Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ announcement that he intends to seek full United Nations membership from the Security Council raises a wide range of interesting, and in some ways alarming, scenarios for the coming weeks. However, the move is unlikely to ultimately bring Palestinians any closer to actual independence.
Abbas knows that if such a vote ever takes place at the Security Council, the United States is committed to vetoing it. There is even some question whether the Palestinians can achieve a nine-vote majority in favor of a state, with Israel’s UN ambassador citing Portugal as a key swing vote that might prevent such a majority.
Either way, Palestinians cannot win full UN membership at this stage, no matter how much they want or deserve it. Indeed, there are numerous procedural methods in which this request can get bogged down in the UN apparatus for weeks, months, even indefinitely.
If Palestinians want to pursue a UN-based strategy, this means they will ultimately have to turn to the General Assembly. The most they could secure from that body is an upgrade from observer status for the Palestine Liberation Organization to that of a non-member observer state. That wouldn’t much change Palestinian rights and prerogatives in the General Assembly, but theoretically it could mean access to the International Criminal Court and other international legal enforcement mechanisms to seek charges against Israel.
As a practical matter, however, this may prove much more difficult than it sounds. Even if a non-member Palestinian “state” were able to accede to the Statute of Rome and join the Assembly of Parties at the ICC, the decision of a prosecutor to act on any Palestinian request to pursue charges against Israeli officials would essentially be a political matter, subject to intensive domestic and international pressures.
Frankly, it’s hard to imagine multilateral international law-enforcement agencies actually bringing charges against Israelis under present or foreseeable political and diplomatic circumstances.
What Palestinians are pursuing, then, is a kind of virtual “statehood.” However, on the ground the Israeli occupation will remain in place and could well intensify. Indeed, the daily lives of Palestinians may deteriorate due to various forms of Israeli and American retaliation.
Abbas himself has always recognized that actual Palestinian statehood will require an agreement with Israel. No international party is trying to replace the United States as the broker for such talks. A crisis in relations with Washington resulting from a Security Council veto or a non-member state vote at the General Assembly without prior understanding with the European Union or the Middle East Quartet is, therefore, unlikely to bring Palestinians closer to independence.
The international status of a Palestinian non-member state at the UN would be a mirror image of the de facto independent Republic of Kosovo. Kosovo is, in every meaningful way, a sovereign state that controls its own territory, makes its own decisions, is recognized by most of the great powers of the world, and participates in the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. However, due to Russian and, to some extent, Chinese objections, it is not a member state of the United Nations and will not become one in the foreseeable future. It is also not recognized by its most important neighbor, Serbia, which considers Kosovo to be a UN-administered part of Serbian territory.
Kosovo, therefore, is for all practical purposes an independent state, but one that is severely restricted when it comes to recognition and participation at the multilateral and diplomatic register.
Abbas’ plan for Palestine will produce the inverse result. There will be a Palestinian state that enjoys significant recognition and the latitude to participate diplomatically at the UN, and quite possibly in other significant multilateral forums; however, it will, otherwise, enjoy little real sovereignty. Kosovo has de facto independence without many of the trappings of sovereignty. What Palestinians are demanding is, in effect, the box in which independence came, minus the content.
The Palestinians are not in a position to emulate the Kosovars, who secured de facto statehood in spite of failing to secure important recognitions, and braved the vociferous objections of Serbia and some permanent Security Council members. Even proponents of a Palestinian UN gambit must acknowledge that their statehood will, for now, be virtual at best.
More importantly, the risks in realizing an independent Palestinian state are enormous. Israeli retaliation aside, for Palestinians to provoke a crisis in relations with Washington and perhaps forego what a second-term American administration might do after the next election, if President Barack Obama wins, in exchange for a symbolic victory now, may mean paying a high cost for very limited gains.
It is still not too late for a compromise to be achieved. This would be in the interests of all parties, not least the Palestinians. As the example of Kosovo demonstrates, there is a huge gap between international recognition and genuine independence.