Palestine’s dilemma

An electrifying drama is being played out now at the UN Headquarters in New York. On one end is a state called Palestine. On the other end is a Zionist entity which has the trappings of a state called Israel. The entity is nervous.

This September, when the UN General Assembly is convened, Palestine will bid for UN membership. Israel will block this attempt. But she might not be alone in this effort. The United States will also be with her.

It is inconceivable that both these states will allow Palestine to be a member of the UN on her own volition.

But why is Palestine seeking membership to the UN now and on her own steam?

Ever since 1988 when the Palestine Authority started representing the interest of all Palestinians around the world, it has been able till today to get 122 countries to recognise Palestine as a state.

But in the last six months, many more countries have agreeded to grant her statehood.

In addition, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Spain and the UK have upgraded the Palestinian General Delegations in their capitals to diplomatic missions or embassies. Such a status is normally reserved for states.

Mahmoud Abbas, Chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and President of the Palestinian National Authority (PA) has been encouraged by this development.

He wrote a post-editorial article in the New York Times on May 17 this year, saying: “This September, at the UN we will request international recognition of the State of Palestine on the 1967 border and that our state be admitted as a full member of the United Nations.”

Thus Mahmood Abbas has outlined the Palestinian Authority’s two-pronged strategy. First, to seek international recognition of Palestine as a state, and then her membership to the UN.

About 150 countries have said that they will recognise a Palestinian state within 1967 borders (that is the borders existing before Israel attacked in 1967) in September. The recognition of Palestine as a state in this sense is considered “constitutive” (statehood is a matter of recognition only).

But if the recognition is “declatory” (recognition alone cannot confer statehood, but must be accompanied by other factors, independence being an important component), then with Israeli occupation of its territories, Palestine recognition as a state becomes difficult.

Based on “constitutive” recognition, Mahmoud Abbas is now seeking membership of the UN under Article 4(2) of the UN Charter. Membership to the UN is given to any state by a decision of the UN General Assembly upon receiving a recommendation from the UN Security Council.

It is this provision of “recommendation from the Security Council” to membership of UN that the US and Israel are likely to exploit and deny Palestine her UN membership.

US President Obama, on May 19, has already declared that “symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the UN in September won’t create an independent state.” Thus the signal is that the US would veto Palestinian membership in the UN Security Council. In that case there would be no recommendation forthcoming from there to the General Assembly for Palestine to be an UN member.

So Palestine faces a dilemma and she is desperately seeking a way out.

In any case there are several countries that are not UN members but are states that receive benefits that accompany such a status. One such case is that of the Vatican. It is a state since 1929 but is not yet a member of the UN. Kosovo is recognised by many states, including the US, but is also not a member of the UN. Switzerland has been a state since 1848, but joined the UN only in 2002.

Denying UN membership is not without precedent. In 1972, China objected to our (Bangladesh) application. In 1975, US voted against application of Vietnam. South Korea was denied UN membership for many years.

One option for the Security Council before it faces US veto is to include a clause about the ongoing peace process in a resolution. This was done in the case of Macedonia in 1993. Macedonia was admitted acknowledging differences.

Palestine Authority has hinted that in case of US veto in the Security Council to recommend her case, she will opt for an upgrade from an observer status to a “nonmember state status,” which requires approval by the General Assembly only.

So what is Palestine to do?

Many experts suggest that the Palestinian Authority should continue to push for international recognition as a state.

By getting support of 150 states Palestine would be able to formally level the diplomatic playing field with Israel. Internationally, Palestine would not be considered a non-state actor, but a state like Israel. Thus, future negotiations on the matter of West Bank settlements, Jerusalem, etc would be between two states, rather than with an occupied people.

It would allow her to ratify international treaties. It could then ratify the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court (ICC), where she has already lodged a complaint against Israel for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Once ICC accepts Palestine as a state, investigations on the allegations can begin.

Palestine, by obtaining recognition as a state, can also claim sovereign immunity from political lawsuits now being hoisted against her in the US. Palestinian diplomats will then be able to claim diplomatic immunity and also have the legal right to offer consular assistance to Palestinians in jails in Israel and elsewhere in the world.

Recognition of Palestine as a state would also help to enhance her image. The Palestinian fighters would not be termed terrorists and they could begin to claim prisoner of war status.

The Palestinians, however, has a last resort for UN membership. They can turn to the UN General Assembly and request it to consider membership under a “Uniting for Peace” resolution. Such a resolution can be resorted to only when the UN Security Council is deadlocked. But this can have serious implications. It was resorted to in 1950 during the Korean War. This can subvert the well-calibrated balance of power within the United Nations.

Come September, an exciting time awaits the Palestinians and their supporters in the lobbies and chambers of the United Nations.

The writer is a former Ambassador and Chairman of the Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

E-mail: ashfaq303(at)


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