Australia’s decision on November 29 to break its support for US and Israel and abstain on the vote to allow Palestine observer status at the United Nations represents a win for pro-Palestine forces.
Of the 193 nations in the UN General Assembly, 138 voted in favour, nine against and 41 abstentions for the resolution to change Palestine from an observer “entity” to observer “state”.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) — led by Mahmoud Abbas — submitted a proposal for UN observer status last year, after it appeared the Security Council would veto a bid to become a full member state.
The federal Labor government’s decision to abstain from voting is pathetic. But given the long standing support for Israel by Labor and the Coalition, even a small shift away is progress.
Before the vote, media reports said Prime Minister Julia Gillard was forced to agree to abstain rather than vote against by a revolt of back bench MPs.
There is widespread disgust at Israel’s latest assault on Gaza, especially from Labor heartland areas in Sydney’s west. NSW Labor MLC Lynda Voltz condemned the party for its lack of support for Palestine in her speech to the Sydney rally for Gaza on November 24.
But this tells only part of the story. Since the disaster of Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, Australians overwhelmingly view Israel as the aggressor state.
A Jerusalem Post poll in July said 65% of Australians viewed Israel critically. An online Sydney Morning Herald poll on November 29 found 60% of respondents supported a “yes” vote for Palestine's observer status, compared with 31% opposed.
Foreign affairs minister Bob Carr said Australia’s decision to abstain was “proof” that Australia had an independent foreign policy. But he said this after signing Australia up to closer defence ties with the US at the AUSMIN talks in Perth last month. Having just secured a spot on the the UN Security Council, Australia abstained from taking the lead — a “yes” vote — on an important issue.
The UN has never recognised Palestine as a country. The Palestine Liberation Organisation received observer status as an “entity” in 1974. In July and December 1988, the UN General Assembly adopted resolutions that noted it “was aware of the proclamation of the state of Palestine” and “affirmed the need” of the Palestinian people to “exercise sovereignty over their territory occupied since 1967”.
It was given other rights including the right to take part in debate at the General Assembly, the right of reply, the right to co-sponsor resolutions and the right to raise points of order on Palestinian and Middle East issues.
The new “Status of Palestine in the United Nations” takes into account the earlier resolutions affirming “the unalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination,” including the right to their independent state of Palestine. It also reaffirms the need for “a just resolution of the problem of Palestinian refugees”.
But Samah Sawabi, a Palestine solidarity activist living in Melbourne, worries that for Palestinian refugees in occupied Palestine the upgrade “could have negative consequences”.
She told Green Left Weekly that “Abbas, the PA leader, is a discredited figure in the West Bank and the Palestinian diaspora because of his failure to stop the Israeli settlers and the building of the apartheid wall. The problem for Palestinians will be if he continues to pursue fruitless negotiations.”
Sabawi said the UN resolution granting Palestine observer status made it possible to place Israel under stronger international scrutiny. “This is what Israel will hate,” she said.
But she did not hold hope that Abbas would try to use the new powers available to take Israel to the International Criminal Court unless it faced a lot more pressure.
Shawan Jabarin, director general of the human rights organisation Al-Haq, told a 100-strong meeting in Sydney on November 29, the day before the resolution passed, that he was pleased it would.
But he said not a lot would change for Palestinians until greater international pressure was put on Israel. “Israel has to be made to pay the price for its apartheid-like policies.”
The resolution has important symbolic value, Jabarin said. “Legally and practically speaking, it allows Palestine to join and push for international treaties.”
Abbas would have to be pushed to take Israel to the International Criminal Court.
Jabarin said the right of return for refugees — expelled from the country in 1948 — had to remain a priority.
“Abbas cannot give up fighting for the rights of refugees. We will not sacrifice them, nor our land, our water and our dignity.”