This article explores the upcoming attempt by the Palestinian Liberation Organization to gain recognition at the United Nations for a Palestinian state. It examines the possible options that the Palestinian statehood delegation might follow at the UN and discusses the potential ramifications of the bid, and what this might mean for the future of the Palestinian struggle.
The Palestinian bid for ‘statehood’ has become one of the key items on the agenda of the general debate of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly’s sixty-sixth session – to begin on 21 September 2011. The request being tabled by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) will ‘approach the UN … to obtain recognition of the State of Palestine on the 1967 borders and Palestinian membership in the international community.’
With just days left before the request is formally made in the chamber of the General Assembly, it remains unclear what this bid will mean in terms of the path the PLO will pursue at the UN. It could apply for full membership of the UN, but PLO spokespeople have indicated that even moving from being an observer entity to being a non-member state would in itself be an important progression for the Palestinian people. Within these options are various possibilities and permutations, especially regarding whether the bid will be submitted to the General Assembly (GA) or the Security Council (SC) or both. This lack of clarity is reflective of the vigorous debate between Palestinians regarding the bid, with a growing number arguing that – irrespective of its outcome – it would likely pose greater dangers than benefits for the Palestinian people.
Until a week before PA president Mahmoud Abbas was due to address the GA and submit his statehood request on Friday, 23 September, it remained unclear what exactly he would call for, and indeed whether the bid would go ahead. There was some indication that he would prefer to be rid of the whole matter and would be willing to accept a way in which he could withdraw the bid but save face. This served as the basis for a series of four secret meetings he had with Israeli president Shimon Peres in London and Amman, where the pair attempted to find a way to restart negotiations and avert the statehood bid. The meetings, however, came to a halt when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu expressed his opposition to the continuation of these discussions.
Palestinian statehood, then and now
Twenty years ago, at around the beginning of the ‘peace process’, the Palestinian desire and need for a state was clearer than it is now. While many Palestinians were concerned about the effect of the formation of a Palestinian state on refugees, many, including the formal leadership of the PLO, embraced the idea of a state within the 1967 borders. However, claims on this territory (twenty-two percent of British Mandate Palestine) has not resulted in Palestinian sovereignty, despite that premise in the Oslo Accord. Ongoing settlement construction and land annexation by Israel have continuously undermined the PLO’s vision of a state within the 1967 borders. Further, Israel has made it clear that it would maintain control over the air space and borders of any Palestinian state; retain military presence in the Jordan River Valley (about thirty percent of the West Bank); control Jerusalem – which it had illegally annexed; and refuse permission for a new Palestinian state to have an army.
By definition, a sovereign state is a state that is not subject to the control and power of another state, and that has ultimate authority over its territory. Israel’s demands on the Palestinians and its occupation have made Palestinian sovereignty an impossibility. Statehood – as declared by the PLO in 1988 – has not been beneficial to Palestinians insofar as the key principles of sovereignty and the right of return of Palestinian refugees, among other central concerns, are concerned.
The PLO argues that, were it to get recognition by the UN, it would be able to force Israel to abide by international law, and to use the legal instruments of the UN system to force Israel to recognise the sovereignty of a Palestinian state. These arguments will be examined below.
The UN process
Before an application for full membership of a state to the United Nations can be voted on by the GA, where at least two-thirds of the 193 members states must vote in favour, it has to pass through the Security Council where it can be subject to a veto by any of the five permanent members. On 29 June 2011, the United States Senate passed resolution 185, which called on the US administration to oppose a bid for Palestinian statehood, and warns that if Palestinians go ahead with their plan to seek ‘unilateral recognition’ as a state, the US would suspend financial aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA). Resolution 185 is an indication that President Barack Obama (who is preparing for re-election) will veto a Palestinian statehood bid at the UNSC.
The PLO could challenge a US veto by asking the GA to pursue one of the following options:
1. approach the SC and ask the latter to reconsider its position;
2. approach the SC to ask the latter to reconsider its position, while simultaneously granting Palestine the status of ‘non-member observer state’;
3. if the Palestinian bid gets a majority of SC votes but gets vetoed, the GA could request the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to give an advisory opinion on a question of principle: ‘Is a negative vote by a permanent member of the SC to be treated as a veto in voting on membership applications?’
4. evoke Resolution 377, (the ‘Uniting for Peace’ resolution adopted during the 1950 Korean War), which could override the veto based on the argument that obstructing Palestine’s admission as a member of the UN would threaten regional security.
There are other possible options which involve approaching the GA directly, but exclude the possibility of obtaining full UN member status. If this route were pursued, three options are possible.
1. The easiest would be to request that states that have not already done so should recognise the State of Palestine within 1967 borders. (Currently, 120 states recognise the State of Palestine.) This would, in essence, be an acknowledgement of the 1988 declaration. A majority vote at the GA is all that is required for such a resolution to be adopted.
2. A second possibility for engaging the GA directly is for the PLO to apply to become a non-member observer state, which also requires a majority vote. In the past few months, European governments have been trying to convince Mahmoud Abbas to accept this so-called ‘Vatican option’. The Palestinian envoy to the UN has already said that even a move from the status of an ‘observer entity’, a label that the PLO has had since 1974, to an ‘observer state’ or ‘non-member state’ would allow Palestinians to to join UN agencies like WHO, UNESCO and UNICEF. Furthermore, apart from this circumventing the SC and obviating a US veto, this path could allow Palestinians to level charges against Israel at the International Criminal Court. Thus, this option would give the Palestinians greater legal leverage over Israel.
3. A third possibility is to combine the above two options and apply for them jointly at the GA. This would allow the observer non-member state to, for example, participate in debates, but would not grant it the vote in the GA.
It is questionable whether a change in status (from observer entity to observer state, for example) would give Palestinian representatives greater leverage at the UN. Firstly, since 1976, the PLO has been able to participate in SC debates. Secondly, even with the PLO’s observer status and the ‘State of Palestine’ recognised by 120 states, with fifteen others that have diplomatic relations with the PLO, opportunities for Palestinians to raise the issues of occupation and Israel’s war crimes at multi-lateral platforms have been missed or subverted – including by Palestinian representatives.
Perils of the statehood bid
A number of concerns have been raised – especially by Palestinians – about the statehood bid at the United Nations, and the dangers it poses for the Palestinian struggle for human rights and self-determination. Various Palestinian NGOs, community organisations and other civil society bodies have spoken out against the bid, arguing that the appeal to the UN is misplaced and poses a number of dangers for Palestinians. In addition, Hamas has expressed its outright rejection of the bid. Many Palestinians argue that the reason that Mahmoud Abbas is pursuing this approach is that he had trapped himself in a position – within the Oslo paradigm – where he positioned negotiations as the only means of attaining Palestinian objectives. His spokespeople often said, ‘the alternative to negotiations is negotiations’. When the Israelis refused to negotiate, and continuously violated the spirit of the talks, the PA saw the statehood bid as the only way forward within the negotiations paradigm. The bid, therefore, seems to be borne of desperation and political expedience rather than a coherent strategy for attaining Palestinian objectives.
The meaning of recognition
There are numerous UN resolutions that outline Palestinians’ inalienable right to self-determination and the formation of an independent state with the right to return. For example, at the last GA session in 2010, the GA adopted seventeen resolutions supporting Palestinian rights, including the right to self-determination, right of return in accordance with GA Resolution 194, right to an independent state, non-recognition of the annexation of Jerusalem and the changes effected by the occupation, condemnation of Israeli settlement activity, and so on. Would the situation be any different if a new resolution on Palestinian statehood were passed, and how would such a resolution be useful in asserting the need to uphold international law?
The reality is that the declaration of Palestinian statehood will not end the occupation and ongoing Israeli annexation of land. If a Palestinian state received UN recognition, this would not shield it from Israeli occupation – as the twenty-two year occupation of south Lebanon and the annexation of the Golan Heights from Syria indicate.
An end to representation and the right of return?
If the bid for statehood were to pass, it would likely transfer Palestinian representation in the UN from the PLO to the ‘State of Palestine’; the PLO and the Palestinian state cannot both be represented. Such a move will end the PLO’s legal status as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people – a status that the PLO has held in the UN since 1975. The new Palestinian seat on the UN – which will represent only citizens of the ‘state’, i.e. residents of the West Bank and Gaza – will reflect a national programme of self-governance and will effectively end the representation of Palestinian refugees and Palestinian citizens of Israel at the UN. This is not a technical triviality but has critical political and legal consequences.
The PLO, through the Palestinian National Council (PNC), currently represents Palestinian refugees, who constitute the majority of the Palestinian population and Palestinian citizens of Israel. Most of the world’s nine million Palestinians live outside the West Bank and Gaza, and three quarters of the members on the PNC represent the diaspora. The PLO is representative of popular sovereignty on the grounds of representation of all Palestinians as opposed to simply representing a territorial claim of sovereignty. Transferring the Palestinian seat at the UN to a Palestinian ‘state’ thus robs refugees from being able to voice their concerns, have an opinion on the political make-up of the state, and – crucially – exercise their right to return. Thus, it would virtually destroy the possibility of Palestinian refugees returning to their homes and properties.
The PLO has said it would continue being the representative of the Palestinian people. However, this would not be effective representation considering that it would lose its seat at the UN, and that the entity that will hold the Palestinian seat will not be accountable to the PLO, but will be regarded as a sovereign state.
If the ‘State of Palestine’ were to be recognised by the UN, this could effectively allow the rest of the world to absolve itself of the Palestinian issue and to argue that the matter has been resolved as far as the international community is concerned. Pursuant to statehood recognition, all matters regarding the rights of the Palestinian people – including final status issues – could be relegated to the status of disputes between two states that should be resolved bilaterally. This includes all future border issues, Israeli control over Palestinian water resources, the right of return of refugees, illegal settlements, the control of Gaza’s coastal waters, and even Israel’s wall in the West Bank. In effect, the international community will recognise a Palestinian state, but accept a Palestinian bantustan.
A successful bid could easily result in large-scale demobilisation of Palestinian activism and resistance – especially in the West Bank and Gaza. That demobilisation, if not voluntary, will be assisted by the PA’s security apparatuses which – under Prime Minister Salam Fayyad – have been effective over the past two years in crushing dissent in the West Bank, and in collaborating with Israeli security structures to ensure that any mobilisation that poses serious resistance to Israel is repressed.
Furthermore, liberation movements enjoy the right – under the Geneva Conventions and UN resolutions – to resist, in various ways, occupation and colonialism in order to achieve the freedom, independence and self-determination of their people. States do not have the same kind of right. Were the international community to recognise a Palestinian state, this could have dire implications on Palestinian resistance against Israeli occupation.
Which part of a state?
The PA might get recognition for a state within the 1967 borders, but it has not dealt with the question of where its sovereignty will be exercised. Large parts of the West Bank are covered by illegal Israeli settlements, and Israel will not remove the settlements simply because of a statehood resolution. Nor will Israel remove its troops from West Bank territory. The sovereignty of the new ‘state’ will be a false one.
Further, Gaza is currently controlled by Hamas, which has rejected the statehood bid. A ‘state’ including the West Bank and Gaza is not realistic if those controlling Gaza refuse to accept it, and insist that they remain a resistance movement struggling against Israeli occupation.
Although a reconciliation agreement was recently signed by a number of Palestinian political factions, the statehood bid is largely a unilateral move by one faction – Fatah. Hamas, arguably the largest faction, opposes it. Further, the bid is being made in the name of the PLO and seeks to undermine the PLO’s status at the UN. This then seeks to predetermine a status and role for the PLO before other groups – such as Hamas and the Palestinian National Initiative – have been formally accepted into the organisation, which is a requirement of the reconciliation accord. Effectively, Palestinian reconciliation is undermined by the statehood bid irrespective of what its outcomes might be.
Further, if the statehood bid does succeed, the US and Israel could apply pressure on the ‘State of Palestine’ to end the reconciliation agreement and distance itself from Hamas – which they consider a terrorist organisation.
What of failure?
If the statehood bid fails, and negotiations are resumed, the Palestinian negotiation team will be in an even weaker position than it currently is. If talks between Israel and the PA are resumed, the US and Israel would be in a position to force the PA to make concessions that it might otherwise not be willing to make. One such concession would be to force the PA to recognise Israel as a Jewish state in exchange for the recognition of a ‘Palestinian state’; a recognition that would jeopardise the one and half million Palestinians who are citizens of Israel. Another possible concession would be to get the PA to cede the right of return of Palestinian refugees.
There are various possible benefits to the build up to, as well as the possible results of the September initiative if it is regarded as a way strategically to advance Palestinian resistance to occupation and the assertion of the right to return. Numerous Palestinian civil society organisations and networks have articulated this, positing the UN as an arena of struggle for the Palestinian people. The conclusion of a document called ‘The Enterprise of Declaring a Palestinian State: Expression of Crisis or a Strategic Step?’ and endorsed by a number of Palestinian civil society organisations, argues:
“Accordingly, in order to go to the United Nations in line with national rights and with meaningful political and practical clarity, and in order to add qualitatively to the achievements of the past whilst not hindering possibilities to move forward, it is necessary to come with a clear strategy for putting these rights into practice, and not merely to express the crisis arising from the failure of negotiations and the internal inability to reconsider the choices of resistance. This necessarily requires that any international action on this scale combined with the acts and results of popular and official resistance on the ground, to request that the international community grant the executive force to be applied; to ensure the promotion of Palestinian inalienable rights and to end the illusion of twenty years of Oslo in a new guise.”
If the aim of the bid is simply to get a GA resolution which Israel is likely to ignore, as it has done with numerous other UN resolutions, then the tabling of the request would be – at the very least – a misguided waste of energy and resources, and could possibly be extremely detrimental to the representation and rights of Palestinians.
The reality is that Israel is the only sovereign power in what was mandate Palestine, and a declaration of statehood has neither in the past, and nor will it now fundamentally alter the realities of ongoing occupation, settlement construction and land annexation. This makes obvious what some Palestinian civil society groups have raised – that the issues involved are not ones of mere recognition.
Netanyahu has painted all kinds of scenarios that might unfold if the statehood bid were to fail. Mostly, these are scare tactics. However, there is a real possibility that if the bid does fail – if, for example, it is vetoed by the US, Palestinians may decide to up the resistance ante, embark on a new sustained resistance path and demand the dissolution of the PA. A third Palestinian intifada could change the political game. Furthermore, if this were linked with what Ehud Olmert called ‘a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights’, the Palestinian struggle could take a new turn. The bid, thus, could spark a more energised resistance movement.
Afro-Middle East Centre