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The international community wants a state called Palestine

For decades, a vast majority of governments around the world embraced the idea of an independent Palestinian state

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

For decades, a vast majority of governments around the world embraced the idea of an independent Palestinian state. Yet Palestine’s bid for full membership in the United Nations still has not been recognized. The second half of the United Nation’s Partition Plan of 1947, which recommended the establishment of Jewish and Arab states in Mandatory Palestine, is still awaiting materialization. This must be regarded as one of the longest anomalies in world affairs. Ironically, it is the expected collapse of the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in recent weeks that might lead to this long awaited international recognition by the United Nations. The move by the Palestinian leadership to seek membership of 15 U.N. agencies and international treaties, beginning with the Fourth Geneva Convention, might seem like a knee jerk to the casual observer. However, it was essentially a well-crafted diplomatic move. In anticipation of Israeli intransigence in the negotiations and a likely stalemate, the Palestinian negotiators are utilizing the more conducive conditions to lay the ground for international recognition of their occupied land as a sovereign state, and the PA as its legitimate government. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s confirmation, that the application for 13 conventions were received and will be processed before the State of Palestine is added to the conventions, is a big leap towards full U.N. recognition and statehood.

Since the PLO’s recognition of the state of Israel back in 1988, the political road should have led to a peaceful conclusion of the conflict via the establishment of an independent Palestinian state next to Israel along the June 4, 1967 border. This still has not happened, and consequently a heavy price has been extracted from both people, especially the Palestinians who endured the prolonged suffering of living under occupation and in exile from their land.

Approaching the U.N. for recognition

The idea of approaching the U.N. for recognition, regardless of the outcome of negotiations with Israel, gradually took hold among senior Palestinian policy makers, as an act of both despair regarding Israeli positions and as a means to put pressure on the Israelis. Since the days of the Madrid conference, recognition as a state was the big prize awaiting the Palestinians if they were to accept a peace deal, a right they should be entitled to anyway, as a distinct nation. A distorted notion among the Israeli leadership since the country’s inception, supported by the United States, held that since the Palestinian leadership rejected the U.N. partition plan for Palestine in 1947, they forfeited their right to statehood. This perception was enhanced by declaring war on Israel following her declaration of independence and Israeli victory in the war that ensued thereafter.

The current crisis in the peace negotiations may deliver a mortal blow to the chances of reaching a peace agreement, leaving both sides taking unilateral actions

Yossi Mekelberg

Regardless of the shortcomings of the Palestinian leadership and its neighboring countries at the time‏, the Palestinian right for self-determination remained a valid one, not to mention it was in Israeli’s best interest. The Oslo process that stipulated resolving all the other outstanding core issues between both sides to achieve independence have failed miserably to rectify this. The horrendous legacy of the Second Intifada led some in the PLO to conclude that the armed struggle, as much as negotiations with Israel, would not lead to the desired result of Palestinian independence. The campaign of suicide bombing was rightly condemned worldwide and caused tremendous harm to the Palestinian cause. On the other hand, Israel’s harsh response to it brought about very little sympathy for the Palestinians, and negotiations since 2000 were sporadic with no substantial progress. This led to the conclusion by the PA/PLO leadership that the only option left would be to ask the international community, through U.N. bodies, to recognize Palestine as a state. If this occurs, then negotiations with the Israelis would be conducted by two sovereign states and would introduce some semblance of symmetry to the negotiations table in a very uneven conflict – enabling state-to-state negotiations, instead of those between occupier and occupied.

Main obstacle

The main obstacle to this occurrence has been the U.S. using her veto power in the Security Council, as transpired in 2011, due to Israeli pressure. This prevented the full recognition of Palestine as a state. Israel, supported by the U.S., maintains that this kind of recognition should be part and parcel of a positive conclusion of peace negotiations. A year later the Palestinian leadership resorted to accepting a lesser type of recognition after their original application was vetoed by the U.S. in the Security Council. The resolution elevated their status to “non-member observer state,” the same category as the Vatican, which Palestinians hoped would provide new leverage in their negotiations with Israel. It was not only a political victory, but also a resounding moral victory when 138 members supported their application and only nine voted against it. The numbers were telling, in terms of the overwhelming international support for Palestinian self-determination.

The current crisis in the peace negotiations may deliver a mortal blow to the chances of reaching a peace agreement, leaving both sides taking unilateral actions. For the Palestinians, their most powerful political ammunition would be to gain wide formal international recognition of their cause. It was made somewhat easier when U.S. Secretary of State Kerry openly blamed the Israeli leadership for bringing the peace process to a halt. Can the United States maintain her objection for recognition of a Palestinian state much longer when the Israelis are the ones deemed to actively hinder an agreement? The months leading up to the next annual gathering of the General Assembly in September will probably see a gradual acceptance of Palestine as a member of more U.N. bodies and conventions. This might result in a gradual de-facto recognition of a Palestinian state by the international community. Were this to occur, it would only emphasize Israel’s increasing international isolation on the Palestinian issue. It will have both an immediate and long term damaging impact on her standing in the world, especially if Israel does not adhere to the new legal status of the Palestinians, and if she does not treat Palestine as a sovereign entity. Worse, the Palestinian leadership could decide to take Israel, or certain Israelis, to the ICC to ensure that Israel respects, for instance, the Fourth Geneva Convention, that the Palestinians are about to join. This will provide the Palestinians with the recognition and protection of the international community that they so desperately need. If the negotiators are not able to salvage the peace negotiations, it seems that Palestinian self-determination will be realized through the international route of world-wide recognition.

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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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