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Explainer: The upcoming UN Palestinian sovereignty vote

Palestinian medics attend to an elderly woman in the shadow of the Israeli wall. AAP

The United Nations is set to vote on recognising Palestine as an independent state next month.

What the chances of the Palestinian initiative succeeding? What implications would recognition of Palestinian statehood have for Israel? And where does Australia stand? How will we vote and what are the implications either way?

The Conversation spoke with Monash University Middle East expert Benjamin MacQueen to answer these questions and more.

Why are the Palestinians wanting to unilaterally declare sovereignty now?

I interpret it as an effort to strengthen their bargaining position with Israel. I don’t think it is anything too revolutionary in terms of the established dynamic at play.

Timing wise, I don’t there is a lot that can be read into why it is September and not earlier in the year and why this year and not years ago. It is as good a time as any for them to break out of the deadlock.

The one variable in that is that they seem to be trying to exploit the antagonism between Netanyahu and Obama that has emerged over the last 18 months and the evident frustration that Obama was displaying from his treatment by Netanyahu.

The Palestinians may see Israel slightly more isolated so they can perhaps strengthen their hand in whatever negotiations come up later.

Does the vote have a chance of passing in both the UN General Assembly and the Security Council?

I think it very likely that it will pass the General Assembly. It really only needs to pass the General Assembly. It is largely symbolic but that would grant the Palestinians voting status within the General Assembly.

The issue of recognition is really a bilateral matter. So each state individually recognises the Palestinian claim [if they vote to support the measure] but it is a more formal claim. The recognition of Palestine as a state by the General Assembly carries significance in terms of the recognition within the 1967 borders which itself carries implications as regards East Jerusalem and settlements that over the green line.

It draws a clearer line in the sand for the start of the bargaining for the Palestinians, no longer will it be everything is up for grabs, but rather the starting position is the 1967 borders and we’ll work from there.

It is not going to pass the Security Council. The United States will veto and if they don’t the UK will veto it and if they don’t, France will. But that is not really going to hinder the progress of this.

If the measure does pass the General Assembly by a healthy majority, how much will it further isolate Israel?

A lot of previous resolutions against Israel have passed the Assembly by a large majority. It is a tricky one for Israel to field. They have been wrong footed by the Arab Spring and the current government is confronting its own massive protests about the economic situation in the country which will only deteriorate in their near future. It is very precarious.

The main areas of economic activity in Israel are the settlements. They tend to produce because they exist at the margins of domestic law and they can be very flexible with wages and working conditions and they tend to be disproportionately productive.

This kind of thing tends to play into the uncertainty of the status of those areas which plays into the uncertainty in the markets in Israel. That is worrying them quite a bit. It will certainly lead to further isolation for Israel because of the negotiating position of the current government which is so far removed from what is now the official position of what could be recognised as a Palestinian government.

They would be in clearer breach of international law if the UN General Assembly recognises Palestine as a state based on the 1967 borders. Then Israel will be an occupying power. There is a whole range of things the Israeli government needs to balance but it can’t just jump back and accept the move because that would undermine the very thing that holds this government together which is its hard line on the negotiations.

It is quite a deft diplomatic move on the part of the Palestinian leadership if they can actually hold themselves together through the process.

In terms of the Palestinian leadership, is this something that has been driven by the Fatah government in Ramallah rather than Hamas in Gaza?

It is hard to tease out the details of what was agreed in the Fatah rapprochement with Hamas earlier in the year as to what might have been offered to Hamas to come on board with this because it does seem to be driven by Fatah and Abbas and is playing into the popularity of Abbas.

There is the big ideological difference between the two in that Fatah recognise the state of Israel and Hamas don’t. If there is a formalisation of a de facto and de jure Palestinian state and as part of that the question arises: does Hamas have to recognise the basic tenets of that state, one of which is recognition of Israel?

It is a bit murky in terms of what might have been traded off in order to get Hamas to either tacitly agree to that or are they just ignoring these basic points of fracture? I get the sense that they are.

It is major expediency and if it can last through September, it will be quite a remarkable thing but it will be a struggle to get the agreement to last any longer than that.

In terms of Australia, shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has called for “clarity” from the government on whether we will support, abstain or oppose the vote. What are our options?

We have the options of voting yes, no or abstaining. There is the seeming antagonism between the Prime Mnister and the Foreign Minister at the moment where the Prime Minister wants to vote against it and the Foreign Minister wants to abstain.

Outside of that it is managing all the potential consequences. The seeming logic for Rudd saying we should abstain plays into Australia’s push for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council and there is obviously a larger number of Arab states and supporters of the Palestinians than there is Israel and its one vote.

We do have greater economic interest in the Arab world than we do in Israel, although we do co-operate with Israel on a number of things like agricultural technology. But [economic concerns] would be part of the balance.

We also generally operate in concert with the US and the US is going to vote against this so what message are we sending to the US if we come out and break ranks with them on this issue? It is about managing the diplomatic and economic consequences.

If we voted no, we’d be on pretty shaky ground to get this non-permanent seat. What price are we willing to pay?

If we do vote no, who will be alongside us? Will it only be Israel and the US?

Britain may vote no. The French will be interesting to watch. There’s not a great deal [of support]. Israel has got economic relations with a number of very small countries that generally vote with Israel or against any anti-Israel resolutions like Palau and Micronesia and other smaller Pacific states.

They will come out and vote no but there are very few other countries that Israel has actively courted to come on board.

For us it is really the US relationship and for Australia this has been the pattern of involvement in the Middle East. We have rhetorical concern and we talk about our relationship with Israel but we really use the Middle East as a repository in which we play out our allegiance to the US because it is far enough away.

We did it with Britain before and we do it with the US now. It is a cynical view but it is the reality of the situation. Are we just going to keep going with that pattern? I don’t know. I think it is a bit of a test of personalities, a test of wills going on in the government over who is going to hold firm.

This is a question of domestic politics, does Gillard see her slipping numbers and think she can shore that up by coming out strong and confronting her Foreign Minister or does she just cede this over to the guy who is meant to have the expertise? We just don’t know at the moment.

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