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The issues behind the quest for Palestinian statehood

A Palestinian walks past a Palestinian flag painted on a wall in West Bank city of Ramallah Sept.19, 2011.

Ammar Awad/Reuters/Ammar Awad/Reuters

In its bid for full-member status in the United Nations, the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas appears to have thrown out the old rulebook that says statehood for Palestinians can only be achieved by negotiations with Israel. Or has it? As the Palestinian and Israeli leaders prepare for an historic showdown later this week in New York, this and many other issues remain unclear.

Is membership in the United Nations the same as conferring statehood?

No. In international law, a state's existence is a matter of fact, and recognition of that state is something for other states to do. However, UN membership is a kind of confirmation that a lot of states do recognize a country as a sovereign state.

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What gives the Palestinians the right to claim this?

The Palestinian leadership says Palestine possesses the four criteria of statehood: a permanent population; a defined territory (the 1967 borders, give or take a few settlement blocs and land swaps); a government; and the capacity to enter into relations with the other states. It also relies on 1947 UN Resolution 181 that called for the partition of Palestine into "independent Arab and Jewish states" (and the internationalization of Jerusalem). Israel cited the resolution when declaring its state in 1948. Now, the PA is taking up the proposal of being the Arab state – on considerably less land than the UN resolution had proposed. (Interestingly, Resolution 181 calls for a "Jewish state" to be established. The Palestinians have consistently refused to recognize Israel as such – would the Palestinian embrace of 181 effectively recognize Israel as a Jewish state?)

Will the UN statehood bid succeed?

No. Article 4.2 of the UN Charter provides that membership will be "effected by a decision of the General Assembly [only]upon the recommendation of the Security Council." The GA then needs to approve the membership of the new state with a two-thirds majority (128 states in this case). While Palestine will likely get the two-thirds support in the GA, it first must win Security Council approval. That takes nine votes. Seven nations on the council (China, Russia, Brazil, South Africa, India and Lebanon) are believed to support the PA bid, while seven (the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Colombia and Nigeria) say they will vote against or abstain. Two countries, Portugal and Gabon, are believed to be wavering. Should the Palestinians get nine votes, the United States will vote against the bid, thereby vetoing it. The Palestinians may then proceed to the General Assembly and get some form of lesser recognition there.

What do the Palestinians hope to achieve?

Ironically, Mr. Abbas says he wants UN membership so he can return to negotiations with Israel, this time with greater leverage. The Palestinian leader went to great lengths in his speech Friday to assure people he is not seeking to challenge Israel's legitimacy. The Palestinian leadership believes recognition is the only way it can retain the support of the Palestinian people for a two-state solution.

Why does Israel object?

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Israel has always wanted to ensure that a Palestinian state be carefully circumscribed – demilitarized, for example, with certain parts hosting Israeli or foreign military observers. Such limitations of sovereignty can be done through negotiations better than through a unilateral declaration of statehood. Israel also worries that a vote on Palestinian membership may increase Israel's isolation, and result in the downgrading of relations with countries that vote for Palestine. It is concerned, too, that a successful bid may allow Palestine to use UN institutions, such as the International Criminal Court, to launch legal attacks on Israel. It fears the end of a process of negotiations and an acceleration of the international campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions to delegitimize Israel.

What might Israel do in response?

Israeli leaders are divided but vow some form of retaliation if this bid goes forward. Some call for halting the transfer of tax revenue Israel collects at borders for the Palestinians, others suggest an end to all bilateral co-ordination, including security measures. An expansion of settlements is almost a certainty, and Israel's annexation of some Israeli settlement blocs a distinct possibility.

What's the worst-case scenario?

Israel halts tax revenue, closes borders and ends co-ordination with the PA. As a result, Palestinians riot, the PA collapses and Israeli military forces retake complete control of the West Bank.

Will the matter be resolved this week?

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Almost certainly not. The procedure calls for the Security Council to strike a committee that will consider the application and report back with its recommendations. It may be months before such a committee reaches any conclusion and a vote is held in the Security Council, during which time talks over Israel and the Palestinian Authority returning to negotiations will continue.

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