Palestine’s Countdown to September

Palestinian Declaration
By Andrea Dessi

On 20 September Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority (PA), will personally deliver a request to the UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon for the “State of Palestine” to be granted full membership status at the UN. The resolution is expected to be passed on to the UN Security Council, whose rotating presidency for September will be held by Lebanon. In the likely event of a US veto, the PA has stated its intention to refer the question of Palestinian independence to the UN General Assembly, where another Palestinian ally, Qatar, will chair the presidency of the Assembly.

Given that no state can become a full member of the UN without the prior approval of the Security Council, where the Palestinian initiative seems likely to be blocked by an American veto, the PA’s chances of achieving full membership status seem close to zero. Within the General Assembly, however, no single country has the power to block a resolution, and it is in this venue that the Palestinians will most probably end up presenting their case to the world.

The PA has three options it can pursue in the General Assembly; all of which do not require the endorsement of the Security Council and can therefore bypass an American veto. The first option is to present a resolution calling on the 193 member-states of the UN to endorse the 4 June 1967 borders as the basis for the creation of an independent Palestinian state with its capital in east Jerusalem. Such a resolution, while strictly non-binding, would allow the Palestinians to rally international support for their cause while increasing the diplomatic isolation Israel already faces on the international scene. A two-thirds majority vote in the General Assembly (129 states) is needed for the resolution to be approved, and while this would not translate into any concrete changes on the ground, such a wide-ranging international endorsement would no doubt represent an important political boost for the Palestinian cause.

The second option is that of requesting an upgrade in Palestinian status within the UN. Currently, the PA is recognised as a non-member “entity” with a permanent observer status, the only such example in the UN. With a simple majority endorsement within the General Assembly the PA could upgrade its status to that of a non-member state, such as the Holy See, which would be a significant development given that this would represent a de facto recognition of Palestinian statehood. Such an upgrade would allow the PA to be granted full membership in various UN bodies (Unicef, Unesco and the WHO for example), while increasing the PA’s chances of bringing cases before the International Criminal Court (ICC). The PA requested membership in the ICC in February 2009, but given that “Palestine” is not officially recognised as a state, and Israel no longer recognised the jurisdiction of the ICC, no ruling was ever made regarding the PA’s membership application. An upgrade to the status of non-member state is widely believed to be sufficient to allow for an admission to the ICC and this, in turn, would allow the Palestinians to request international investigations into Israeli human rights abuses in the Palestinian territories.

Last but not least, the PA could present a resolution calling on the General Assembly to reaffirm its endorsement of Resolution 181. This Resolution, the first UN ruling on Palestine, was adopted by the General Assembly in November 1947 and called for the creation of Arab and Jewish states in historical Palestine. Also known as the UN Partition Plan, Resolution 181 is widely credited with creating the legal framework for Israel’s May 1948 declaration of independence and its admission as a full member in the UN the following year. The Palestinians are therefore hoping that a renewed international commitment to the notion of two states could boost the PA’s chances of receiving bilateral recognitions of statehood while increasing pressure on Israel to accept an international framework for the creation of an independent Palestinian state centred on the West Bank and Gaza strip.  

Speculation is rife regarding which of these options the Palestinians will pursue. The PA’s membership bid will likely include some form of a combination of the above points, and while much will depend on the exact wording of the resolution, it appears almost certain that the Palestinians will have no trouble securing the necessary two-thirds majority in the General Assembly. Israel’s UN ambassador was recently quoted as stating that Israel stands no chance of rallying the necessary numbers in the General Assembly, and Israel’s leadership is now actively preparing for the “diplomatic tsunami” Israel’s Defence Minister Ehud Barak predicted would follow a UN vote on Palestine.

To date 124 states have recognised the indipendence of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. This number is equal to 75 per cent of the world’s population, and Palestinian leaders appear confident that, come September, over 140 countries will endorse a Palestinian resolution at the UN.

The major opponents of the Palestinian bid for statehood are the US and Israel. Both countries have been struggling to limit international involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for years, and since 2000, the US government has vetoed at least nine Security Council resolutions on this topic. The US has threatened to cut financial aid to both the PA and the UN in the event that the world body recognises a Palestinian state. Israeli leaders have warned that a UN vote could result in Israel withholding the transfer of tax revenues collected in the Palestinian territories and destined to the PA, a unilateral annexation of Jewish settlements built on Palestinian land, and a voiding of the 1993 Oslo accords.

The Palestinians have repeatedly stated that their preferred option is to resume bilateral talks with Israel, and have stressed that a UN vote will not compromise their willingness to return to the negotiating table. This is due to the fact that the Palestinian leadership recognises that peace can only be achieved through bilateral negotiations and that a UN resolution will not, in its own right, deliver them statehood. Without a prior halt to Israel’s settlement construction and an endorsement of the 4 June 1967 borders as the basis for a two-state solution, the Palestinians have however refused to resume peace talks with Israel. 

The PA’s bid for statehood can thus be described as an attempt to gain international recognition of a precise framework for the resumption of negotiations. This framework, which includes an acknowledgment of the 1967 borders (with mutually agreed land swaps) and Jerusalem as a shared capital, is by no means controversial, and has already been endorsed by the international community as the basis for a two-state solution to the conflict. In May 2011, President Barack Obama himself endorsed the 1967 lines as the basis for an independent Palestinian state, and all members of the Middle East Quartet - a negotiating body composed of the EU, UN, Russia and the US - quickly followed suit. The Israeli government, however, has refused any reference to the 1967 lines and this is due to Israel’s insistence on maintaining its control over large swaths of land found on the Palestinian side of those borders. About 500,000 Israelis now live in the Palestinian territories and Israel’s early August announcement of close to 3,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers has further underscored Israel’s uncompromising stance on the core issues of borders and settlements.

Following two decades of failed peace talks, the PA’s lack of confidence in the negotiating process is understandable. The UN initiative reflects the PA’s growing frustration with a peace process that lacks clear guidelines for the conduct of negotiations and which for years has allowed Israel to expand its hold over that same land the parties were meant to be negotiating over. This frustration, combined with a realization that the US is unable (or unwilling) to deliver in its professed role as a “neutral mediator” between the sides, has translated into a Palestinian push to seek a greater international involvement in resolving the conflict. This Palestinian move is given all the more urgency in light of the fact that the physical conditions that would allow for a viable two-state solution are not set in stone and cannot, therefore, be expected to last indefinitely.


1 September 2011


Related Articles: 

Andrea Dessi, US Veto on UN Settlement Resolution Shows Obama Is Not Ready For Change

Andrea Dessi, Israeli Greater Jerusalem, An Obstacle to Peace?