News / Middle East

Palestinian Bid for Statehood Creates Diplomatic Crisis

The UN General Assembly listening to President Obama's speech at United Nations headquarters in New York, September 21, 2011. The body's attention this week is focused on the Palestinian request for full membership.
The UN General Assembly listening to President Obama's speech at United Nations headquarters in New York, September 21, 2011. The body's attention this week is focused on the Palestinian request for full membership.
Mohamed Elshinnawi

Palestinian Statehood Bid Breakdown

    The Process

  • Palestinians say they are seeking U.N. recognition after years of negotiations with Israel failed to deliver an independent state.
  • It is not clear if Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will seek U.N. Security Council approval of U.N. member status for an independent Palestine, or instead seek "non-member status" within the world body.
  • The mechanism for recognizing statehood at the United Nations is specific.
  • First, a resolution declaring a State of Palestine as a full U.N. member is introduced. Then the resolution is sent to the Security Council, which studies it and takes a vote on sending the measure to the full General Assembly. It takes two thirds of the U.N.'s membership to approve voting-state status.
  • Achieving non-member status requires only a simple majority vote in the 193-member General Assembly. Palestinians currently hold observer status at the world body.
  • Non-voting U.N. membership would provide Palestinians with a status upgrade that would allow them to petition U.N. committees and entities such as the International Court of Justice.

    Why the Palestinian bid?

  • President Abbas backed out of U.S.-led peace talks last year in protest against Israel's decision to end a freeze in settlement building on land the Palestinians want for a future state. Palestinians say because the peace process has failed, they will unilaterally seek to establish a state. Abbas said the Palestinians are the only people in the world who remain under occupation.

    Why the Israelis oppose the move

  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the Palestinians' plan to seek statehood recognition at the United Nations is "futile," and that only direct negotiations can lead to a peace agreement.
  • Netanyahu has accused the Palestinians of "consistently evading" negotiations. He called on the Palestinian Authority "to abandon unilateral steps" and said it would then "find Israel to be a genuine partner" for peace.
  • Israel leaders say that by bypassing talks and going to the U.N., the Palestinians are violating previous agreements, and that could result in Israeli sanctions.

    Why the U.S. promises to veto

  • The Obama administration opposes the Palestinian move and says it will not help to bring Palestinians and Israelis back to the negotiating table. President Obama has called the proposal a "distraction" to attaining Mideast peace that he says can only be addressed through negotiations.
  • The U.S., one of five veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council, says it will veto a Palestinian membership bid in the Council if it comes to a vote.

There are diplomatic and legal consequences for admitting Palestinians to the U.N. with full-member status or even with non-member status. For instance, Palestinians could drag top Israeli officials to the International Criminal Court. The U.S. could lose whatever is left of its credibility in the Arab world if it vetoes the Palestinian bid. These significant consequences are prompting the U.S., Israel and the Quartet to offer negotiations as a better path to statehood.

They have until Friday, the day Palestinian President Abbas picked for submitting his formal request. This scenario prompted a flurry of behind-the-scenes negotiations in New York this week to avoid a confrontation certain to evoke an angry Arab response. A U.S. veto would be perceived as Washington blocking a move to realize an outcome President Obama called for a year ago: a Palestinian state. Arab public opinion is not buying the Obama administration’s argument that Palestinian statehood must emerge from a negotiated deal with Israel.

Options for U.S.

Shibley Telhami is a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. He argues that the U.S. has a better option.

“What if the U.S. pre-empted a U.N. General Assembly resolution with a Security Council resolution endorsing a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, with comparable mutually agreed land swaps? That would push the two sides toward the negotiating table.” The veto option will be condemned in the Arab world regardless of its outcome," said Telhami.

Full interview with Professor Daoud Khairallah:

Daoud Khairallah, a professor of international law at Georgetown University, expects the U.S. to avoid exercising its veto power in the Security Council. “The U.S. will try to convince certain members within the Security Council not to support the Palestinian bid, so with less than the nine-member majority, the council will not adopt a resolution without invoking a U.S. veto,” he said.

Cost of U.S. veto

Failing that, a U.S. veto would result in a wide-spread anti-American sentiment across the Arab world, Khairallah says. “The only thing that has alienated Arabs from the U.S. is their feeling that the U.S. is helping the occupier of their land – an additional veto would further that feeling,” he said.

Ambassador Philip Wilcox, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, agrees. “The U.S. would severely harm its credibility in the Middle East by identifying exclusively with the Israeli position," he said.

"The veto will weaken the U.S. influence at a time of turmoil and change in the region. This is harmful for the national interests of the U.S. and its strategy. Unless the U.S. shows the sympathy and support of both Israel and the Palestinians it cannot perform the role of a mediator and a peace maker,” he added.

Full interview with Ambassador Philip Wilcox:

Former Saudi Ambassador to the U.S., Prince Turki al-Faisal, wrote in The New York Times that the U.S. can veto a Palestinian state and risk losing Saudi Arabia as an ally. “With most of the Arab world in upheaval,” he wrote, “the special relationship between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. would increasingly be seen as toxic by the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims, who demand justice for the Palestinian people.”

Legal consequences, prospects of peace

International law experts say that Palestinian U.N. membership will have serious consequences for Israel even if they achieve only the status of non-member observer.

Some of the legal consequences that Professor Khairallah lists

  • Palestine could become a member of some international organizations and it could have a standing before the International Court of Justice.
  • Palestine could become a member of the Rome Treaty and thus could sue top Israeli leaders at the International Criminal Court.
  • Any form of UN recognition of a Palestinian state using the 1967 borders will alter what Israel considers as disputed territories to being “occupied” lands, which will add valuable weight to the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice that considers Israeli settlements illegal.
  • Israel would legally be an occupier that should end its occupation.
  • Recognition gives the Palestinians the right to self-determination and self-defense, even if they use force.

But a former Israeli peace negotiator, Michael Herzog, who is a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argues that seeking to force Israel’s hand through a U.N. resolution could trigger a major Israeli-Palestinian confrontation and irreversible damage to the chances of a negotiated agreement.

“Legal confrontations between Palestinians and Israel will provide a constant distraction from the attempt to restart negotiations needed for the two-state solution,” he said.

What if the Palestinian bid fails?

Herzog fears an Israeli-Palestinian confrontation could inflame the Arab masses. “The newly empowered Arab street is rife with the anti-Israeli sentiments, as shown in the recent storming of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. This will also motivate two non-Arab actors seeking regional dominance, Turkey and Iran, to take further anti-Israel actions and earning them credit in the Arab world.”

But a complete failure of the Palestinian U.N. bid could trigger an escalation of violence in the region, Professor Khairallah said. “Such failure would fuel Palestinian frustration and would strengthen the position of radical elements in the Palestinian society who support armed resistance.” He added, “Hamas then can claim that the U.S. is not to be trusted as a peace broker and that Palestinians have exhausted all peaceful means and the only way left is armed resistance. That would mean a culture of resistance will be rampant in the Middle East.”

Ambassador Wilcox agrees. “Ultimately, the Palestinian public would feel a deeper sense of despair after 20 years of failed peace negotiations followed by a failure to gain the U.N. support. Resorting to violence would make it even more difficult to reach a negotiated two-state solution,” he said.

There is still a very narrow window to avoid all this U.N. drama and its unintended consequences; if and only if Palestinians are offered an attractive alternative to their U.N. bid. Given the time remaining, that does not seem a likely possibility.

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