Ignore the Impossible, Go for the Probable

The international community should do its utmost to spare the Palestinians an awkward (and potentially explosive ) letdown at the UN this September.

Yonatan Touval
Yonatan Touval
Yonatan Touval
Yonatan Touval

With representatives of the Quartet scheduled to meet this coming Monday, and amid growing confusion over how the international community should respond to the Palestinian bid for United Nations recognition, it is high time to dispel some basic misconceptions about September.

First, the UN will not vote on recognition of a Palestinian state. The reason is simple: It can't. According to international law, only states can recognize other states. The UN, by contrast, is an international organization and is therefore not mandated to grant official recognition to states.

Second, the Palestinians are unlikely to declare their independence any time soon. The Palestinians have flatly, if not always loudly, stated they have no intention of declaring a state absent a final-status agreement. Here is what Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told Al Jazeera in January: "There is no option to declare a Palestinian state." Pressed to explain his position, Abbas added: "A Palestinian state will be established only with an agreement from Israel."

(The Palestinian reluctance to declare a state absent a comprehensive agreement with Israel is long established, and stems from the concern that, once such a state is established, all issues that remain unresolved would lose their moral and political urgency. )

Third, while it is possible for the Palestinians to seek full membership in the UN, it is hard to see how they could do so without first declaring, implicitly or explicitly, statehood (which, as noted, they are loathe to do ). This is because while states need not necessarily be members of the UN - classic examples are Taiwan today or Switzerland until 2002 - only states can become full members of the organization.

This point does not seem to be fully appreciated by the Palestinians themselves, who repeatedly affirm their intention to apply for membership even as they seek to avoid a full-fledged declaration of independence. Here again is Abbas in an op-ed he published in The New York Times in May: "[T]his September, at the United Nations General Assembly, we will request ... that our state be admitted as a full member of the United Nations."

It is hard to see how the Palestinians will reconcile these contradictory impulses, but even if they do, Palestine's admission as a full member of the UN is unlikely. This is because for the UN to admit a state, the Security Council would have to make such recommendation to the General Assembly, and the United States would most probably exercise its veto power to prevent the Security Council from doing that.

To recap: It's impossible for the UN to recognize Palestinian statehood; it's possible yet improbable that the Palestinians will declare their independence; it's impossible for the UN to admit Palestine as a full member without the Palestinians first declaring their independence; and it's possible yet improbable that Palestine will be admitted to the UN even if the Palestinians do declare a state.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that already, back in November 1988, the Palestine Liberation Organization proclaimed "the establishment of the State of Palestine on our Palestinian territory with its capital Jerusalem." Yet the current campaign for UN recognition does not derive its legitimacy from that resolution, and the exact form the Palestinian UN initiative will take, or what it will be designed to achieve, therefore, remains far from obvious. This is, not surprisingly, the reason that a growing number of Palestinian figures, including Salam Fayyad, are beginning to voice their discomfort about the whole idea.

None of this is to suggest, however, that a UN resolution can't necessarily be significant, or that the international community should try to dissuade the Palestinians from taking their case to the UN. But the thinking must be constructive and forward-looking, not merely symbolic or declaratory.

Several possibilities have recently been floated, including a General Assembly resolution to revise resolution 181 (the historic partition plan of November 1947 that called for the establishment of two states - one Jewish, one Arab - in British Mandatory Palestine ), and a Security Council resolution to replace resolution 242 as the reference point for any future settlement with a detailed and concrete plan that reflects the progress that has been made in various peace-making efforts since 1967.

To this end, the Quartet should take the lead when it meets in Washington this Monday by beginning work on a UN resolution that would lay out the parameters for a permanent settlement of the conflict; set a time limit - say, of one year - to the conclusion of negotiations; outline a series of actions that the international community will take upon itself to support the process (including the formation of a multinational force that will be part of any peace deal, and the establishment of an international fund for compensating the Palestinian refugees ); and finally, spell out what the international community will be ready to do should the parties fail to reach an agreement within the specified period.

The international community should do its utmost to spare the Palestinians an awkward (and potentially explosive ) letdown at the UN this September. What October will have in store for us will largely be determined by the approach the Quartet begins developing next week.

Yonatan Touval is a foreign policy analyst based in Tel Aviv.



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