The Palestinian Question

The biggest fight on floor of the UN General Assembly this September is without a doubt going to be the Palestinian push for unilateral recognition of statehood. The whole thing has been fascinating to watch from an international institution standpoint, awful to watch from a US policy-making standpoint.

As the weeks have gone on, and its become crystal clear that the US will veto any full admission to the United Nations, as is their prerogative under the combination Articles 4 and 27 of the UN Charter, the Palestinians have come up with a somewhat ingenious backup plan. Currently the Palestinian Liberation Organization is recognized in the UN as the sole legitimate authority of the Palestinian people, and holds the seat of the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine, possessing the status of ‘observing non-member entity’. This is slightly below the place of the Vatican and formerly Switzerland, Japan and others, as an ‘observing non-member state’ and above other observers such as the European Union and other international organizations.

Should a full-bid for statehood fail at the hands of a US veto, originally consideration was given to taking up a Uniting for Peace resolution to override the Security Council when the UNSC is deadlocked. This would hold a particularly irony in the fact that the concept was first developed by the US in a time when it still controlled the GA. This was shot down by legal scholars who, accurately, stated that the matter of UN membership has a concrete mechanism built into the Charter.

What could be done instead would be to upgrade Palestine’s status from observer entity to that of an observer state. This would confer certain abilities that are currently outside the reach of their present status. Among these is the ability to join a multitude of UN bodies and treaties, as they can then point to their recognition as a state.

The real kicker  is the enhanced case it would give to push for an ability to bring Israeli citizens before the International Criminal Court. Under Article 14 of the Rome Statute, States party to the treaty may bring cases that fall under the jurisdiction of the Court forward. The key word there is “State”, something that the Palestinians have been lacking but may be able to argue for after September and allow them to sign the Rome Statute. This is Israel’s greatest fear in this situation; though they aren’t a party to the Court, they would be afraid to have officials travel anywhere save the United States and others who have thus far refused to sign on to the State. This fear may be somewhat misguided as we’ve seen somewhat lax enforcement of warrants issued by the ICC, but that’s for another post.

A friend who works on Israeli foreign policy did present me with an interesting point when it comes to other ramifications of a UN GA vote. Should Palestine become an independent state before having a true hold on their internal security, it could be even more of a disaster. Palestine’s greatest argument for independence in the past has been their status as the ‘Occupied Territories’, with the Israeli Defense Force providing a villain in the play. Should they become recognized as a state, this changes the dynamic considerably.

When the first missile flies between a Palestinian state and Israel, the Israelis can invoke Article 51 of the UN Charter. As Article 51 allows for actions to be taken in self-defense against the opposing state until the Security Council acts, and the US still has the ability to veto anything that comes before the Council, you could see a full on takedown of Palestine before it even gets its legs under it. That isn’t the wish of anyone but maybe the most hardcore of Israeli legislators as this scenario would not benefit any party. It would make the IDF look like bullies, again, and the Palestinians look incompetent, again, but Israel’s actions would be fully within the scope of international law.

This doomsday scenario aside, I find Israel’s reading of international law in this situation somewhat confusing and indeed hypocritical. The State of Israel is strongly objecting to the UN granting statehood to Palestine as a matter of not just policy but insisting that the power lies outside the scope of the UN Charter. Many other observers take the same stance, claiming that the UN General Assembly can’t create a state, including the Council on Foreign Relations’ Eliot Abrams:

That’s the rub, of course– it would. Indeed it might be even further away, if the main effect of their campaign were to delay serious negotiations and further alienate Israelis and Americans. For in the end, it isn’t just the UN Charter that tells us the General Assembly cannot create a Palestinian state. Reality teaches the same lesson.

That the PLO is following this path suggests a lack of interest in the genuine negotiations that are the only real path to statehood. This is not surprising at a moment when Palestinian attention is mostly focused on domestic politics–Fatah vs. Hamas–and the PLO’s leader, Mahmoud Abbas, has his sights set on retirement next year. It may yet be possible for the United States to come up with a form of words that brings the two parties to the negotiating table this summer and thereby allows Abbas to back away from the UN shenanigans. But this entire episode reveals a lack of Palestinian seriousness about negotiations and suggests that, while talks may commence and avoid the September UN confrontation, they will go nowhere. Like the talks the United States engineered in September 2010, such negotiations might start with hoopla and ceremony, but would most likely break down in the subsequent few months.

Correct me if I’m mistaking in remembering a little something called UN Resolution 181, which lay out the original boundaries for the Jewish State and Arab State as they are referred to. That resolution allowed for either the Jews or Arabs to sign onto the plan and have access to joining the UN, whether the other had approved or not. The Palestinians indeed did not accept the Resolution, leading to the civil war period that followed the Israeli Declaration of Independence. It’s within the UN’s power to, if not formally create a state, lay the groundwork to legitimacy that makes statehood possible.

The US is struggling frantically to delay the vote, pushing for renewed negotiations between Israel and Palestine rather than a unilateral push. The Quartet, never the greatest mechanism for moving peace forward, has yet to finalize their new peace plan, but is actually moving forward, something that has to be applauded. The Israelis have lent their support to a new draft but only silence has come from the Palestinians. A new set of concrete proposals designed to spur talks is something that has been lacking for far too long, but it may be too little too late.

The stalling tactics of the US are clearly doomed to fail. Even China has expressed its backing for the Palestinian cause. With the Quartet lacking a proper carrot or stick to bring both the Palestinians and the Israelis back to the table, the PLO’s diplomatic effort may be one of the best ways possible to convince the Likud government that negotiations are necessary, as Palestine will become a state one way or another. Bibi’s ministers have to realize that by not negotiating, they aren’t gaining leverage, they’re wasting opportunity to finally strike a deal.

The GA is going to overwhelmingly support either of the routes that Palestine takes towards upgrading their status whether a few Europeans can be peeled off or not, leaving the US in the dust. The United States has declared in the past that it is for a two-state solution but its actions heading into the General Assembly can’t be seen as those of an impartial negotiator and has the ability to hinder a US role moving forward.

Rather than wasting time and energy attempting to block the motion from passing, the United States should instead be working with both the Israelis and Palestinians bilaterally to help frame the terms of what the outcome will look like and mitigating any potential damage.

If Palestinian pride can be salvaged by abstaining in the General Assembly while still vetoing action in the Security Council, the United States should do so in an attempt to foster some semblance of goodwill to push Abbas and the PLO to act as a state should, cracking down further on militants within its supposed borders and putting the country back on track to holding general elections, currently scheduled for May 2012. A diplomatic victory such as the one in September has the ability to put Fatah even further ahead of Hamas in opinion polls in Palestine, as a June 2011 poll indicated a preference for Fatah’s policies in any unity government.

On the part of the Israelis, the US can privately guarantee that support for the Israeli right to exist and defend itself remains paramount in our policies, particularly against a Palestinian state provided Israel is not the aggressor. This can be coupled with the US pushing flexibility towards settlements in the West Bank being factored into any proposed land-swaps as part of the Quartet’s official plan, and acceding to the Israeli demand for control of security in any connection between Gaza and the West Bank.

What is currently being seen as a powerful defeat for the US can still be turned around into a beneficial arrangement for all parties. The General Assembly votes will be among the most closely watched to come out of the chamber in years and I know I’ll be on the edge of my seat.

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One Comment to “The Palestinian Question”

  1. You bring up a particularly good point as regards the Israeli hypocrisy on the subject, but there is (as always) an explanation for it. Denying or downplaying the role of the UN and Resolution 181 in the establishment of Israel has always been an element of the Ben-Gurionist–let alone Revisionist–narrative of Israeli origins. This is not only because many (although hardly all) of the early Israeli leaders were dismissive of the UN to start with (Ben-Gurion himself famously said “Oum-shmoum”, “Oum” being the Hebrew abbreviation for the UN) , but because this took root and plays into the larger Israeli myth of national self-reliance. At a fundamental level, what we’re fighting here isn’t just politicians being politicians; it’s part and parcel of their political identity. They have made something of a fetish of dismissing the UN at every turn, which probably goes a long way toward explaining why they seem to be taking exactly the wrong tack on the upcoming confrontation.

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