Palestinians are on a new path for September: seeking U.N. membership, without a state.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas faces three possible choices for dealing with September, when he is expected to seek formal support for a Palestinian state from the international community. First, he could adopt an approach like most new states that do not go to the U.N. Instead, he could declare a state from his office in Ramallah. In the case of Kosovo in 2008, members of its parliament in its capital of Pristina issued a declaration of independence, after which some 60 countries recognized the new state. This was how East Timor became independent in 2002, after several years of U.N. administration.
But right now, it appears that Abbas has no intention of unilaterally declaring a state by himself. He told Dan Ephron from Newsweek in April, 2001 that if he goes to the U.N. he has no intention of coming back to assert Palestinian sovereignty over the territory that the U.N. designates for a future Palestinian state, because that would create a direct confrontation on the ground. Abbas prefers to be passive. He would also be defying the wishes of President Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress. As a result, he wants the international community to grant the Palestinians statehood rather than take the risks of seeking statehood by himself.
More recently, Palestinian leaders have chosen a different course for September: seeking U.N. membership, without declaring a state. Abbas wrote an article in the Op-ed section of the New York Times on May 16, 2011 about “Palestine’s admission to the U.N.” He put forward the idea that this would improve the Palestinians’ standing when they negotiate with Israel: “Palestine would be negotiating from the position of one United Nations member whose territory is militarily occupied by another.”
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat also confirmed in an interview on Channel 2 with Dana Weiss on June 11, that the Palestinians were seeking U.N. membership. But for a state to obtain U.N. membership, it must first win the approval of the Security Council. In his AIPAC speech on May 22, President Obama stated that he would not accept the Palestinians trying to win statehood by going to the U.N, “No vote at the United Nations will ever create an independent Palestinian state.” As of now, it appears that the U.S. will veto U.N. membership. The Palestinians could find themselves in the position like that of Kosovo, which never became a U.N. member because of a Russian veto.
The idea of going to the U.N. to obtain membership for a Palestinian state has a major built-in problem. If Abbas does not want to declare a state, at this point, then how does he expect that the U.N. admit a state whose independence has not yet been declared? At least Kosovo and East Timor sought U.N. membership after they declared their independence. The argument sometimes used by Erekat is that the Palestinians do not need to declare a state because Yasser Arafat already issued such a proclamation in Algiers on November 15, 1988.
Essentially, Arafat declared a “virtual state” in 1988, since he did not have a single attribute of sovereignty at the time, especially effective control of any territory. Moreover, over the years the PLO threatened to unilaterally declare a state on repeated occasions, like in May 1999, when the Palestinian leadership charged that its interim agreement with Israel had expired. How could Palestinian leaders threaten to declare a state in the future and at the same time claim that they already declared a state in 1988?
There is a third option for the Palestinians in September, as well, that they may be forced to choose given the problems they will face in the U.N. Security Council: turning to the General Assembly. As is well known, General Assembly resolutions are declarative only; they are not legally binding under international law. The main impact of a General Assembly resolution will be symbolic and can influence how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is perceived. The goal of this effort will be to enshrine the 1967 line as the final border.
The Oslo Accords made borders an issue for negotiation, leaving their precise delineation a matter of dispute. But if a U.N. General Assembly resolution is adopted that states the Palestinian Authority constitutes a state and its borders correspond to those to the lines that existed on June 4, 1967, then Palestinian spokesmen will argue that any Israeli presence over that line is not located in disputed territory but on Palestinian land.
The actual legal status of the territory will remain unchanged, but the terms of political debate in the international media could be very different. Despite the fact that a U.N. General Assembly resolution is technically unimportant, if the editors at the New York Times, Le Mondeand the London Times decide to use misleading banner headlines that the U.N. has established a Palestinian state, then Israel will have a serious diplomatic challenge on its hands. This last scenario is not a diplomatic tsunami, that devastates everything in its path, but it is a storm that can be handled with proper planning.
There is also the possibility that Abbas will drop the whole idea of unilateral action at the U.N. If expectations in the Palestinian street are heightened with people believing that Abbas will deliver a Palestinian state in September, and all he can deliver is another U.N. General Assembly resolution that changes nothing, then he might very well undermine his own political standing.
Israel must take into account that violence could the result of such a situation, though the Palestinians are plainly not in the same mood they were in during 2000, when the Second Intifada broke out. For these reasons, the Palestinians are looking to come down from the September tree they planned at the U.N., but hopefully Israel will not have to pay for the ladder