Palestinians welcome Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. Image from Al Jazeera article "UN debates Palestine statehood bid," 9.26.11

On the 23rd of September at this year’s General Assembly in New York, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas submitted a formal request for Palestinian state recognition and full United Nations membership along the June 1967 borders (see map below) with East Jerusalem as capital.  Abbas’ speech was met with resounding applause and even a decent standing ovation.  Aside from the historic nature of the occasion and all that, I wish I had been there for at least two other reasons: first, amidst the swirling euphony of praise, to give Israeli and US delegates a penny each for their thoughts and second, to see (and photograph) the UN dignitaries who threw caution to the wind and put their fingers in their mouths to whistle in approval.

Nonetheless, wholehearted clapping and spirited cheers do not a recognized, full UN member state make.  There are several hoops to jump through in what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu referred to as “the theater of the absurd.”  Enter the UN Security Council – the first hoop – stage left.  The Council is made up of 15 members – 5 permanent and 10 non-permanent.  The non-permanents are Bosnia-Hercegovina, Brazil, Gabon, India (yay!), Nigeria, Lebanon, South Africa, Colombia, Germany, and Portugal.  The permanents are China, Russia, France, the UK, and the US.

In order for Palestine to successfully navigate the first hoop, and it’s rather a significant one, 9 of the 15 Security Council members must be “kosher” with the idea and there cannot be a single veto from a permanent member.  Assuming that the Palestine bid makes it through this hoop, the Security Council will recommend Palestine’s membership to the UN General Assembly – the second hoop.  This hoop is a little bigger and is nearer to the ground.  At this juncture, all Palestine would need to become a full UN member state is a simple two-thirds majority vote in the 193 nation General Assembly.  The good news is that no one has vetoing power at this stage.

To mix metaphors quite dramatically, the spanner in the works appears around the first hoop.  The Obama administration has repeatedly threatened to use (and will use) its veto should 9 Security Council members answer in the affirmative to a Palestinian state.  The reason?  Israel really doesn’t want a UN-resolved Palestinian state and so the US, Israel’s chief buddy and pal, can’t really afford to advocate such a resolution.  But you can’t actually say as much in public.  As Obama said at the General Assembly three days prior to Abbas’ speech, “Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the UN – if it were that easy it would have been accomplished by now.  Ultimately it is Israelis and Palestinians who must live side by side.  Ultimately it is Israelis and Palestinians – not us – who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: on borders and security, on refugees and Jerusalem.”

The hands-off rhetoric is ironic because if there’s one lesson to be learned from 20 years of sputtering US-led peace talks, it’s that (more-or-less) direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are not the way to go, and that perhaps a broader forum such as the UN is.  And if you don’t believe me, believe French President Nicolas Sarkozy who says “We can wait no longer.  The method is no longer working?  Change the method.  Cease believing that a single country or a small group of countries can solve a problem of such complexity.”  Vraiment, monsieur.

Though I happen to agree with Sarkozy, it turns out that no one cares.  A veto from the US in the Security Council will narrow and close the hoop so that not even the most courageous of dreams (or of Frenchmen) can squeeze through.  Nonetheless, though the prospect of full UN state membership will become little more than a fanciful Parisian daydream, the Palestinians can still opt to become like the Vatican (yay!) and receive an upgraded status as a “non-member observer state.”

Currently, the State of Palestine, represented by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), has what is called “observer entity status” in the UN.  Holders of this title (who include the European Union, the Arab League, and select non-governmental organizations like the Red Cross) are essentially three-piece flies on the wall – they can attend meetings and occasionally deliver speeches, but have no voting power.  Getting non-member observer state status would certainly bolster recognition of Palestinian statehood in the international community.  It may also give Palestine access to various agencies within the UN and the International Criminal Court, as well as make appeals to the Security Council for full membership more credible.  Then again, it may not.  This is a helpful source of information.

I for one believe that Palestine should be recognized as a sovereign, full UN member state along the 1967 borders, with sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza and with East Jerusalem as its capital.  Though these areas are currently occupied by Israel and though there are certain “facts on the ground” (to put it mildly) such as the Wall and the array of settlements in the West Bank (see map below), both the occupation and these “facts” must not be considered fait accompli; both have been consistently and unequivocally regarded as illegal by United Nations (and the Security Council), the International Court of Justice, the High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, to name a few.  Even Israel’s Supreme Court refers to the West Bank as under “belligerent occupation.”

A Palestinian state bid involving sovereignty over the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem along the 1967 borders is therefore not unreasonable in terms of international statements and resolutions.  I believe the UN would conclude the same were it not for a possible US veto in the Security Council.  Unfortunately, Obama is right – peace doesn’t come through statements or resolutions.  The Palestinians know this all too well and although their UN statehood bid is bound to induce a diplomatic rigmarole, I hope that one day there will be no more hoops to jump through.

Image taken from BBC News article "Q&A: Palestinian Bid for Full Membership at UN," 24.9.11

4 thoughts on “Palestine: To Be Or Not To Be?

  1. Kudos to Abbas for trying anyway, no matter what happens. Finally he has decided to grow a backbone and stand up for something instead of just plodding along. But it also seems a little disingenuous of the U.N. delegates to stand and cheer for him when they are pretty darn certain its not going to pass.


    1. I guess the ovation reflects a large portion of the international community (I think Palestine can easily get a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly) and also serves as an audible reminder that it is the minority that is not in favor of the bid. And judging from his hero’s welcome in Ramallah, I think your kudos stands in good company with the Palestinians themselves.


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