FAQ: The Palestinians' United Nations Statehood Bid

Everything you wanted to know about what will happen on September 23, but weren't sure who to ask.

The Palestinians on Thursday announced that they will definitely submit a bid for full membership at the UN Security Council on September 23, ending long speculation that they would change course in the face of American opposition and a certain U.S. veto of a resolution on the issue.

Below are some of the frequently asked questions about the Palestinian quest for statehood.

UN Security Council - AP - January 13, 2010

What status to the Palestinians currently have at the UN? 

The Palestinian Authority is considered a UN observer "entity" without voting rights. The European Union is also an observer, while the Vatican is what is known as a non-member observer state. Neither the EU nor the Vatican can vote.

What do the Palestinians, Israelis and others want?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said he wants the world to recognize a Palestinian state at the General Assembly in September and support its admission to the United Nations.

U.S. President Barack Obama said last year he hoped a Palestinian state could be admitted to the United Nations by the time world leaders gather for the 2011 General Assembly.

That statement, U.S. officials say, was an expression of hope, not a call for a vote this year on Palestinian UN membership.

Israel is lobbying against the Palestinian UN bid. It sees it as an attempt to isolate and delegitimize Israel.

A number of European Union states, UN diplomats say, are looking increasingly favorably on the idea, largely due to frustration with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government and what they see as its recalcitrance over settlements and other issues holding up peace talks.

Is 'non-member' state status an option?

In addition to applying to become a full UN member state, which requires approval by the UN Security Council, the Palestinians could also seek upgraded observer status as a non-member state.

That is what the Vatican has and what Switzerland had before it joined the United Nations in 2002. Such status, UN envoys say, could be interpreted as implicit UN recognition of Palestinian statehood because the assembly would be acknowledging that the Palestinians control an actual state.

The advantage of this option is that it would require only a simple majority of the 193-nation General Assembly, not a two-thirds majority as in the case of full membership. Since around 120 countries have already recognized the state of Palestine to date, it would most likely win such a vote.

Although the United States, Israel and a handful of other states would likely vote against any Palestinian UN move, there are no vetoes in General Assembly votes. Dozens of nations, including many EU members, would likely abstain.

If the Palestinians were to be recognized as a non-member state, they would be able to sign certain international treaties, such as the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which they cannot currently sign, the chief Palestinian delegate to the United Nations has said.

The possibility that the Palestinians could join the ICC is something that worries the United States and Israel. In 2009, the Palestinians asked the ICC's chief prosecutor to look into what they say are Israeli crimes committed during the December 2008-January 2009 war in the Gaza Strip. So far the ICC has not pursued the request, but if the Palestinians were to join the ICC the court's prosecutor might take up the case.

Can the United Nations recognize countries? 

Technically the United Nations does not recognize states. Individual UN members do that on a bilateral basis. In reality, however, membership in the United Nations is generally considered to be confirmation that a country is an internationally recognized sovereign state.

How does the UN admit new member states?

Countries seeking to join the United Nations usually present an application to the secretary-general, who passes it to the Security Council to assess and vote on. If the 15-nation council approves the membership request, it is passed to the General Assembly for approval. A membership request needs a two-thirds majority, or 129 votes, for approval.

A country cannot join the United Nations unless both the Security Council and General Assembly approve its application.

Could the Palestinians join the UN? 

In theory, yes. But as long as the United States is ready to use its veto to block a Palestinian request for UN membership, there is no chance of success.

Even if the Palestinians secured a two-thirds majority of votes in the General Assembly, there is no getting around the need for prior approval of the Security Council. According to the UN charter, membership in the United Nations "will be effected by a decision of the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council."

If Washington changed its position and agreed to back a Palestinian UN membership bid, or to abstain during a Security Council vote, it would probably succeed.