international analysis and commentary

Palestinian statehood and the UN nexus

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In 2010, amid a stalemate in the peace process, continuing settlement construction and no amelioration of living conditions in the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian Authority decided to move forward with a Palestinian statehood declaration and to seek acceptance for it at the United Nations in September 2011. The decision by the Palestinian leadership to focus on building state infrastructure rather than blaming the Israelis was supported, according to a recent poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, by 65% of the Palestinian population.

September 2011 had originally been the target date of the Middle East Quartet (EU, US, Russia, UN) for a two-state solution. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad had chosen the same date as a goal for preparing Palestine for statehood and believes that state institutions are now ready. The Palestinian Authority is seeking recognition for its state under the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, which is consistent with the internationally accepted borders of Israel and with US President Barack Obama’s May 2011 keynote speech on the Middle East. A recognition by the United Nations would enable the Palestinians to negotiate with Israel as a state; in other words, as an equal negotiation partner. Furthermore, it would allow them to take legal action at the International Court against the occupation of their country should negotiations fail.

The most likely scenario for September is that about 130 to 140 states in the General Assembly will endorse the statehood declaration, which would mean a two-thirds majority (129 out of the 193 member states of the UN), and would show high moral support for the Palestinian quest. Security Council members China and Russia, as well as a majority of the South American states, and some European countries such as Security Council member France, but also Spain, Sweden, Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Luxembourg and Sweden, will support such a resolution. Europe, however, remains divided on the question, since Germany, Italy and Britain reject a unilateral statehood declaration and favor negotiations in line with article 31 of the Oslo agreements. The latter clarified that “neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations”. The same article, however, was and is also violated by Israel with its unilateral, prolonged financial and political support for the settlements in the Palestinian territories, East Jerusalem comprised. As Haaretz reported recently, there is a plan to push for land takeover in the Jordan Valley, the northern Dead Sea and the areas surrounding the major settlement blocs to “prevent (the) establishment of (a) Palestinian state with territorial contiguity”.

The biggest obstacle to Palestinian statehood is the United States, which is inclined to veto its membership to the United Nations in the Security Council. In February, the US already vetoed a resolution which sought to condemn Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank. In June, the US Senate passed a resolution which threatens suspension of US aid to the Palestinian Authority, if it continues with its plan for the statehood declaration. The US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, pointed out that she “cannot frankly think of a greater threat to our ability to maintain financial and political support for the United Nations in Congress than such an outcome”. Thus, President Obama has extensively pressured Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to abstain from a statehood declaration, as a US veto will also put the world power at odds with the rising freedom movements in the Middle East. President Abbas has signaled that he prefers statehood through negotiations, but that two decades of failing peace talks make such an achievement unlikely. He also clarified that the bid for membership at the UN will not affect his willingness to negotiate with Israel in the future.

If Palestine is accepted by a two-thirds majority, but vetoed by the United States, the Palestinian leadership would receive a more limited upgrade to “non-member state” status, an option which requires only General Assembly approval and that often has been in the past the first step to full recognition. In this scenario, the Palestinian leadership is also considering sidestepping the Security Council by declaring its quest an issue of “world peace”. Furthermore, it could also seek to push for the enforcement of resolution number 181, passed in 1947 and which called for the partition of Palestine into two states for the two people and was a non-binding recommendation, as it was never adopted by the Security Council. It was rejected by the Arab states, but – in contrast to mainstream narrative – never by a representative body of the Palestinian people. “There was no democratically elected Palestinian Arab leadership,” Israeli writer and peace activist Uri Avnery clarified recently, “The governments of the Arab states rejected partition but they certainly did not represent the Palestinian Arabs, who were at the time still under British rule (as were we). As a matter of fact, during the (1948) war there was no effective united Palestinian Arab leadership, nor was there anything even remotely resembling a united Palestinian fighting force”.

What might happen the day after the UN resolution vote? Practically speaking the answer is nothing, or very little; but symbolically speaking the answer is much more complex. According to Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian Ambassador to the United Nations, the general atmosphere is in many respects “similar to (General Assembly) resolution 181 in 1947. The following day nothing happened, but was Israel able to declare independence without 181? I don’t think so. We are going through the same process right now. The next day, the sun will rise from the east but the resolution will be historic and will lead the way for a declaration of independence. Huge things take time. Things will not change in 24 hours. For all those who wish for a silver bullet, there is no such thing. But there is accumulation”. Mansour also added that the Palestinian leadership will apply to the UN for full membership only when it will be ready. “Israel,” Mansour clarified, “submitted its application in 1948 in the last week of the General Assembly session. They asked the Security Council to suspend the articles that dealt with time regimentation because of their special situation. It took Israel seven months to become a full member in May 1949. Look at South Sudan. It will take them two weeks to become a member, so the time procedures are not rigid”.

Once again the UN appears to the majority of the observers as the most suitable place to address such a crucial issue. Not only because the 1947 partition of Palestine was itself the result of a multilateral (not a bilaterally negotiated) decision made by two-thirds of the 56 states which at the time composed the UN, but also because article 1 of its charter is about maintaining international peace and security, while article 2 is about the right of peoples to self-determination. Two cornerstones that have always been valid, in 1947 as well in 2011.