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Palestinian UN membership: A goal or a tool?

Twenty-three years since the euphoric day of the Oslo Accords, peace is not the offing

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

As world leaders descend on New York City for the 71st annual UN General Assembly session, it is certain that once again the never-ending Israeli Palestinian conflict is going to play at least some part in the discussions. Symbolically, may be ironically, this year’s session began on the 13th of September, the very same day that the Oslo Accords were signed between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership in 1993.

Twenty-three years since this euphoric day peace is not the offing. The issue that once upon a time was one of the most fiercely debated in the heart of many UN debates seems to have given way to other more pressing issues. There is a combination of fatigue and sense that the impasse between the two protagonists is impenetrable.

Yet, there will still be the inevitable blame game of whose fault it is that nearly seventy years after the UN voted for the partition of Palestine, an independent Palestinian state still remains elusive. Most predictably the majority of speakers will express their support for the Palestinians’ bid for statehood and almost everyone will call for peace negotiations to resume, but not much is going to be done about it.

It begs the question, whether the UN relevant in this conflict at all anymore? Can it incentivise both sides to go back to the negotiating table, let alone sign a peace agreement? Or, can it penalise those who harm the chances of ending this conflict? Thus far the UN has made almost every possible political and symbolic gesture to express its support for Palestinian statehood, short of the ultimate prize of passing a Security Council resolution that recognises Palestine as an independent state.

The simple answer to the inability to pass such a resolution, is the veto power held by the United States, which has so far been used rather effectively to block or deter majority support for such a resolution. The reality, as always with the case of the Israeli Palestinian conflict, is somewhat more complex and convoluted.

It depends to a large extent on whether Palestinian statehood is seen as a reward for the Palestinians for reaching a peace deal with Israel. Or alternatively, since there is an international consensus that the Palestinians as a distinct nation are entitled to a state, a UN recognition should only be a formality, and the details over all the other outstanding issues should be conducted between two already internationally recognized states. The US supports Israel, among a small number of states, in advocating that Palestinian self-determination cannot precede a peace agreement.

Even the frosty relations between Obama and Netanyahu, who is seen in Washington as bearing the lion’s share of responsibility for the current stalemate, will not prevent a US veto when and if the Palestinians apply again

Yossi Mekelberg

Past negotiations

The premise of past peace negotiations, from the Madrid Conference, the Oslo Accords, Camp David 2000 and the Abu Mazen-Olmert talks, has been that unless there is an agreement on all the core outstanding issues such as borders, Jerusalem, security, refugees and settlements, Palestinian statehood remains on hold.

Towards the end of the last decade the Palestinian leadership began reconsidering their route to international recognition as a state. Mahmoud Abbas, Saeb Erekat and especially Nabil Shaath, among others, lost faith in the negotiation route and saw the armed struggle as futile and counter-productive.

What was left for the Palestinians then was appealing to the international community to recognise in practice, not in principle, their right for self-determination. Consequently, the struggle for independence moved to the international political diplomatic stage.

It was aimed at acquiring international legitimacy by being admitted as members into international organisations and also in parallel the delegitimising of Israel for the occupation of Palestinian land. This was done through the BDS movement and by encouraging the ICC to indict senior Israeli military personnel and politicians with war crimes.

In September 2011 the efforts to achieve international recognition moved up a gear, when President Abbas first submitted an official letter to the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, requesting membership recognition of Palestine as a state.

The Security Council hurdle

The Palestinian Authority and the PLO have made huge strides in their bid to gain international recognition, and sway public opinion in their favour, but failed the most coveted goal of clearing the Security Council hurdle. In the process the Palestinians gained membership in UNESCO, the International Criminal Court and in November 2012 Palestine was granted non-member observer State status by a vast majority of UN member states.

Nevertheless, a resolution brought to the Security Council at the end of 2014 gained a majority, but failed to meet the minimum nine yes votes required for adoption by the council for recognition as a state. In any case the United States, Israel’s closest ally, had made it clear that it would have used its veto power to block the resolution anyway. The nearly two years that have elapsed since then have not brought any major developments suggesting that in the near future the United States will change its mind.

Hence it is hard to imagine a successful new bid for Palestinian statehood. Even the frosty relations between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is seen in Washington as bearing the lion’s share of responsibility for the current stalemate in peace negotiations, will not prevent a US veto when and if the Palestinians decide to apply again.

During the presidential elections, especially when the outcome hangs so finely in the balance, it is very unlikely that the Obama administration will take such a risk. There are no signs that this state of affairs may change no matter who is elected as the next US President in November.

General Secretary Ban Ki moon warned on Thursday in the Security Council that the Israeli and Palestinian leadership should take the difficult steps to change the destructive trajectory currently leading both sides towards a one-state reality. He was clear in blaming the expansion of Israeli settlements, violence and vitriolic language from both sides for the impasse.

However, beyond urging the sides to resume negotiations, there is no sign that the road to Palestinian statehood will go through the Security Council, unless an agreement is reached with Israel and not the other way around.
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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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