The United Nations has 192 member states at this time. For Israel, the most pessimistic scenario is to discover one morning that the Palestinians got the 193rd seat, via a unilateral move that circumvents negotiations. However the Ramallah leadership’s path to the sought-after seat at the General Assembly in Manhattan is not an easy one at all.
First and foremost, the Palestinians are facing the American obstacle. US President Barack Obama declared last week on no less than three separate occasions his objection to the Palestinian intention to seek UN recognition of statehood.
On top of the negative response from Washington, Ramallah is facing an admittance process that requires more than just one vote at the UN General Assembly. Over the past weekend, current GA President Joseph Deiss made it clear that the Palestinian Authority will not be able to join as a member state without a Security Council endorsement.
Deiss did not intend to adopt a political position or hint to the intentions of General Assembly members, but rather, to merely provide a simple procedural explanation – the GA has no authority to accept a new member state. If the Palestinian Authority indeed wishes to join as a member, it must undergo three stages: Declare statehood, receive the Security Council’s approval, and then receive the recognition of more than two thirds of GA members.
The Kosovo scenario
The 1933 Montevideo Convention set four international law criteria for establishing the status of a state: Permanent population, territory defined by permanent borders, effective government and ability to manage both domestic and external affairs. Despite the dispute over the future state’s borders, it appears that the Palestinians meet the requirements, especially in light of the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement, which boosted the effective government element.
“In fact, the only thing missing for a Palestinian state today is their declaration,” says Dr. Robbie Sabel, an international law lecturer at Hebrew University and formerly the Foreign Ministry’s legal advisor.
Despite the long road they must take in order to receive the status of a UN member state, should the Palestinians declare statehood, the direct implications in the international theater will be dramatic, as many states are expected to recognize “Palestine” immediately after such declaration.
“It will be a similar situation to what we are seeing today in Taiwan or in Kosovo; many states recognized their statehood and some did not, such as Israel. Kosovo is not a UN member, but many countries recognize it as an independent state,” Dr. Sabel said.
The 2nd declaration
In 1988, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat took the stage at the General Assembly and declared the establishment of a Palestinian state. Yet the establishment process did not take shape, mostly because of the absence of territory where the Palestinians could realize their sovereignty. Ever since then, they referred from declaring statehood.
“There are several estimations as to why they didn’t do it,” said Dr. Sabel “They may fear Israeli retribution, as they depend on us in terms of handing over funds, electricity, and water supply. This would also constitute violation of the Oslo Accords, which may enable Israel to act unilaterally as well. In addition, if they declare statehood within the 1967 borders, this would constitute renunciation of the ‘Greater Palestine,’ and that would be a historic compromise.”
Yet declaring statehood is only the beginning of the road for UN members. “Not every state is a UN member,” Dr. Sabel said. “Israel, for example, was established in 1948 but was only admitted into the UN in 1949. Switzerland was not a UN member for almost 50 years.”
“Admittance into the UN constitutes recognition of a formal state, yet if they wish to be admitted as a member they first need the Security Council’s approval, and here we see the power held by the US and permanent Western members,” he said.
The Palestinian capital: Haifa
The Palestinians will likely not turn to the Security Council before September, because an American veto is expected to thwart their statehood bid. However, Ramallah may put the US Administration in an embarrassing situation.
As opposed to the Security Council, the Palestinian situation in the General Assembly is much better. At this time, 118 states of all UN members belong to the non-aligned movement. They usually vote as a bloc and advance joint interests. For the time being, Abbas can count on these states to recognize Palestine. “Through the non-aligned states, the Palestinians can pass a decision whereby the General Assembly recognizes a Palestinian state with Haifa as its capital,” officials in Jerusalem familiar with the issue said.
The exact text of the recognition request had not been published. Foreign Ministry officials estimate that a “maximalist” text that includes recognition of a state in line with the 1967 borders will elicit the support of some 140 states. However, a “softer” text may prompt the support of some 170 states.
Despite the guaranteed approval of any text brought forth by the Palestinians, General Assembly recognition of statehood is merely a declaratory act. Yet the GA also holds operative powers, such as the ability to establish committees or bodies. The Assembly can indirectly assist the Palestinians by setting up commissions of inquiry, issuing legal opinions, creating bodies that would advice in the process of establishing a state, and so on.
According to estimates, the Ramallah leadership will not be able to elicit recognition of statehood of US members by September, and will therefore likely ask the GA to approve a status upgrade. At this time, the Palestinian Authority serves as a UN observer, a status that allows it to take part in sessions, without voting rights or the ability to submit proposals (other states, such as Egypt, do it on the Palestinians’ behalf). The Palestinians also cannot field candidates for UN bodies.
The GA can approve a status upgrade with a two-thirds majority. In fact, with the exception of the formal standing of a UN member, the GA can grant the Palestinians all the rights they are currently deprived of. “The GA sets its own procedures, and it can change them,” an official in Jerusalem said, but added: “Granting the Palestinians full powers, with the exception of formal membership, may be a problem for the UN because that would blur the line between observer and member. Other states may object.”
Nonetheless, officials in Jerusalem are preparing for a new, grimmer reality the day after UN recognition of Palestine. Officials fear an international wave of upgrading Palestinian missions as well as harm to Israel’s global status, which is shaky as it is. Another possibility is that the Palestinian Authority will exploit its power at the UN to bend current procedures and be admitted to UN bodies. That way, Ramallah would be able to advance anti-Israel decisions. “The rules of the game around here are about to change,” an official in Jerusalem summed up the issue.
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