An analysis of the Palestinian bid for recogntion at the United Nations.
The United Nations is due to begin its annual General Assembly debate on September 21 in New York, whilst the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), led by chairman Mahmoud Abbas, is set to request for international recognition of the state of Palestine based on the 1967 borders, as well as full membership at the UN. In light of the Arab spring, the PLO has called upon the Palestinian people to demonstrate peacefully in the occupied territories, and to show solidarity with the UN recognition campaign.
However, despite the efforts which the Palestinians have shown over the past year in order to gain support worldwide, the United States and Israel have threatened Mr. Abbas not to approach the UN. Both nations argue that peace should be concluded via negotiations and agreed land swaps with Israel.
The previous round of peace talks in 2010 collapsed following the refusal of Israeli officials to extend the expired moratorium on building illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, despite Washington’s efforts to reignite negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The peace process was left in further tatters after the Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, laid out various pre-conditions at the White House, the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) meeting, and in front of Congress.
Veto at the Security Council
Mr. Abbas, who will be acting as chairman of the PLO and not the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) at the General Assembly, stated on September 16: “We are going to the Security Council. We need full membership in the United Nations… we need a state, and we need a seat at the UN.” The Palestinian leader is set to submit a formal request for state recognition upon the 1967 borders, which includes East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.
The US has confirmed they will veto any approach by the Palestinians at the Security Council. President Barack Obama said in regards to the proposed bid: “If this came to the Security Council we would object very strongly, precisely because we think it would be counterproductive. We don't think that it would actually lead to the outcome that we want, which is a two-state solution. What we've said is that going to the UN is a distraction, [it] does not solve the problem. This issue is only gonna be resolved by Israelis and Palestinians agreeing to something.”
Mr. Obama and the US administration are adamant that peace is only attainable via talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, with mutual land swaps. The US President is reluctant to isolate Israel in the international community, by affirming his support at the UN Security Council for a Palestinian state, due to the “special bond” between the nations. He sees the statehood bid as not changing the ongoing dispute over borders, Israeli occupation, settlements and effectively the blockade of Gaza, which he argues is only solvable through negotiations.
However, the Palestinians clearly no longer see peace talks as being worthwhile due to their ineffectiveness over the previous 20 years and the stalemate in 2010. Following Mr. Netanyahu’s outlining of pre-conditions in May, Saeb Erekat the Palestinian chief negotiator, said: “I don’t think we can talk about a peace process with a man who says Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel, undivided, and he does not want a single [Palestinian] refugee to go back. What is left to negotiate?” Mr. Abbas recently stated in Ramallah: “We have been willing to take part in serious negotiations.” The ‘Palestine Papers’, obtained by Al Jazeera, clearly highlighted the lengths the Palestinians were willing to go in order to establish a state by offering Israel most of East Jerusalem, concessions on the right of return for refugees and the annexation of large portions of the West Bank, in return for unused land around Gaza. The Palestinian leader added: “But we received nothing from the Israeli government except wasting time and imposing facts on the ground.”
The Palestinians see the UN recognition bid as a last attempt to obtain statehood (and effectively the two state-solution which the US promotes) by asking the world to recognise them.
The US pro-Israeli lobby at Congress and AIPAC clearly outlined their opposition to the Palestinian’s UN bid when Mr. Netanyahu held multiple conferences in Washington earlier this year. The Israeli Prime Minister thwarted Mr. Obama’s efforts to state that negotiations should be based on the 1967 borders, by labelling them as “indefensible”. Mr. Obama was later forced to clarify his statements at the AIPAC meeting, whilst Congress praised Mr. Netanyahu for outlining his multiple pre-conditions to peace talks with the Palestinians. Mr. Obama is unwilling to go against the wishes of the US pro-Israeli lobby and recognise Palestine due to the upcoming presidential elections. The support of Congress is imperative for the US president to win re-election in 2012.
Meanwhile, a veto by the US a permanent member of the Security Council would be detrimental to the Palestinian campaign for full membership at the UN General Assembly.
In order for the proposed recognition bid to be put forth to the General Assembly, approval would initially be required by the 15-member Security Council. For the request to be passed, nine out of fifteen votes would be required with no veto from any of the permanent members, which include the US. Should the US veto the Palestinian statehood bid at the Security Council, the General Assembly would be unable to vote on the proposal.
The PLO may instead decide to present a resolution directly to the General Assembly in order to be upgraded to non-member observer state, on par with the Vatican, if the Security Council proposal is vetoed. This would require gaining at least 129 votes, whilst at the moment 122 countries recognise Palestine. The Palestinians are confident of obtaining approximately 150 votes at the General Assembly. The PLO currently holds “entity” status at the UN.
Mr. Abbas is expected to address the General Assembly on September 23, before submitting the formal request to the UN.
It is believed the UK and France, as permanent Security Council members, may choose to follow the US lead and veto the Palestinian bid. However, neither nation has confirmed its decision. Despite this, the UK and France may choose to instead vote in favour of Palestine gaining non-member observer status at the UN General Assembly, should the bid be presented to them.
The European Union has not currently reached a consensus over how it will vote at the General Assembly. The EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said recently: "There is no resolution on the table yet, so there is no position. What we're very clear about from the European Union is that the way forward is negotiations.”
It is understood that Germany, the Netherlands, and others may vote against the statehood bid. However Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, recently said in regards to the Palestinian move: “I am not going to disclose today our voting intentions, whatever they may be. We are going to use the days that remain to perhaps achieve a few millimetres of movement.”
Despite the view of the governments in the UK, France and Germany, public support for a Palestinian state in these countries are high, according to a poll conducted by YouGov and Avaaz. The published poll revealed that support for the Palestinian people to have their own state stands at: 71% in the UK, 82% in France, and 86% in Germany.
"The prime minister [David Cameron] has a clear choice: stand with the British public and 120 other nations to support a Palestinian state and a new path to peace, or side with the US government, which continues to push for a failed status quo,” noted Ricken Patel of Avaaz.
The public view of the British government in the UK during the era of former Prime Minister Tony Blair was that the Labour party was clearly aligned with the George W. Bush administration. Mr. Blair’s collaboration with the US in the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 against the wishes of the British public led to a substantial lost of parliamentary seats in 2010. Should Mr. Cameron and the coalition government back the statehood bid, it would be seen by analysts and the public as a break from the previous government’s close foreign policy with the US.
The days after
Meanwhile, amidst calls and threats from the US, EU and Israel for the Palestinians to stop the UN bid, Mr. Abbas has reiterated the plan for statehood upon the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital: “Whatever the pressures, we’re going to the UN to submit our application for the membership. We know that many countries do not agree with us, do not like this idea, but we will go there.”
If Palestine obtains full membership, it would allow it greater opportunities to seek international legal action against the Israeli occupation and the illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and effectively the blockade of Gaza. Mr. Abbas has claimed that statehood for the Palestinians would give them a better chance to diplomatically fight the occupation: "It means we will be a state under occupation. Israel now says [East Jerusalem and the West Bank] is a disputed area and they can build settlements everywhere. They do not recognise that this is Palestinian territory. When we are a state … we will negotiate accordingly with the Israelis, of course with the support of the UN.” The PLO chairman stated recently in Ramallah: “We’re not going there [to the United Nations] to become independent. We will come back to negotiate the other issues.”
Analysts argue that full membership at the UN would give the Palestinians the possibility to take Israel to the international criminal court. In regards to the prospect, Mr. Abbas stated: "You are obliged to go [to the ICC] because somebody takes your rights, attacks you, or whatever it is. We don't want to go to the ICC for nothing. Tell the Israelis not to attack the Palestinians, and we will not go there. When you see the settlers every day burning mosques, cutting [down] trees – who prevents them?"
However, since the Security Council vote to become a full member is likely to be blocked by the expected US veto, the Palestinians may have to settle for a non-member observer status. Whilst this would mean an upgraded place at the UN for Palestine and allow them to join more UN bodies, it remains to be seen what this position would actually change.
Questions remain about what will happen in the days after the UN recognition bid at the Security Council and more importantly the General Assembly. As Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov, an international relations specialist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, clearly puts it: “The big question is the day after. The settlements will still be there. The Israeli Army will still be there.”
Mohammed Shtayyeh, a senior member of the PLO, acknowledged that a declaration of Palestinian statehood would not change the occupation and settlement. He notes: “Things on the ground are not going to be different. The difference will happen on the political level. Palestinians will join UN institutions… and the Palestinian territories will no longer be considered 'disputed lands' but occupied lands."
There has been a recent sense of mounting fear, particularly amongst the western media, that a third intifada could occur following the UN vote, which is reflected in the possibility that violence may develop between Palestinians and Jewish settlers. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz stated recently that the Israeli army is planning to distribute tear gas and stun grenades to settlers in the occupied West Bank to counteract violent protests after the UN proposal.
Yet, even if there is another intifada, it is possible that such an uprising could possibly remain peaceful, as was the case in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the February 2011 revolution. However, even peaceful protests may create a complicated situation for Israeli forces. According to a US cable released by Wikileaks, Avi Mizrachi, the head of Israel’s central command, told US officials that the Israeli army would handle West Bank demonstrations by deploying trucks “with ‘dirty water’ to break up protests, even if they are not violent.” Dirty water is in regards to “chemically treated” water that resembles the “effects of skunk spray”. Likewise, Amos Gilad, Israel's director of policy and political-military affairs, said in the cable: “We don't do Gandhi very well."
Avigdor Lieberman, the outspoken Israeli foreign minister, said in regards to the Palestinian UN bid: “A move like that will be a violation of all the agreements that were signed until today. Israel will no longer be committed to the agreements signed with the Palestinians in the past 18 years.” The agreements which Lieberman referred to were the Oslo accords in 1993, which created and permitted the PA to control small portions of the West Bank and Gaza. Legal analysts have argued that the UN bid may result in the PA losing the right to govern the small portions of the West Bank they currently have some authority over. Meanwhile, other threats made by Israeli ministers include the annexing of West Bank settlements and the withholding of tax revenues, collected by Israel for the Palestinians.
Arab and Muslim response to a US veto
It has also been recently claimed by a senior US consul general in Jerusalem that the US may cut its aid to the Palestinians, should it pursue the UN campaign. During a meeting with Erekat, Daniel Rubinstein is believed to have said: “In case the Palestinian Authority [and the PLO] seeks to upgrade its position at the UN through the General Assembly, the US Congress will take punitive measures against it, including a cut in US aid.” The US state department denied this. Mr. Abbas said in response: “We think the US is an honest broker. If they cut their aid to us, then it will be a different situation.” The amount of aid the Palestinians receive from the US is currently $550m annually.
Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, noted in an article published in June by the Washington Post that: “In September, the kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] will use its considerable diplomatic might to support the Palestinians in their quest for international recognition. American leaders have long called Israel an 'indispensable' ally.” Al-Faisal, an outspoken critic of Israel and the US support for them, added: “They will soon learn that there are other players in the region – not least the Arab street – who are as, if not more, 'indispensable'. The game of favoritism toward Israel has not proven wise for Washington, and soon it will be shown to be an even greater folly.”
The foreign policy analyst MJ Rosenberg argues that should the US congress cut its substantial aid to the Palestinians, Saudi Arabia may decide to use its diplomatic prowess in the Arab and Muslim world to help fill the loss of funds. Palestinian officials have also made similar assertions that Arab states would assist with any shortfall of capital.
Meanwhile, al-Faisal has since warned the Americans that a veto at the Security Council would end the special bond between the two nations, and would be even more detrimental to the Arab and Muslim world’s opinion of the US.
“The United States must support the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations this month or risk losing the little credibility it has in the Arab world. If it does not, American influence will decline further, Israeli security will be undermined, and Iran will be empowered, increasing the chances of another war in the region,” noted al-Faisal in his article published in the New York Times.
If Mr. Obama decides to back the Palestinian bid for recognition at the Security Council, it would represent a clear break from the current and previous US administration’s staunch support for Israel. Likewise, it would almost certainly improve the support for Mr. Obama and the US in the Muslim world, which spiked greatly after his election but has diminished since.
Despite the initial optimism after Mr. Obama’s election particularly when he delivered the Cairo 2009 speech, the overall view of the United States in the Arab and Muslim world has since dropped due to ongoing wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and drone attacks against the tribal region of Pakistan, along with the nation’s overall support and funding for Israel. The popularity of the US in the revolting Arab nations of Tunisia, Egypt Libya, Yemen and Syria has arguably fallen further due to the support the Americans gave to disposed dictators like Husni Mobarak and the ongoing backing of the ruling al-Khalifah family in Bahrain. John V. Whitbeck, an international lawyer who advised the Palestinian negotiating team in peace talks with Israel, stated: “An American veto would constitute a shotgun blast in both of its own feet, further isolating the US from the rest of the world and outraging the already agitated and unstable Arab and Muslim worlds (notably Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey).”
If the US vetoes the Palestinian bid, al-Faisal argues: “Saudi Arabia would no longer be able to co-operate with America in the same way it historically has. With most of the Arab world in upheaval, the "special relationship" between Saudi Arabia and the United States would increasingly be seen as toxic by the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims, who demand justice for the Palestinian people.” A breakdown in diplomacy between the US and Saudi Arabian government is surely not Mr. Obama’s aim.
Likewise, a veto from the Americans may possibly ignite anti-US and Israel demonstrations on a mass-scale in the Arab and Muslim world. Notably, recent anti-Israeli protests and riots have been seen in Cairo (and Amman) causing Egyptian commandos to conduct an emergency evacuation of Israeli embassy staff.
In the meantime, amidst all the diplomacy surrounding the Palestinian statehood bid at the UN, the question of whether the world decides to stand up and recognise the state of Palestine still remains.