

An ICC referral remains in the Palestinian arsenal, should they grow frustrated with developments at the Security Council. Doing so, however, would risk alienating the US, who under existing legislation passed by Congress, would likely be forced cut off aid to the Palestinians if a case was eventually lodged against Israeli individuals at the court.

Alex Whiting, a professor at Harvard Law School who worked for the court from 2010 to 2013, told VICE News that Palestinian leaders may still choose to refer a case in the future, despite the political repercussions — even if the Bensouda is already studying the issue they want to raise.


Related: Palestine's bid to join the International Criminal Court sparks ire from Israel

"If they do make the referral, that will add some pressure on the prosecution to open an investigation," Whiting said. "It's not that the referral removes an impediment to getting the investigation started, but it creates an atmosphere of some expectation and pressure and signals to the prosecution that Palestine is really willing to cooperate with a future investigation."

Jordan's Dina Kawar, the president of the Security Council in April and the first Arab woman to hold the position, told reporters last week that the Palestinian issue "is the core issue in the Middle East," and something Jordan was eager to resolve. She, said, however, that Arab states need to be intimately involved.

The confluence of events in the last three months, along with France's public remarks and the symbolism of Kawar's presidency, have led many to consider the possibility that now is the best time for a resolution. The US administration, if it waits, risks handling such a resolution closer to the 2016 presidential election, when it could serve to distract a potential Democratic candidate.

"The timeframe is relatively limited," Levy said. "It's not inconceivable you do this in the swing of an election campaign, but many political watchers will tell you this is a 2015 or a lame duck issue after the election."

The Jordanian ambassador, however, sounded a note of caution.

"The only wisdom in having a resolution is that we can make it work and advance, otherwise it will be another resolution," Kawar said.

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford