On September 19, Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas formally told
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon that he would be
submitting an application for full UN membership for the state of
Palestine after his speech to the General Assembly on September 23.
This reiterates the plan outlined by Abbas in a speech to the
Palestinian people last week.
It is not absolutely certain that such a resolution would win the
required nine-vote majority in the Security Council, but even if it
did, the United States is publicly committed to vetoing it. So the
Palestinians cannot, at this stage, win full UN membership under any
This means that the Palestinians, if they are to pursue a UN-based
strategy to its logical conclusion, will have to turn to the General
Assembly for something less: UN nonmember observer-state status. The
Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) has been a nonmember
observer at the UN since 1974, with several upgrades in rights and
privileges since then.
Nonmember state status for Palestine, as opposed to the PLO’s
“political entity” observer mission, would not greatly alter the
procedural tools available to the Palestinians in that body.
But many Palestinians might regard it as an important symbolic
victory, an international recognition of their right to statehood and
another step towards eventual full UN membership and independence.
Invoking A Powerful Historical Precedent
There are two specific aspects to UN nonmember state status that
appeal to some Palestinians.
First, is the powerful historical precedent it invokes. There is
presently only one nonmember state at the UN, the Holy See, but the
Vatican has no interest in becoming a full UN member state for a
variety of reasons.
However, historically, there have been 16 UN nonmember states and,
accounting for the unification of Germany and Vietnam, all 16 are now
full UN members. This history alone helps to explain a large part of
the appeal such a status holds for Palestinian leaders.
Second, some Palestinians hope that a nonmember UN observer state of
Palestine would be able to access international law enforcement
agencies and mechanisms to pursue charges against Israel.
Specifically, some Palestinians are hoping their nonmember state could
become party to the International Criminal Court, potentially making
Israel and Israeli officials liable for war crimes under the Statute.
These not only include unlawful acts of violence against persons or
property, but also settlement activity and “the crime of apartheid.”
However, although theoretically it is possible for a non-UN-member
“state” of Palestine to accede to the Statute, actually pursuing
indictments and prosecutions against Israeli officials will be more of
a political and diplomatic process than a legal one.
It is difficult to imagine a multilateral, diplomatic international
law-enforcement body filing charges against Israel under the current
The history of the Goldstone Report into the Gaza War found opposition
to acting under its findings coming not only from traditional
defenders of Israel such as the United States and France, but also
Russia and China, who were concerned about the potential precedent it
might set concerning the actions of large armies in heavily populated
There are two ways in which the Palestinians could seek such status in
the General Assembly.
The first would be to reach an understanding with the European Union
— uncomfortably split between members which are supportive, opposed
to, and ambivalent about such an upgrade for the Middle East Quartet.
The second would be to do it in a confrontational manner, which could
provoke a serious backlash from Israel, the United States and possibly
even some European states.
A confrontational approach could well result in the cutting off of aid
from the United States — the single biggest individual donor to the
Palestinian Authority (PA) annually — and a wide range of potential
Israeli retaliations, including the withholding of Palestinian tax
revenues which make up the bulk of the PA’s budget.
Moreover, a crisis in relations with the United States is extremely
unlikely to promote the realization of a genuinely independent,
sovereign state of Palestine.
That can only be achieved through negotiations with Israel and no
party is competing with the Americans to serve as the broker for such
Therefore, what the Palestinians would gain through a confrontational
General Assembly vote, which they could no doubt win, would be
largely, if not entirely, symbolic, but with very real, painful costs.
Indeed, the Palestinians might be setting themselves up as the mirror
image of the Republic of Kosovo, which has de facto independence but
no UN membership and limited international recognition, primarily due
to Russian and Serbian opposition.
Palestine could end up with enhanced status at the UN and widespread
international recognition, but no actual sovereignty and with de facto
independence at least as difficult to achieve as ever.
Potentially A Pyrrhic Victory
Palestinian leaders argue convincingly that they have little
confidence in the willingness of the present Israeli government of
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to enter into serious negotiations
leading to their independence, and that the bilateral negotiating
process brokered by the United States has essentially broken down, at
least for the time being. So it is understandable that they are
looking for an alternative.
But the practical consequences of a confrontational approach at the
UN, which alienates much of the West — especially the United States
— and provokes Israeli retaliation, could prove a Pyrrhic victory.
Worse still, if the United States, Israel and others overreact by
cutting off funds to the PA and leaving the Palestinians destitute and
in despair, this could provoke an outpouring of anger and even
violence that would turn into a security and political nightmare for
Israel and the PA alike.
In both of these instances, the “cure” would be worse than the
disease, and measures designed to make matters better or make an
important point could actually render the existing political situation
far more difficult.
Since the Palestinian leadership has taken no formal action yet, the
window for a compromise is not yet closed. It is strongly in the
interests of all parties to find one.