In the long view of history, the vote last Thursday by the United Nations General Assembly may come to be regarded as a belated and merely preliminary step to Palestinian statehood. But the overwhelming vote to grant Palestine the status of a nonmember observer state (the same status that the Vatican, for example, enjoys in the UN system) was greeted by jubilation in the various parts of fragmented Palestine, and seen as historic around the world.
It was, in truth, a genuine milestone—all the more real, and affecting, for being decades in the making.
By an overwhelming margin of 138 countries in favor and 9 against, with 41 abstentions (and 5 absences), the General Assembly began to right an injustice that had rankled for generations; overnight, millions of Palestinians could imagine themselves becoming members in good standing of the worldwide UN community in their own lifetime.
It was a “birth certificate” for modern Palestine, Agence France Presse quoted Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas as saying, and we think the embattled Abbas got it right. Indeed, his use of the pregnant phrase hinted at both limit and possibility. The birth of Palestine as a separate, independent state is something the international community must come to terms with; that is a fact that in the end cannot be denied. But many questions remain, including the issue of paternity (the moderate Abbas is locked in a power struggle with the radical Hamas group, which controls the Gaza strip) and the issue of inheritance (like Israel, Palestine’s claim to sovereignty is hundreds of years old).
The vote itself showed the limits and possibilities of the UN system. It demonstrated the extent of isolation that Israel now suffers on account of the belligerent policies of the Netanyahu government; only nine countries voted against the resolution, led by Israel and its principal ally, the United States. (Canada also voted against.) Israel may have expected its major European allies to stand fast, but none of them voted against the resolution. Britain and Germany abstained, while France voted for the upgrade in Palestinian status.
Among the Asean countries, only Singapore voted differently, opting to abstain. The nine other member-states voted in favor, with the Indonesian foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, playing a prominent role in the deliberations, in keeping with his country’s status as the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. “No longer can the world turn a blind eye to the long sufferings of the Palestinian people, the denial of their basic human rights and fundamental freedoms, the obstruction of their rights to self-determination and to independence,” Natalegawa said.
But the vote took place in the General Assembly; the Security Council, where the real power lies, and the United States is one of five countries with a veto, is a completely different matter. Last year, a Palestinian attempt to seek full membership was blocked by the United States.
Nevertheless, the grant of Palestine’s new status is a genuine breakthrough, and was seen by many countries as a diplomatic initiative precisely to jumpstart the stalled peace process. By approving the resolution granting nonmember observer state status to Palestine, Natalegawa said, “we are signalling the primacy of diplomacy and rejection of violence.”
We are happy to note that the Philippines voted for the resolution.
The country’s ties to Israel are both robust and long-standing. As a Commonwealth, the Philippines granted safe haven to Jewish refugees fleeing from Nazi forces; in 1948, the country was among the first to recognize the modern state of Israel. And our democratic project has learned much over the years from the Israeli experience.
But on the fundamental question of diplomatic recognition of a sovereign people, we must stand with Palestine.
The spokesman of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Assistant Secretary Raul Hernandez, explained the Philippine vote in a succinct text message: “The Philippines supports Palestine’s quest for self-rule and self-determination and we hope that one day an independent Palestine may live side by side in peace with its neighbors.”
The vote, we all hope, should bring that day ever closer.