When 78-year-old Mahmoud Abbas, announced as president of the State of Palestine, took his place on the United Nations dais last week to be introduced to the General Assembly, he enjoyed a singular honour: He was allowed to sit in the big beige chair positioned to the left of the podium, a seat reserved for heads of state.
Last year, like other less senior speakers – foreign ministers, prime ministers and the like – Mr. Abbas had been forced to stand meekly beside the great leather arm chair, his left arm pressed against its high back, while waiting to take his turn at the podium. But having his Palestinian Authority (PA) upgraded to the "observer state" of Palestine by a General Assembly vote last November, he was, as head of that state, entitled to the perquisites of high office. Palestine could now join UN agencies and sign treaties, and Mr. Abbas, like the Pope who is head of the Holy See, another non-member observer state, could sit in the big beige chair.
Apart from the first-class seat, however, Palestine has little to show for the UN status that will be a year old next month. The PA, instead, has chosen to bargain for prisoner releases rather than antagonize Israel by moving to capitalize on its new status.
There were some 60 organizations and UN agencies that Palestine was poised to join – everything from the World Health Organization and the International Criminal Court, to the International Labour Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency. But it is a member only of UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – a position Palestine had already been accorded more than a year before it became an observer state at the UN.
According to Xavier Abu Zaid, a spokesman for the PLO's negotiation affairs department, the decision not to seek membership in all those organizations was a political one.
"It was decided to freeze the process in order to obtain the freedom of our prisoners," he said, referring to the 107 long-term prisoners whose release Israel had agreed to at the start of renewed negotiations of a peace treaty in July. Suspending the UN process was the price Israel set for the prisoners' release.
"Getting the UN status was important and very useful," said Mustafa Barghouti, a former Palestinian presidential candidate and leader of a non-violent resistance movement in the West Bank. "I believe it was what got the negotiations with the Israelis going and it opened the door to improve our status as a people seeking full statehood."
But, he added, the PA should have demanded more in exchange. "The PA should not have agreed to freeze the UN process unless Israel agreed to a complete freeze of settlement construction," said Dr. Barghouti, a physician. "Releasing a few prisoners was not good enough," he said, pointing out that only 26 of the prisoners have been released so far, while Israel has arrested another 350 since the peace talks began.
A recent survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 60 per cent of Palestinians surveyed in the West Bank and Gaza believe it was the right decision to suspend, for nine months, Palestinian applications to join more international organizations in return for the prisoner release.
However, when it came to one international organization, the International Criminal Court, a big majority agreed with Dr. Barghouti. Fully 67 per cent said they support the idea of submitting a complaint against Israeli settlements to the ICC – a move that would require the PA to formally request status at the court – even if such a step leads to a halt to prisoners' release.
The different reactions show how deeply Palestinians resent the expanding Israeli settlements, said Khalil Shikaki, director of the survey centre.
"The settlements are the number-one concern," said Dr. Barghouti. "On the street level, people are very dubious about these negotiations. They don't see much if anything good coming from them."
Dr. Barghouti said he was encouraged that U.S. President Barack Obama included a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one his two foreign policy priorities for the remainder of his term in office – the other being guarding against Iran developing nuclear weapons.
"But I'm not encouraged by the fact he has failed to persuad Israel to stop the settlement construction," he said.
He added: "Now that the PA has traded away the UN status, the only thing that will give the people hope is if the settlements are stopped."