UN General Assembly votes to upgrade Palestine's status

Updated On: Dec 05, 2012

Last week, the UN General Assembly voted to grant Palestine non-member observer state status at the UN. Resolution 67/19 was adopted by a vote of 138 in favour to nine against, with 41 abstentions. Israel and the US led the vote against, while Singapore was among the states that abstained.

The European Union states were split three ways over the issue. According to Dr. Yeo Lay Hwee, Senior Research Fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, and Director of the EU Centre in Singapore, it is inevitable there are different degrees of sympathy towards the Palestinian cause.

The Vote

Nine countries voted against the resolution to upgrade the Palestinian Authority's status, Israel, the United States, Canada, the Czech Republic and Panama, as well as four pacific island nations that typically support the US and Israel. Singapore was among 41 nations who abstained from the vote. Five countries were absent during voting.

The Resolution

UN General Assembly resolution 67/19 (A/RES/67/19) was proposed by Palestine's representative to the UN, and upgrades their status to non-member observer state - the same held by the Vatican. Previously, Palestine had the status of UN non-state observer entity. With the change, Palestine will now sit together with other countries on the main floor of the UN General Assembly.

The resolution also reaffirms the use of the name "Palestine", and acknowledges Palestinian leaders as the Provisional Government of the State of Palestine.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has hailed the successful resolution as international recognition of Palestinian statehood.

In 2011, Mr. Abbas had asked for Palestine to join the UN as a full member, but could not gain a majority from the Security Council - and the United States indicated it would veto the resolution, should it come to vote.

Singapore's Reasons for Abstaining

According to a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore abstained as it views the resolution as a unilateral move by Palestine - and no unilateral move can result in a just, peaceful and durable outcome for all parties.

Singapore believes that Palestine's aspirations are not helped by this latest unilateral move, as facts on the ground will not be changed.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also released an e-mail written by Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Home Affairs Masagos Zulkifli; it was also shared by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Facebook.

According to Mr Masagos, Singapore has consistently supported the right of the Palestinian people to a homeland. Singapore supported two General Assembly resolutions last November pertaining to the peaceful settlement of the question of Palestine and Jerusalem. The Republic also voted in favour of another resolution on the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.

Of the 19 resolutions on various Palestinian-related issues tabled at the General Assembly since 2008, Singapore has voted in favour of 18 while one was adopted by consensus.

However, Singapore abstained from voting on the latest resolution, because Singapore believes that only a negotiated settlement consistent with UN Security Council Resolution 242 can provide the basis for a viable, long-term solution.

UN Security Council Resolution 242

United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 (S/RES/242) was adopted by the Security Council in 1967, after the Six-Day War between Israel and the neighbouring states of Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

Resolution 242 is seen as setting out the key principles for peace in the Middle East and ending Arab-Israeli conflict, along with the later Resolution 338 which called for a ceasefire in response to the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The resolutions do not refer to the Palestinian situation, but emphasise the need for "agreement" and "negotiations" between parties.

Global Reactions

While Singapore abstained, it was the only ASEAN country to do so. The nine other members of ASEAN voted in favour, and Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa played an active role in the discussions.

Some commentators have noted that the small number of countries that voted against the resolution demonstrates Israel's isolation, and may show that even its ally, the United States, cannot exert a great deal of influence on this matter.

In the European Union, only the Czech Republic voted against the resolution. 12 European Union countries opted to abstain, including Germany and those particularly close to the US within NATO like the UK, Poland, and the Baltic states. But 14 EU states, led by France and the Nordic countries, voted in favour.

"The EU has maintained close ties with both Israel and the Palestinian authority, being a key economic partner of the former and a leading donor for the latter. On the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the EU has always tried to maintain a delicate balance – condemning Hamas’ militancy toward Israel and at the same time criticising Israel for its continued expansion into the West Bank," explained SIIA Senior Research Fellow Dr. Yeo Lay Hwee.

"However, it is also inevitable that amongst the 27 EU member states, there are different degrees of sympathy towards the Palestinian cause resulting in the split vote on granting the Palestinian Authority non-member observer state status in the UN."

There has been some speculation that the symbolic victory at the UN may pave the way for further legal challenges by the Palestinians against Israel, for instance through the International Criminal Court.

However in the short term, tensions are expected to continue, especially with Israeli elections scheduled for January.

On Sunday, the Israeli government unanimously rejected the General Assembly’s decision. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described it as "a gross violation of the agreements that have been signed with the State of Israel."

Israeli has also announced that it would not transfer tax revenues collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority last month, instead using the $100 million, to pay off electricity bills owed by the Authority. The Palestinian government has been already suffering from lack of funds.

Text and Voting Details: Status of Palestine in the United Nations (A/67/L.28) [UN General Assembly]

Report: Amid Euphoria Over U.N. Vote, Palestinians Still Face Familiar Challenges [New York Times, 3 Dec 2012]

Press Release: SMS Masagos Zulkifli clarifies Singapore’s abstention on UN resolution to grant Non-Member Observer State to Palestine [Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1 Dec 2012]