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Ambassador Gerald B. Helman, Informed Comment: The Palestinians Seek UN Recognition

The Palestinians Seek UN Recognition
by Gerald B. Helman, September 13, 2011

Ambassador Gerald B. Helman writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:

The Palestinian Authority has stated its intention this Fall to seek some action at the United Nations to advance its claim to statehood now. According to press reports, the PA’s initiative at least in part would be a reaction to what it sees as Israel’s unwillingness to advance a peace process that would lead to Palestinian statehood under a “two state” solution, and Israel’s continued construction of settlements in violation of its obligations under the Geneva Conventions and unwillingness to recognize the 1967 frontier as the starting point for negotiations. The PA has not revealed how it hopes to achieve statehood status at the UN. Reports in the press and among commentators suggest confusion on the part of the media and misinformation about the possible options available to the PA and what significance they might have. The purpose of this note is to address some of the options available, their political and procedural significance for the PA and for the opponents of a Palestinian initiative.

Membership in the UN, according to its Charter, is open to all “peace-loving states which accept the obligations contained in the present Charter and, in the judgment of the Organization, are able and willing to carry out these obligations.” Membership is accorded by the General Assembly upon recommendation of the Security Council (where the veto would apply). Nowhere does the Charter define what is a state. Generally, a political entity is considered a state if it controls its own defined territory and can meet its obligations to other states, presumably including those obligations contained in the Charter. But then what is to be done with the Somalias of this world, and with some of the other UN members that many consider “failed” states? No one challenges or is likely to challenge their statehood or their membership as states in the UN. (A more sceptical or maybe practical definition of a “state” would be a political entity that existing states consider a state and deal with them as such.) In the case of the PA and actual membership in the UN, such issues are beside the point. The US has already said it would veto an application, and thus PA membership, reportedly on the grounds that such membership would impede the prospects for negotiations leading to a “two-state” solution. The US has said nothing about the PA’s “statehood” or its ability to carry out the obligations of UN membership, tests of membership specified in the Charter. If the PA nevertheless pursues this course, the best it can do is achieve a moral victory if all other Security Council members vote for membership, or, more likely, if the application receives at least the nine votes needed to pass but fails because of a US veto. No other Permanent Member has said it would veto.

The General Assembly provides a number of other options, any of which can be successful because of the strong majority other Arab states can rally in support of the PA. As a practical political matter, the General Assembly can adopt whatever political resolution it wants, unless specifically limited by the Charter because of powers given to or shared with the Security Council. Thus, the Assembly can simply adopt a resolution, citing any number of prior Assembly or Security Council resolutions, including those defining frontiers and conditions for settlement (such as those proposing swaps of land for peace), and declare the PA to be a state, peace-loving and willing and able to carry out the obligations of UN membership. Such a resolution could be accompanied by an additional action changing the current special observer status of the PA to that of an Observer State, with rights of participation in UN meetings and activities. While this changes very little in the current de facto status of the PA as an “entity” with UN Observer status, the change to Observer State would put it in the same category as that of such states as Switzerland, Korea, Finland and the (then) Federal Republic of Germany, all of which were at one time, for differing reasons, Observer States before they became members. (Today, the only remaining Observer State is the Holy See.) Such designation of the PA would gain in value if most democracies join in support and take follow-on action, such as establishing a diplomatic relations, supporting PA membership in various UN specialized agencies such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the World Health Organization (WHO), The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the International Labour Organization (ILO) and UNESCO (the UN Economic, Social and Cultural Organization). These and some others operate under Treaties separate from the UN Charter, and do not allow for a veto of membership.

By itself, Israel can do little effective to counter or modify any potential PA recourse to the UN. As a deterrent, Israel has said that such a move would set back the peace process perhaps by years (although the press fails to report why Israel believes this need be so). The US has undertaken to persuade both sides to resume peace talks as an alternative to UN action, thus far without success. Moreover, the US is committed to veto any Security Council resolution recommending PLO membership. Beyond that, the US is unlikely to be able to influence many votes either in the Security Council or the General Assembly. The UN remains largely an environment hostile to Israel, worse now than it has been for a while when Israel could rely on the quiet support of countries such as Egypt and Turkey to deflect or moderate hostile proposals. While Israel’s governmental relations with Egypt and Turkey remain correct, they have deteriorated, especially on a popular level. As the sacking of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo and the defense of Israel in the UN reveal, Israel after over sixty years remains almost uniquely dependent on the US (whose President they freely revile, even as they ask him to intercede on their behalf with Egypt).

In contrast, the UN might seem to the PA to be its sandbox. With the help of Islamic countries, it can engineer resolutions that support its cause, and operate in a forum in which it can vent its grievances. But its freedom to operate in the UN can be deceptive. Absent membership, the initiatives it undertakes will result in little more than the PA can today obtain in the UN system. At the end of the day, new initiatives involving statehood or membership may provide a political thrill for its constituencies, but will not have advanced the prospects for a two-state solution, or in any way improved the lot of Palestinians. For that, Israel’s participation will still be needed.

Each side might best use the inevitability of UN attention to the subject to present their larger vision of their future in a changing Middle East, all as a prelude to returning to negotiations under terms last offered by President Obama. As an alternative to threats, what Israel might consider today is something in the nature of a white paper explaining exactly why UN action at this time would be harmful to the peace process, or injurious to the further success of the Arab Spring and state that nevertheless it is prepared to resume negotiations. What Israel should avoid are threats based on assertions that such a move would be harmful because Israel says it would be harmful or unilateral actions, especially those involving disputed territory. No one any longer doubts Israel’s military strength, economic and technological capabilities, or the vigor of its political system. For its part, the PA should acknowledge the necessity of a two-state solution that can be achieved only with Israel’s willing participation and its own willingness to proceed on the basis of the President’s proposal.

Helman “was United States Ambassador to the European Office of the United Nations from 1979 through 1981.” He was among the originators of the concept and among the first to see the challenges of the “failed state.”


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