U.S. President Barack Obama was right to advise Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas not to seek to upgrade the status of the Palestinian delegation at the U.N. to a nonmember state in the General Assembly this month. The draft resolution that the Palestinian mission is circulating moreover decides that “the basis” of the borders of the state that it proposes are “the pre-1967 borders.” While adding that the delineation of borders are “to be determined in final status negotiations,” the Palestinian initiative uses the U.N. as an instrument to define the parameters of a core issue that was supposed to be decided only at the negotiating table. As such, it is a material breach of the Oslo Accords.
This was not the first time Israel faced a tough challenge of this sort at the U.N. At the end of 1997, Israel faced a Palestinian initiative at the U.N. that was very similar to what it is dealing with today. The Palestinian observer mission sought to upgrade its status in the General Assembly so that it would acquire many of the rights and privileges that full member states have. Essentially, the Palestinian observer mission wanted to be treated as a member state of the U.N. It argued that as an observer, it could not adequately complete all the activities that it had planned. But it really wanted the symbolism that the territories under the Palestinian Authority were already a state.
The Clinton administration at the time opposed the Palestinian upgrade, but unlike the situation in the Security Council, the U.S. had no veto power in the General Assembly. Israel needed another strategy in this case and could not rely on Washington alone. The key to opposing the Palestinian initiative at the General Assembly was the European Union; for while there were only 15 member states in 1997 (today there are 27 member states), the EU had a much wider impact. From personal experience, when many non-European ambassadors were asked how they were voting in the General Assembly on a controversial draft resolution on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they would say that they would follow the European lead — this was true for diverse countries from Argentina to Japan.
In the first half of 1997, the rotating presidency of the European Union was held by Luxembourg, whose ambassador wanted the U.N. to review why the rights and privileges of the Palestinian observer mission were inadequate, as the Palestinian observer claimed, and work towards an upgrade. He proposed an amendment to the Palestinians upgrade request, that would first request that Secretary-General Kofi Annan prepare a report on this subject. Under U.N. procedure, the General Assembly votes on amendments before it votes on new resolutions.
The Arab states argued that the European proposal was not an amendment but a separate resolution that should be voted on later. To settle the technical dispute between the Arab states and the European Union, the president of the General Assembly called for a vote. In the end, the U.N. General Assembly decided by a 65 to 57 majority that the European proposal was an amendment and should be voted on first. Defeated on a technical issue, the Arab states withdrew their upgrade proposal for the Palestinians, though they came back a year later with a watered-down version of the same proposal that the U.N. eventually adopted.
Why was it important for the EU to take such a strong stand in 1997 and why is it still important today? What is not generally known is that the Oslo Interim Agreement of 1995 has a number of signatories, including the U.S., Russia, and the EU, whose representatives signed the agreement as witnesses. That agreement included the obligation to resolve permanent status issues, like borders, through negotiations. If Abbas is now undertaking an initiative at the U.N. which violates this core commitment in an agreement which the EU itself signed, then it has an obligation to oppose what Abbas is doing.
Today there is an additional argument that Israel can raise before European audiences. Abbas is seeking that his proposed Palestinian state include the Gaza Strip, which is ruled by Hamas. The U.N. Charter plainly states in Article 4 that “Membership in the United Nations is open to all other 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.” Abbas’ Palestinian state is not seeking full membership, yet; but rather for the U.N. to vote on Palestinian statehood, when the Gaza portion of his proposed state is firing rockets at Israeli cities, places it at odds with a the fundamental obligation in U.N. Charter that all states refrain from the use of force in their relations (as opposed to the right of self-defense).
In the 1990s when the states of the former Yugoslavia sought recognition and admission to international organizations, this issue was also raised by European states. In the Bosnian War, the Balkan states were firing at each other’s civilians and trying to unilaterally alter their borders. In the Palestinian case, Abbas himself does not condemn Hamas rocket fire and does not demonstrate to anyone that he is “able or willing” — to use the language of the U.N. Charter — to do anything about it. Regardless of the arguments that Israel raises, the EU will be critical of any strategy to block the Palestinian U.N. initiative at the end of November.