Defusing Palestinian Statehood Bid at the UN

Palestinian leaders need a reason not to ask the United Nations for recognition in September, which would be risky for everyone involved

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Palestinian President Abbas wipes his brow after addressing the UN in September / Reuters

For most of 2011, Palestinian leaders have been privately and publicly speculating about potential statehood initiatives at the UN General Assembly meeting in September. The PLO may present some plan in effect asking the UN to recognize Palestine as an independent state, which wouldn't make it so, but it would put Israel and the U.S. in a very awkward position. These ideas have been opposed by both Israel and the United States, which have described them as "unilateral," and met with a mixed response among European states. To date no clear plan or strategy has been put forward but language of a draft resolution could be unveiled as early as Thursday.

In recent months, Palestinians have floated a number of ideas about what they might try to do at the UN meeting and what they hope to achieve. As President Mahmoud Abbas keeps insisting, it seems Palestinians would prefer to resume negotiations with clear terms of reference. With neither negotiations nor clear terms thus far forthcoming, however, and with time quickly running out, a UN initiative of some sort looks increasingly likely. The political and diplomatic results will depend on what, exactly, the Palestinians propose.

Despite persistent claims by both the Israeli right and the Palestinian left, the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah is not content with the status quo, in spite of the fact that its rule in "Area A" of the occupied West Bank is, for now, secure. The Palestinian Authority and Palestine Liberation Organization leadership likely know that if their long-term strategy of securing Palestinian statehood, mainly through negotiations and diplomacy, is seen as a permanent failure, they will be finished in Palestinian politics. They need only look towards Gaza, where Hamas was elected, to see the alternative national leadership waiting in the wings. An Islamist take-over of the Palestinian national movement, they know, would have dire consequences for the cause of independence.

Many Israelis and Americans are frustrated at the impasse in peace talks. So too are the Palestinian people and leadership, for whom the special conditions of occupation and the ongoing Israeli settlement project make the status quo particularly alarming. Following the rapid breakdown of direct negotiations last year and the Obama administration's failure to secure even a three-month extension of Israel's partial and temporary settlement moratorium -- even with an astoundingly generous package of inducements -- the PLO concluded that they could not continue to rely primarily on a peace process that requires Israeli enthusiasm and American determination.

Palestinians had hoped that a convergence of bottom-up state-building and top-down diplomacy, led by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, would be the key to independence. Left on its own, the state-building plan has been little more than a development project under occupation. This has given the leadership a sense of urgency that has impelled its turn towards possible statehood initiatives at the UN.

The most widely discussed option is for Palestinians to apply to the Secretary General for full UN membership, leading to a referral to the Security Council. If the Security Council approved the request, it would be forwarded to the General Assembly where it would require a two-thirds majority, which Palestinians would almost certainly get. But the United States has made it clear that it intends to veto any such resolution in the Security Council, making full UN membership for Palestine impossible at present.

Another option under discussion would be for Palestinians to seek a General Assembly resolution under the "Uniting for Peace" resolution 337 of 1950. This was an American-led initiative to overcome persistent USSR vetoes of Security Council resolutions regarding Korea. However, Uniting for Peace resolutions do not address UN membership, but rather are concerned with a "threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression." They are a way to authorize use of force, sanctions, and other coercive measures by the UN General Assembly in spite of a Security Council veto. It is very difficult to see how such a resolution would advance the cause of Palestinian membership in the UN. Boycotts and sanctions have been in place in many contexts, including the Middle East, without such a resolution, and there is no indication that it would have any practical impact on either Palestinian UN membership or coercive measures aimed at Israel by other member states.

The most recently floated idea is that Palestinians could apply for non-member state observer status, as opposed to the PLO's present observer status as a non-state mission. Theoretically, this would require a 50 percent-plus-one vote in the General Assembly, a tally Palestinians could likely easily achieve. However, such a change in status would make Palestine neither a member state of the UN nor a state with practical independence. Abbas and others have said the goal is to gain a more even footing with Israel diplomatically and to negotiate over the occupation not of undefined territory, but the territory of another state. Whether such a change of status in the UN would achieve this result is highly questionable.

But there are real reasons to pursue non-member state observer status. In the UN's history, other than the Vatican,16 states have had held that status, and all 16 eventually became members. It could also provide Palestine with access to the International Criminal Court, possibly allowing it to accede to the Statute of Rome and become a member of the Assembly of State Parties. This is no doubt among the most important of Israel's concerns about such a move, against which it has threatened unspecified unilateral retaliation.

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Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, a weekly columnist with The National and NOW Media, and a frequent commentator on Middle Eastern affairs in the American and Arab media.

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