17 September, 2011

Palestine's bid for UN membership

In the near future the United Nations will receive an application for membership from a new country – the country of Palestine. The bid for UN membership is being made by the group surrounding Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority and the Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Their proposal is to create a Palestinian state on those parts of historic Palestine that were not occupied by Israel until 1967 – that is, the territories we know as the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, which includes all of East Jerusalem.

Abbas is pursuing this strategy despite opposition from the United States and Israel, who are both exercising considerable pressure on him to not go down this road. They are offering him negotiations, without preconditions, but Abbas and his circle feel that negotiations have failed and that talks brokered by the USA will continue to go nowhere. In this they are probably correct. The Israeli government likes negotiations because it can spin them out indefinitely, grabbing ever more Palestinian land in the meantime. And the USA, far from being some kind of honest broker, has used negotiations in the past to try and cajole the Palestinians into some kind of grossly inequitable settlement. Abbas hopes that by taking the Palestinian case to the UN he can internationalise the conflict and change the dynamic. In advance of formally applying for UN membership, Abbas' government has tried to build up its administration of the West Bank areas it runs so that it looks like a credible government in waiting.

Not all Palestinians and friends of Palestinians are in favour of the bid for UN membership. For some, the Abbas government has so little credibility left that any initiative it undertakes is intrinsically suspect. Many Palestinians suspect that the bid, successful or not, will make no difference to their lives. And many think that attempting to create a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank risks abandoning the interests of Palestinians elsewhere – those in exile across the world and those living as second class citizens within pre-1967 Israel.

Still, Israel's vehement hostility to the bid has somewhat rallied pro-Palestinian support behind it. The Israeli state has a number of reasons for opposing the bid. One of these is that the status quo suits it very well, as the Israeli state and its settlers can continue gobbling up Palestinian land. There is also some fear that recognition of a Palestinian state would make it easier for Israeli army officers and politicians to be referred to the International Criminal Court. And a further fear is that if the UN recognises a Palestinian state in all of Gaza and the West Bank, it will not be possible to bully the Palestinian leadership into accepting the far more runty faux state that the Israeli government have in mind for them.

The Israelis have put considerable diplomatic efforts into trying to block Palestinian membership at the UN, but they know that there is overwhelming support in the chancelleries of the world for the proposal. The only way the Palestinian bid can realistically be blocked is by a Security Council veto by the USA. This of course puts the USA in an awkward position. The USA always blocks Security Council motions that are unacceptable to Israel, but in this case there is such overwhelming support for the motion that it will look completely out of step with world opinion if it backs its little friend. Worse, a US veto will destroy any latent credibility the superpower has in the now democratising Arab world. Barack Obama spoke earlier this year of his wish to see a Palestinian state emerging in Gaza and the West Bank – he would look like a complete flubblehead if the USA were to veto a proposal to create just such a state.

The USA is therefore very keen not to have to use its veto, and has been pressurising the Palestinians to not go ahead with their UN membership bid. But Abbas seems to be determined to go ahead, as the Americans are not offering him anything credible. The likelihood is then that the USA will veto Palestinian membership of the UN in the Security Council, taking the ghastly negative consequences that this would involve.

The expectation is that the Palestinians will then take their case to the General Assembly. The General Assembly cannot vote to allow a country to join the United Nations, but it can give enhanced observer status to the Palestinians. This is what is expected to happen. The Palestinians will then be able to engage more fully with UN agencies and may achieve easier access to the International Criminal Court that so worries Israeli war criminals.

After that, anything could happen. US parliamentarians have threatened to cut funds to the Palestinian Authority if the bid goes ahead. There is the strong possibility that the Israelis (who collect tax revenues for the PA, as a result of a bizarre feature of the Oslo Accords that set up the Authority) will also withhold funds from the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinians could therefore find themselves with a degree of diplomatic recognition but with a civil administration that is collapsing through lack of funds.


Curb Your Enthusiasm: Israel and Palestine after the UN (International Crisis Group report on the Palestinian bid for UN membership; they wish people would just get along)

Ireland's call to support UN membership for Palestine [PDF] (an advertisement in today's Irish Times supporting the bid from Sadaka - the Ireland Palestine Alliance)

IPSC statement on the Palestinian “UN statehood initiative (a more ambivalent position adopted by the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign)

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