Helman: The Palestinians Seek UN Recognition

Ambassador Gerald B. Helman writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:

The Palestinian Authority has stated its intention this Fall to seek some action at the United Nations to advance its claim to statehood now. According to press reports, the PA’s initiative at least in part would be a reaction to what it sees as Israel’s unwillingness to advance a peace process that would lead to Palestinian statehood under a “two state” solution, and Israel’s continued construction of settlements in violation of its obligations under the Geneva Conventions and unwillingness to recognize the 1967 frontier as the starting point for negotiations. The PA has not revealed how it hopes to achieve statehood status at the UN. Reports in the press and among commentators suggest confusion on the part of the media and misinformation about the possible options available to the PA and what significance they might have. The purpose of this note is to address some of the options available, their political and procedural significance for the PA and for the opponents of a Palestinian initiative.

Membership in the UN, according to its Charter, is open to all “peace-loving states which accept the obligations contained in the present Charter and, in the judgment of the Organization, are able and willing to carry out these obligations.” Membership is accorded by the General Assembly upon recommendation of the Security Council (where the veto would apply). Nowhere does the Charter define what is a state. Generally, a political entity is considered a state if it controls its own defined territory and can meet its obligations to other states, presumably including those obligations contained in the Charter. But then what is to be done with the Somalias of this world, and with some of the other UN members that many consider “failed” states? No one challenges or is likely to challenge their statehood or their membership as states in the UN. (A more sceptical or maybe practical definition of a “state” would be a political entity that existing states consider a state and deal with them as such.) In the case of the PA and actual membership in the UN, such issues are beside the point. The US has already said it would veto an application, and thus PA membership, reportedly on the grounds that such membership would impede the prospects for negotiations leading to a “two-state” solution. The US has said nothing about the PA’s “statehood” or its ability to carry out the obligations of UN membership, tests of membership specified in the Charter. If the PA nevertheless pursues this course, the best it can do is achieve a moral victory if all other Security Council members vote for membership, or, more likely, if the application receives at least the nine votes needed to pass but fails because of a US veto. No other Permanent Member has said it would veto.

The General Assembly provides a number of other options, any of which can be successful because of the strong majority other Arab states can rally in support of the PA. As a practical political matter, the General Assembly can adopt whatever political resolution it wants, unless specifically limited by the Charter because of powers given to or shared with the Security Council. Thus, the Assembly can simply adopt a resolution, citing any number of prior Assembly or Security Council resolutions, including those defining frontiers and conditions for settlement (such as those proposing swaps of land for peace), and declare the PA to be a state, peace-loving and willing and able to carry out the obligations of UN membership. Such a resolution could be accompanied by an additional action changing the current special observer status of the PA to that of an Observer State, with rights of participation in UN meetings and activities. While this changes very little in the current de facto status of the PA as an “entity” with UN Observer status, the change to Observer State would put it in the same category as that of such states as Switzerland, Korea, Finland and the (then) Federal Republic of Germany, all of which were at one time, for differing reasons, Observer States before they became members. (Today, the only remaining Observer State is the Holy See.) Such designation of the PA would gain in value if most democracies join in support and take follow-on action, such as establishing a diplomatic relations, supporting PA membership in various UN specialized agencies such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the World Health Organization (WHO), The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the International Labour Organization (ILO) and UNESCO (the UN Economic, Social and Cultural Organization). These and some others operate under Treaties separate from the UN Charter, and do not allow for a veto of membership.

By itself, Israel can do little effective to counter or modify any potential PA recourse to the UN. As a deterrent, Israel has said that such a move would set back the peace process perhaps by years (although the press fails to report why Israel believes this need be so). The US has undertaken to persuade both sides to resume peace talks as an alternative to UN action, thus far without success. Moreover, the US is committed to veto any Security Council resolution recommending PLO membership. Beyond that, the US is unlikely to be able to influence many votes either in the Security Council or the General Assembly. The UN remains largely an environment hostile to Israel, worse now than it has been for a while when Israel could rely on the quiet support of countries such as Egypt and Turkey to deflect or moderate hostile proposals. While Israel’s governmental relations with Egypt and Turkey remain correct, they have deteriorated, especially on a popular level. As the sacking of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo and the defense of Israel in the UN reveal, Israel after over sixty years remains almost uniquely dependent on the US (whose President they freely revile, even as they ask him to intercede on their behalf with Egypt).

In contrast, the UN might seem to the PA to be its sandbox. With the help of Islamic countries, it can engineer resolutions that support its cause, and operate in a forum in which it can vent its grievances. But its freedom to operate in the UN can be deceptive. Absent membership, the initiatives it undertakes will result in little more than the PA can today obtain in the UN system. At the end of the day, new initiatives involving statehood or membership may provide a political thrill for its constituencies, but will not have advanced the prospects for a two-state solution, or in any way improved the lot of Palestinians. For that, Israel’s participation will still be needed.

Each side might best use the inevitability of UN attention to the subject to present their larger vision of their future in a changing Middle East, all as a prelude to returning to negotiations under terms last offered by President Obama. As an alternative to threats, what Israel might consider today is something in the nature of a white paper explaining exactly why UN action at this time would be harmful to the peace process, or injurious to the further success of the Arab Spring and state that nevertheless it is prepared to resume negotiations. What Israel should avoid are threats based on assertions that such a move would be harmful because Israel says it would be harmful or unilateral actions, especially those involving disputed territory. No one any longer doubts Israel’s military strength, economic and technological capabilities, or the vigor of its political system. For its part, the PA should acknowledge the necessity of a two-state solution that can be achieved only with Israel’s willing participation and its own willingness to proceed on the basis of the President’s proposal.

Helman “was United States Ambassador to the European Office of the United Nations from 1979 through 1981.” He was among the originators of the concept and among the first to see the challenges of the “failed state.”

28 Responses

  1. It seems to me that there are only two possible solutions to the Israel/Palestinian conflict that would respect the basic human rights of the Palestinian people:

    1. Palestine becomes an independent state.

    2. Alternatively, Israel could annex all of the Palestinian territories and give Israeli citizenship (with full voting rights) to all people living there.

    The status quo is an apartheid type situation, and thus is morally wrong. If Israel wants to control Palestinian land but is unwilling to give equal rights to the people who live there, then the UN should simply vote to accept Palestine as an independent state. If the U.S. vetoes such a resolution, then the U.S. will look ridiculous in the eyes of the whole world, and this could have a chilling effect on diplomatic relations, especially with Arab countries.

    Both Israel and the United States are just going to have to accept reality and allow a Palestinian state to come into being. Then there could be bilateral negotiations between the states of Israel and Palestine over land swaps for final borders, perhaps brokered by other nations — maybe even the U.S., if it behaves reasonably in the UN and doesn’t veto Palestinian statehood. If the U.S. does issue a veto, however, then it will no longer have any credibility as a “neutral broker” between Israel and the Palestinians, since it will have taken a side in a very unilateral way, in defiance of the rest of the world. Such an action could set back the prospects for peace in the Holy Land for years, maybe decades.

    • @ Eric Stetson,

      you’re quite right and, hopefully quite soon, a palestinian state will be established. that happy day isn’t yet at hand for Iran is supporting Hamas in obstructing any possible deal to end the occupation and Netanyahu’s coalition of fools and racists is also unwilling to accept any decent deal.

      • It is important to remember that Abbas conducted extensive negotiations with the Israeli goverment that preceded this one…it was led by Olmert and defined itself as a “peace government” in the nature of that of Rabin’s. Even though Olmert agreed to give up Judaism’s holies sites in Jerusalem, including the Western Wall, the Jewish Quarter of the old City, the Biblical “City of David” and the Mt of Olives, no agreements were reached on ANY of the main issues. Bernard Avishai wrote about this in the New York Times. Thus, I find it hard to define what a “decent” deal is in your eyes since even the Israeli Left has failed to find common ground with Abbas’ demands.

  2. he US is committed to veto any Security Council resolution recommending PLO membership. Beyond that, the US is unlikely to be able to influence many votes either in the Security Council or the General Assembly. The UN rem

  3. “…the PA should acknowledge the necessity of a two-state solution that can be achieved only with Israel’s willing participation and its own willingness to proceed on the basis of the President’s proposal…”

    Good luck getting Israel to participate in anything but expanded settlements, appropriation of water away from Palestinians, collective military punishment on a civilian population, an utter disregard for international law, and a continuation of the Apartheid State.

    Israel needs to be pushed into peace-talks, because they have all the bargaining chips and the UN move *might* be the best (short-term) way to push Israel back to table as the US is completely incapable of directing it lap-dog (ask Biden).

  4. The status quo has not worked, time for something new. Also, if this is so useless, then why do the standard bearers of status quo seem so fearful of it?

  5. There are a number of issues here not being mentioned, that are integral to the issue.

    First is context. Everyone has a context for every situation in which that person encounters. Each such context informs that person what is the proper goal, what major actions to take, and on what major aspects to focus. In truth, every one has two contexts for each situation: the real one, the one they actually follow; and the preferred one, the one they promote to others and believe themselves to follow. For any one situation, the two can be quite similar; and they can be so far apart the Atlantic ocean looks like a puddle in comparison.

    For those people who believe humans can think and than act (develop a plan and implement it) the concept of real and preferred context is seen as absurd. But so be it, reality is never a function of popularity, but of truth.

    The real context of EVERY person who is a Zionist is to eventually get to where Israel’s border’s are the same as the land occupied by the 12 tribes of Israel in the Hebrew Bible. Which is why Gaza was given up; that was occupied by the Philistines throughout Hebrew Bible times. So as long as Israel is defined by Jews as “Jewish” state (an oxymoron if there ever was one, because by definition a real state is secular, democratic, multicultural, and has a free enterprise economy; “lots of unreal states today, aren’t there”), the then current Israeli government will NEVER honestly negotiate with the Palestinians and permit a Palestinian state.

    So anything the Palestinians do to get the worlds political shakers and bakers to accept them as humans (because of repeated association), such as being given statehood status at the UN, and then having observers in most UN functions, would be valid.

    But I propose that far more important is that the PLO recognize it and Palestine are not synonyms, give up the huge ego, greed and power hunger present in most of their leadership, and have elections that create a democratic leadership. Then ask for membership in the UN. That would show a maturity worthy of state recognition.

  6. I haven’t been a Mideast watcher for long, but doesn’t it seem obvious that actually the US isn’t committed to “peace” but instead propping up Israel? Obviously everyone’s calling for a peace process with two states, but when the PA actually tries to make it happen the cynical goalposts move again. Perhaps you should be more explicit about it if that’s really the case.

  7. What is the purpose of posting this boring regurgitation of the conventional wisdom that some how misses every important aspect of the UN initiative and its implications?

  8. I’m really coming from a position of real ignorance. But the question of taxation and the receipt by the PA of tax revenues seems odd to me. How is it that Israel is in a position of controlling the receipt of tax revenues by the PA? Along with ultimate political authority over a specified piece of land it does seem that the question of state revenues is significant to any definition of Palestinian statehood.

  9. The problem with your premise is the assumption that Israel wants a Palestinian state. The Oslo Accords supposedly provide a blue print for a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders… no efforts were made on behalf of Israeli to end its illegal occupation of Palestinian land. It is not really that complicated like you portrayed it, Israel needs to go back to the 1967 borders and then and only then there will be peace. Obama can make it happen by enforcing international law (like he did in Libya) but unfortunately he’s an invertebrate. End the occupation.

    • well Joseph, it IS a little more complicated than that. ending the occupation isn’t a guarantee of anything and there’s little reason to think that peace will follow a return to the ’67 borders. when Israel was at those borders, there certainly wasn’t peace.
      peace doesn’t follow unless both sides want it and can deliver it, working to thwart those on their own side who will oppose it.
      the Palestinians can’t deliver peace at present….(and Lord knows that the present Israeli government is uninterested in working to deliver a just peace).

      • When Israel was at those 1967 borders, it didn’t have over 200 nuclear bombs. You know, the ones it refuses to admit it has so that it can claim that its existence is threatened, which then allows it to steal more Palestinian land.

        Carter outed the Israeli nukes recently. So why are they not part of the conversation as to Israel’s true level of security?

        • hey super, just how do you think Israelis refusal to publicly confirm it’s quite well-known nukes somehow links up to stealing more land?

          that linkage eludes me.

    • A Greater Israel is the way they (Israel) has been headed for a long time. Who believes they want a two state solution based on the 67 border with land swaps. No one I know or read.

      Appears to have been Israel’s plan for decades. They just keep expanding illegal settlements and illegal housing in E Jerusalem all the while saying to the Palestinians look over here (you must recognize Israel has the right to exist) Now look over here “now you must say that Israel is a Jewish state” Now look over here, no over here

      Two state solution seems to be a myth

  10. “As a deterrent, Israel has said that such a move would set back the peace process perhaps by years (although the press fails to report why Israel believes this need be so).” …the same line is pushed by the US , but what does it mean?
    Does it mean anything more than – ‘it wont work because I’ll make sure it doesn’t’ ???

    • As far as I’ve been able to tell, “the peace process” is actually “the gravy train” as far as Israel is concerned. If Israelis were not at constant war and under “an existential threat”, maybe the United States would reconsider the several billion in military and economic aid that we give them every year.

      If Israelis were not at constant war and under “an existential threat”, maybe the United States would not always support their war crimes and violations of the UN Charter in the Security Council.

      Actual peace would clearly mean an end to “the peace process” – and quite possibly the monetary bennies and unconditional support as well. Therefore, nothing can be allowed to advance “the peace process.”

  11. Helman “The UN remains largely an environment hostile to Israel,” Why has Helman described the UN being “hostile to Isreal” when what nations are demanding is that they abide by UN resolutions, treaties etc. Why would he describe this as “hostile” instead of describing the UN as attempting to seek justice?

    I believe Israel is in violation of more UN resolutions than any other nation

    • —-”Why would he describe this as “hostile” instead of describing the UN as attempting to seek justice?”—-

      because there’s some truth in his statement. see Durban I and II ……

      even if you think that all of those UN resolutions that you say Israel violates are attempts at reaching justice, the speeches and statements from those World Conferences against Racism in 2001 and 2009 are not really defensible as “just” rather than expressions of hostility.

  12. Virtual statehood or the Right of Return
    Many Palestinians feel the newest version of the bid for statehood no longer represents them and their interests.

    link to english.aljazeera.net

    The above is a link to an article by Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian leader who, as a student a Columbia, was active in the boycott movement against South African apartheid and is now a major leader of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel.

  13. When i was reading this guest column, I got the feeling that its full of subtle bias toward Israel and contempt toward the Palestinians.
    It gives me the expression that Helman thinks the Palestinian bid to get into UN is like children trying to get into club for adults.
    I think this is the first guest column that is not worthy being here on this site.

  14. To me, the very term “Peace Process” throws a fog over the situation in Palestine. It implies a symmetry between the two antagonists, and a state of war. If it were simply called what it is, an unlawful occupation and control by Israel of the hostile indigenous population of Gaza and the West Bank, then maybe all that gravitas peace process blarney could be replaced by deliberations of how to force an end to the occupation.

    The resistance of an occupied and brutalized population is not an act of war, nor is the expansion of Israel into the occupied territories an act of war, it’s what the powerful do all the time to the weak. Seems to me that granting statehood to the Palestinians should be welcomed as adding another layer of legitimacy to UN resolutions declaring the illegality of the occupation.

    As for any position the US takes, it’s not born out of rational deliberations, it’s based on a simple principle: “My Israel right or wrong, never the less my Israel.”

  15. Pity the other Arab countries don’t provide broad spectrum support for the Palestinians, especially the GCC (Gulf Chicken Council) states. Votes in UN Gen Ass won’t change anything.

    The Palestinians get more support from Turkey & Iran than they get from their Sunni Arab brothers. Neither Turkey nor Iran are Arab, and Iran’s a Shia state. The Arabs and Israeli both seem more interested in gesture politics than real-politik – maybe it’s a characteristic of Semites.

    I doubt I’ll live long enough to see peace between Palestinians & Israeli’s, unless we’re hit by an asteroid.

    • Phil, it is unfair of you to criticize palestines neighbors for not supporting them. It has only been a few months since Tunis threw off it’s oppressive yolk and Libya and Egypt are still in the process. Give them time and you will, I’m sure, see a lot of support for the Palestinians.

    • Hey, it took a lot of your tax dollars to bribe, corrupt, and overthrow Arab governments to get them to ignore their citizens’ sentiments on the Palestinian issue. Show some appreciation for 32 years of hard work!

  16. The ambassador falls off the reasonable wagon with a big thud in his very last sentence, when he says: . . .The PA should acknowledge the necessity of a two-state solution that can be achieved only with Israel’s willing participation . . .”

    I think it very likely that over decades of eyeball-to-eyeball contact with the Israelis, one thing is crystal clear to the PA, and that is that the Israelis under practically any leadership have no intention whatsoever of EVER being willing to take part in a two-state solution. The PA is in the best position of anybody to know that the Israelis seem to have bought whole hog into the original “American Solution,” which is to pull off a fait accompli by slowly and inexorably shoving the inhabitants of the most recent several thousands of years off their land, as was done wholesale in the “settling” of the Wild West. It all just takes time, and for that the Israeli policy has shaped up to be expressed with only one word: “stall.” Stall all day today, this month, this year, and for many years to come if need be.

  17. it’s not at all clear that the Israelis are unwilling to agree to a two-state solution. the record shows that it’s been the Palestinians and the Arabs that have been opposed to it far more than the Israelis.

    at present there’s little hope of it being realized and that’s not all on the Israelis. Hamas also opposes a peace-and-partition deal which means that the Palestinians can’t deliver their end of a deal.

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