Palestinians Seek UN Independence Vote

The Palestinians are taking their demand for recognition as an independent state to the United Nations this week.

Palestinians Seek UN Independence Vote

The Palestinians are taking their demand for recognition as an independent state to the United Nations this week.

Wednesday, 21 September, 2011

IWPR Arab Spring project editor Daniella Peled looks at the implications of their move and possible compromises which the international community hopes to achieve. 

What are the Palestinians hoping to achieve at the UN this week?

The Palestinians, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, want to see the recognition of a Palestinian state at the UN. This needs Security Council, SC, approval, but even if the Palestinians gain a crucial nine vote majority at this level, enough to win them recognition, the United States - one of the permanent members - has already warned that it will use its veto because it insists that Palestinian statehood should come about as a result of direct talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

The Palestinians could also ask for a vote by the General Assembly, GA. Here, they would be highly likely to win a majority - around 130 of the UN's 193 states - but the body on its own cannot bestow sovereignty – so a vote in favour of independence would be largely symbolic.

Abbas and his team, however, have vowed to take their demand all the way to the SC. One option is to call for an immediate vote on independence – which is likely to fail for the aforementioned reason. Another possibility currently being mooted is for the Palestinians to present a letter to the secretary-general applying to be a full member of the UN. This would have to be considered by an SC committee and then, if approved, voted on by the council. The protracted prelude to the vote would allow the Israelis and Palestinians time to resume talks on independence for the latter.

The Palestinians say that they have had no choice but to take the UN route as peace talks have repeatedly stalled in recent years. 

How are the Israelis responding to Palestinian actions?

Israel says the UN bid effectively delegitimises the Jewish state and that the only way forward is through bilateral talks, but the right-wing Israeli government, led by Binyamin Netanyahu, remains staunchly opposed to the kind of state the Palestinians want – that is one based on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, amongst other demands.

Netanyahu has issued a call for direct negotiations with no preconditions, and his government has hinted of various punitive measures that could be taken against the Palestinians if they proceed. These range from the withholding of tax revenues to the re-occupation of certain areas of the West Bank currently under Palestinian Authority control.

Netanyahu is meeting a number of international leaders to try to press his case, and will address the GA shortly after Abbas addresses the body on September 23 to present the case for Palestinian statehood.   

What is the international community’s role in this?

The US, together with Europe, is putting pressure on Abbas to try and find a compromise solution.

The Quartet – the mechanism tasked with achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace, made up of the UN, US, Russia and the EU - has been trying to find a way forward to direct negotiations.

Their current plan is for Abbas to submit a letter to the SC requesting full membership. As its being considered by a council committee, the Quartet would produce a document that provided a platform for renewed talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.

The text under discussion needs to meet a Palestinian demand that the outcome is a state based on 1967 borders, and an Israeli requirement that their country be recognised as a Jewish state.

This would not only signpost a route back to direct negotiations but allow Abbas to pursue his promise of taking a bid for recognition to the SC – stepping back from this would be effective political suicide.

The position of some key players remains unclear. Germany and a number of other European allies are likely to side with Israel, while France is leaning towards support for the Palestinian position.

Britain, a permanent member of the SC, has so far not definitely indicated its intentions.

What are the likely implications of the Palestinian move?

In terms of tangible changes on the ground, the UN action will have little effect, and some fear that this will lead to grave disillusionment and fresh unrest. There has long been talk of a “Third Intifada” and while many voices call for this to be a non-violent, civil society initiative, few trust that it would be able to maintain a peaceful momentum.

Though prospects of being granted sovereign status are slim, some Palestinians hope nonetheless that persevering with their goal through the UN will not only give them extra leverage in future negotiations, but also offer a possibility of pursuing Israel through judicial institutions such as the International Criminal Court, ICC.

However, if sanctions are levied on the Palestinian Authority – as both Israel and the US have threatened - this could lead to its collapse and crucially that of its security forces. These have been credited with keeping the West Bank relatively peaceful in recent years.

This week could end with diplomatic disaster or, in the most optimistic scenario, a route back to bilateral talks.

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