Dalal Mawad
Last updated: 29 March, 2012

News Analysis: Status and future of the Palestinian UN membership bid

When President Mahmoud Abbas took the U.N General Assembly’s floor last September and announced Palestine’s membership request, he was received with rousing applause and standing ovations. Back then, and despite America and Israel’s defiance to the bid, many observers described the move as a historic step towards Palestinian statehood and independence.

But in November, a Security Council membership committee said it could not reach a consensus on the application and though the Palestinian Authority (PA) vowed to pursue the request, six months later the bid has not moved forward.

“The Palestinian leadership is undecided on how much to push this probably because they are afraid of military and financial retribution by the United States and Israel,” explained Rashid Khalidi, Director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. The U.S has been vehemently opposed to the membership bid, the Obama administration has repeatedly said that Palestinian statehood can only be obtained through direct negotiations with Israel and not through U.N resolutions.

In fact, when UNESCO became the first UN agency to pronounce Palestine as a full member in November, the US cut its financing to the organization and the Israeli government speeded up the settlement building and froze the November transfer of more than $100 million in monthly tax money to the PA.

But punishment is not the only obstacle; to become a member state of the U.N, Palestine needs a recommendation by the Security Council and the U.S has threatened to exercise its veto power should the council vote on the membership.

The Palestinians have currently a non-state observer status in the UN, meaning they can participate to meetings, co-sponsor and sign resolutions but cannot vote on resolutions. Their goal is to become full members.

But if moving from an observer to a full member is politically impossible at this stage because of the US veto, Palestinians can opt for an alternative strategy. They can upgrade their status from “observer” to “non-member state”, a status the currently held by the Vatican. To get that upgrade, Palestinians need to call for a vote in the General Assembly and secure a 2/3 majority, a percentage they say they already have. And though the upgraded status wouldn’t change much since they would still not be able to vote, it gives them access to many international organizations including the International Criminal Court, which they can use to sue Israel.  Though officials in Ramallah said in November they would use this strategy, so far no steps have been taken.

Many experts believe that the bid was initially not well planned and was mainly to attract attention, “I think part of it was to make a fuss, create a ruckus” commented Rami Khouri, head of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (IFI), a think tank at the American University of Beirut. Palestinians feel sidelined; the focus on the Arab Spring and on Iran, made their problems seem secondary on the U.N, US and European agendas.

“Mahmoud Abbas took this step because he was looking for an internal victory,” said Palestinian researcher Jaber Suleiman, “ he could not end his political career with a defeat.” Negotiations with Israel have failed, the Israeli government had refused any compromises on settlements and the U.S had stopped its mediation efforts. “It was a sign of frustration more than anything else,” noted Khouri.

But Palestine’s ambassador to the U.N, Riad Mansour disagrees; he said the bid was a carefully planned step. Our strategy started years before that because you have to prepare for this moment. One component of the strategy is that we started the process of convincing countries to bilaterally recognize the state of Palestine.” So far 131 countries have bilaterally recognized Palestine as a state. Iceland and Thailand were the latest to do so earlier this January.

Bilateral recognitions can be more important than UN membership,” explained Martin Waehlisch, lawyer in International law “as these permit trade relations, contracts and security agreements between  countries.”

However he says, one of the main points of heated debate in the UN Security Council Committee on the Admission of New Members had been whether the Palestinian Authorities can exercise effective state control in the Hamas-governed Gaza strip. “Another area of concern had been whether Palestine can be seen as ‘peace loving’,” he added, “which is a requirement for UN membership.”

Suleiman, who lives as a refugee in Lebanon, said that any state recognized by the U.N at this stage is premature and could jeopardize the fate of many Palestinians. He explained that “the observer position today is to the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which represents all Palestinians, a move to a non-member state or to a full member state means a move of the representation of the state from the PLO to the PA.” But the PA only represents Gaza and the West Bank, it doesn’t represent Palestinians in the occupied territories, in East Jerusalem, Palestinians outside Israel and most importantly all the Palestinian refugees.

“It really wasn’t a national process, it didn’t muster the support of Palestinians inside and around the world,” said Khouri who believed that Palestinian divisions were another reason why the bid has stalled. “It was more of an inside job by the PA.” Though Hamas did not publicly oppose the PA’ s move, many of its members were critical of the bid; other Islamic factions like the Islamic Jihad and Palestinians in the diaspora objected going to the U.N.

Mansour said the decision to make a new move at the U.N has been made but he did not precise what the decision is or when it will happen. But he believed that September’s bid was nonetheless positive. “It took the issue of Palestine’s membership to a point of no return, because now that application will remain there until the Security Council recommends.”

But will the application risk lingering in oblivion? “It takes time,” he said, “we are not the first country that did not prevail from the first time they submitted their application- Israel didn’t prevail right away, it took Jordan 6 years to get UN membership, North and South Korea had to wait 42 years.”