Friday, September 23, 2011

Q&A: Palestinian bid for full membership at the UN

Palestinians wave their national flag at a demonstration in Gaza Recent rally against Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory on the anniversary of the 1967 war.
Palestinian officials have launched a campaign to join the United Nations as a full member state. They are asking for international recognition on 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as a capital.
The idea is strongly opposed by Israel and its close ally, the United States.
Here is a guide to what is likely to happen and its significance.

Q. What are the Palestinians asking for?

The Palestinians, as represented by the Palestinian Authority, have long sought to establish an independent, sovereign state in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza - occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six Day War. However, two decades of on-and-off peace talks have failed to produce a deal. The latest round of negotiations broke down one year ago.
Late last year, Palestinian officials began pursuing a new diplomatic strategy: asking individual countries to recognise an independent Palestinian state on the 1967 borders. Now they want the UN to admit them as a full member state. Currently the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) only has observer entity status. This would have political implications and allow Palestinians to join UN agencies and become party to international treaties, such as the International Criminal Court, where they could take legal action to challenge the occupation of territory by Israel.
In a televised speech on 16 September, the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said: "We are going to the United Nations to request our legitimate right, obtaining full membership for Palestine in this organisation".

Q. What is the general process?

There are clear procedures at the UN which begins its annual General Assembly General Debate in New York on 21 September.
In order for the Palestinians to be admitted as a member state, they would need the approval of the 15-member UN Security Council. President Abbas has said they plan to ask for this. Any Council recommendation for membership would then need a two-thirds majority vote in the 193-member General Assembly for final approval.
United Nations General Assembly Palestinians believe over two-thirds of the General Assembly would recognise their statehood.
To start the process, Mr Abbas has to submit a request to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. He has said he will do this after addressing the General Assembly on 23 September. Mr Ban then needs to hand the application to the Security Council which would establish a committee.
The Council would need nine votes out of 15 and no veto from any of its permanent members to pass a decision. However, the US has made clear it would wield its veto power. The UK and France would almost certainly abstain because they cannot endorse UN membership of a state they have not recognised bilaterally.
If as expected, the US vetoes, or the PLO decides to back down on its plan for full membership, it can submit a resolution to the General Assembly. A vote could be held within 48 hours of submission but would probably be delayed until after the General Debate ie late September or early October. This would give more time to negotiate a text that would have maximum support, from European countries in particular. Approval would require a simple majority of those present. There is no veto.

Q. What might a resolution say?

A resolution could ask for support for the Palestinians to be admitted to the UN as a "non-member observer state", an upgrade from the PLO's current status as observer. This status is held by the Vatican and has been held in the past by countries such as Switzerland.

Palestinian UN membership bid

  • Palestinians currently have permanent observer entity status at the UN
  • They are represented by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO)
  • Officials now want an upgrade so a state of Palestine has full member status at the UN
  • They seek recognition on 1967 borders - in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza
  • Enhanced observer member status could be an interim option
This would improve the Palestinians' chances of joining UN agencies and the ICC, although the process would be neither automatic nor guaranteed. Among Palestinians, there are also questions over whether an observer state of Palestine could represent the diaspora community of refugees in the same way as the PLO does. Speaking on 16 September, Mr Abbas denied the status of the PLO would be affected.
Diplomats say that elements of a General Assembly resolution could also include acknowledgement of the number of countries that have recognised Palestinian statehood (currently 126 according to the Palestinian ambassador at the UN), and an appeal to the Security Council to accept the Palestinians as a full member. The resolution could also include parameters for future negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Palestinians can follow either the Security Council or General Assembly paths, or do both.

Q. Is this symbolic or would it change facts on the ground?

Who currently recognises Palestine?

Palestinian flag
Yes No
Source: UN, Foreign ministries
Permanent Security Council members
(with veto)
  • China
  • Russia
  • France
  • UK
  • US
Non-permanent Security Council members
  • Bosnia- Hercegovina
  • Brazil
  • Gabon
  • India
  • Nigeria
  • Lebanon
  • S. Africa
  • Colombia
  • Germany
  • Portugal
All General Assembly members 122 71
Getting UN recognition of Palestinian statehood on 1967 borders would largely have symbolic value, building on previous UN decisions. Already Security Council resolution 242, which followed the Six Day War, demanded the "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict". Although Israel disputes the precise meaning of this, there is wide international acceptance that the pre-1967 frontiers should form the basis of a peace settlement.
The problem for the Palestinians is that Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejects these borders as a basis for negotiations. In May, when President Barack Obama called for border talks based broadly on 1967 lines, Mr Netanyahu described the idea as "unrealistic" and "indefensible". He says that new facts on the ground have been created since 1967: almost half a million Israelis live in more than 200 settlements and outposts in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Mutually agreed land swaps have been discussed in previous talks as a way to overcome this problem.
The Palestinians argue that admission of Palestine as a full member state at the UN would strengthen their hands in peace talks with Israel especially on the final status issues that divide them: the status of Jerusalem, the fate of the Jewish settlements, the precise location of the border, the right of return of Palestinian refugees, water and security. Israel says that any upgrade of the Palestinian status at the UN, is a unilateral act that would pre-empt the final status talks.

Q. Why is this happening now?

The main reason is the impasse in peace talks. However, the Palestinians also argue that their UN plan fits with an agreed deadline. The Middle East Peace Quartet - the European Union, United States, Russia and UN - committed itself to the target of achieving a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict by September 2011. Last year, the US President Barack Obama also expressed a hope that this deadline would be met. The Palestinian Authority Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, says that Palestinians have succeeded in building up state institutions and are ready for statehood. The World Bank and IMF have said the same.
Recent Arab uprisings also appear to have energised Palestinian public opinion. Officials have urged civil society groups to hold peaceful demonstrations to show their backing for the UN bids.

Q. How is this different from previous declarations?

In 1988, the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, unilaterally declared a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders. This won recognition from about 100 countries, mainly Arab, Communist and non-aligned states - several of them in Latin America. UN membership of Palestine as a sovereign state would have much greater impact as the UN is the overarching world body and a source of authority on international law.

Q. Who supports and opposes the UN option?

Recent polls suggest this course of action is supported by most ordinary Palestinians in the occupied territories. Mr Abbas's main Fatah faction backs it, although there is less enthusiasm from its political rival, Hamas, the Islamic group which governs Gaza.
After the recent Palestinian reconciliation deal, Hamas leaders accepted there was a broad consensus on the establishment of a Palestinian state within 1967 borders, though they formally still refuse to recognise Israel. Following Mr Abbas's speech on 16 September, they described the UN appeal as carrying "great risks".
Within the wider region, the 22-member Arab League has given this approach its full backing.
President Obama greeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last September The latest US push to bring the Israelis and Palestinians back to negotiations quickly stalled.
The main opposition comes from Israel. "Peace can only be achieved around the negotiating table. The Palestinian attempt to impose a settlement will not bring peace," Mr Netanyahu told a joint session of the US Congress in May. Israeli officials have warned that any UN bid could terminate the peace process. They also worry that possible Palestinian accession to the ICC could lead to the pursuit of war crimes charges at the Hague and say there is potential for rising tensions to trigger violence in the West Bank. Settlers there have received Israeli military training in preparation for this scenario.
The US has joined Israel in vociferously urging the Palestinians to drop their UN bid and return to negotiations, which were previously derailed by the settlement issue. In his recent major speech on the Middle East, President Obama dismissed the Palestinian push as "symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations". The White House sent two envoys to the region to try to persuade the Palestinians to change their minds. However, Palestinian officials say the Americans presented no alternative to going to the UN.
Only nine out of 27 European Union countries have formally recognised a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders. Others are looking increasingly favourably on the idea. This is mainly because of their frustration with Mr Netanyahu's government in Israel-Palestinian peace talks and what they see as its recalcitrance over settlements. Britain, France and Germany are likely to support a General Assembly resolution only if it includes a clear roadmap back to the negotiating table.
In the coming days, both Palestinian and Israeli delegations will be on a diplomatic drive to win countries around to their point of view.
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