The idea of Palestine’s becoming a permanent member of the United Nations originated, say Palestinians, with none other than Barack Obama. Speaking at the UN General Assembly last Sept. 23, the U.S. President said he hoped that “when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations – an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.” Palestinians decided to take Mr. Obama at his word.
Mr. Obama’s efforts to rekindle the Middle East peace process began with Israel’s refusal to carry out a temporary settlement freeze. The U.S. was even willing to offer a $3-billion arms deal to Israel in return for the suspension of building settlements in areas earmarked for the Palestinian state. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the offer.
Eight months later, Mr. Obama made another effort to kick-start the talks. “The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states,” he said in May.
Once again, Palestinians accepted Mr. Obama’s formula, while Mr. Netanyahu publicly rejected it, leaving Palestinians with no other non-violent alternative but to go to the UN to seek a state based on the 1967 borders. In 1967, it should be recalled, Israel occupied the remainder of historic Palestine and other Arab territories following the June war. Shortly after the war, the Security Council declared in the preamble to Resolution 242 that “it is inadmissible to occupy land by force.”
This is not the first time the UN has been called on to arbitrate the Middle East conflict. Back in 1947, when the General Assembly voted to partition the British Mandate of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, Jews danced in the streets of Tel Aviv. Today’s Israelis are rejecting recognition of Palestinian statehood on a much smaller territory than that assigned to Arabs by the original partition.
Since 1991’s Madrid Conference, direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians have taken place in various formats. Palestinians made one compromise after another, hoping partial agreements would lead to statehood. The 1993 Oslo accords set in motion a peace process that was supposed to last five years, with the end goal being an independent Palestinian state and a safe, secure and recognized Israel.
But the peace process exposed a permanent inability to agree on anything of real substance. Worse, direct talks have not only failed to produce the desired results, but their continuation has helped to mask widespread construction of Israeli colonies on Palestinian territory. Palestinian lands continue to be confiscated, settlements continue to be built, and Israel’s “security wall” has strangled the Palestinians socially and economically. The International Court of Justice has ruled that the wall built inside Palestinian territory is illegal under international law, yet nothing has been done to enforce that ruling.
Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, has chosen to take the path of UN recognition rather than continue with the charade of useless – indeed, harmful – direct talks. And, clearly, that change in tactics has hit a raw nerve with Israelis and frustrated the Americans. Few Palestinians see anything wrong with the move, although many are not certain it will produce much in the way of tangible results.
Nonetheless, the Palestinian public is pleased for now with a leadership that has found the backbone to stand up to Israeli and American pressure. This will certainly help Mr. Abbas in the short term. But if the UN move does not bear fruit within a reasonable time frame, the public might turn against its political leaders – as well as against the Israeli occupiers.
So what, exactly, is Mr. Abbas hoping to achieve? The General Assembly, unlike the Security Council, can’t declare a state, and the U.S. has vowed to veto any Security Council resolution that recognizes Palestine’s independence. But if two-thirds of its members agree, the General Assembly can recognize Palestine as a state with observer status, similar to the Vatican. At that point, the international community would be obliged to begin acting against any party that was denying Palestine the right to behave as a fully functional and sovereign state.
Moreover, as a state (even with observer status), Palestine could seek legal relief from the International Court of Justice. It might also try, within the General Assembly, to invoke the rarely used United for Peace resolution (the last time was against South Africa’s apartheid regime).
Palestinians’ desire to obtain a UN vote on statehood (in whatever form) does not mean they can’t have direct negotiations with Israel. Palestinian spokesmen, including Mr. Abbas, have said they see no reason why representatives of the newly recognized state can’t negotiate with representatives of Israel. If the UN vote succeeds, however, it will not be a people talking with their occupiers, but two states negotiating how to manage their relations in peace and harmony.
Daoud Kuttab, a former professor at Princeton University, is general manager of the Community Media Network in Amman.