Even if the United Nations (UN) General Assembly votes in favour of upgrading Palestinians from observer to “non-member observer” status – as was expected to happen Nov. 29 – the move would be legally meaningless in terms of their achieving actual statehood, former Israeli ambassador to Canada Alan Baker said.
Speaking at Chevra Kadisha B’nai Jacob synagogue 10 days before the Nov. 29 vote, Baker said, in a talk organized by the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research, that the General Assembly has no actual power.
General Assembly resolutions “are recommendations, not mandatory,” Baker said, and they “can’t force anybody to do anything. [It’s] a PR exercise.”
As well, he said, granting Palestinians full member state status – their ultimate goal – lies solely in the hands of the UN Security Council.
It’s Baker’s view that the bid by Palestinians for enhanced UN status is really about Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas – “ill and old and about to retire” – trying to attain some measure of achievement for himself in his waning days.
Baker said the Palestinians would love to have full state status, which would allow them to go to the International Criminal Court in The Hague and try to “prosecute Israeli military leaders.”
But this is next to impossible, Baker said, in light of the fact that Palestinians remain so divided among themselves, with the PA terrorist group Hamas in power in Gaza and the more moderate Fatah faction in the West Bank apparently incapable of resolving differences.
“The whole attempt at the UN,” Baker said, “is about the failure of Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] to resolve the conflict.”
Since Baker’s talk in Montreal, France, a permanent Security Council member, has announced that it would vote – like permanent members Russia and China – in support of the Palestinian bid for the upgraded non-member observer status.
One other member – the United States – said it would oppose the Palestinian bid, while another, the United Kingdom, said it would abstain. Non-Security Council members Israel and Canada said they would vote against the higher status.
According to Baker, who served as ambassador to Canada from 2004 to 2008 and is an expert in international law, Palestinians also have no legal right to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state.
That would breach provisions of the Oslo Interim Agreement of 1995 – which Baker had a hand in drafting. It stipulates that neither Israel nor the Palestinians have the right to “alter status” without negotiations.
But how would Israel react to such a unilateral declaration, such a “fundamental breach” of Oslo?
Baker is not sure. Israel could invoke sanctions against the Palestinians, which it would be within its legal right to do, but since the unilateral declaration would not carry any legal weight, Baker “sensed” the reaction by Israel would be more “minimal” than “maximal.”
“The dilemma for the Israeli government [would be] how to react,” he said.
On the recent battle in Gaza, Baker said Israel is well within its rights to defend itself against Hamas’ relentless attacks against Israel’s citizens while using their fellow Palestinians as shields against Israeli counter-attacks.
The rocket and missile attacks into Israel constitute a “grave violation” of Article 51 of the UN Geneva Convention proscribing the deliberate targeting of civilians. They also fly in the face of prior PA commitments that no acts of terror will occur from Gaza into Israel.
In that context, Baker called it a “huge mistake” when, in 2006, then then-U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice “forcefully pressed” Israel to allow elections in Gaza – elections that resulted in the virulently anti-Israel Hamas taking power there.
In general, Baker is hopeful that, one day, peace could prevail between Israelis and Palestinians – as long as they work together in a spirit of mutual respect instead of “suspicion and fear.”
“The peace process is still a potentially successful possibility if both sides take the idea of living together as good neighbours seriously,” Baker said.
What Israel can never accept, he said, is any denial of its basic right to exist.