The Long Road to Statehood

Palestinian refugees in the West Bank. UN Photo by Stephenie Hollyman.

By Tanisha Fazal

Palestinian refugees in the West Bank. UN Photo by Stephenie Hollyman.

As of this week, both the Republican and Democratic platforms now recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This position is sure to rankle the Palestinians who, for the first time, submitted a membership application to the United Nations last year. As far as I can tell, the applications has since been tied up in red (or blue?) tape. But the Palestinians are likely to renew their bid for membership when the UN reconvenes this fall. What will happen then?

Since the UN’s postwar inception, membership has become the new stamp of statehood. Membership is today’s most efficient – and common – means for the international community to extend communal recognition to aspiring states. But successfully acquiring membership hinges on support from great powers. Palestine, unlike the newly-decolonized states that joined the UN the 1960s, or more recent additions such as East Timor or South Sudan, not only lacks a great power champion but also anticipates (correctly) a great power veto.

All membership decisions must past through the UN Security Council. The United States is highly incentivized to delay the crucial vote because it does not want to be forced to veto Palestine’s application, as doing so would (further) hurt its reputation in the Arab world. If the Palestinians do force a vote, this is exactly what is likely to happen. But a veto wouldn’t be the end of the story.

Following a failed vote in the Security Council, Palestine would turn next to the GeneralAssembly (GA). The GA is comprised of all member states, in contrast to the Security Council, which is constituted by the veto-holding permanent five (P5) members (the US, UK, France, China, Russia) as well as ten rotating members.

Although a majority of the General Assembly supports Palestinian membership in the UN, the GA cannot override the Security Council’s decision. But what it can do is give the Palestinians an upgrade in their status. Right now, Palestine is a non-member non-state  observer to the United Nations, along with international organizations such as the International Seabed Authority, Interpol, and the African Union. A majority vote in the GA can elevate Palestine to state non-member status. Switzerland was a state non-member (by choice) for over 50 years, but opted to become a full member in 2002. Unlike Palestine, though, Switzerland could have become a full member at any point, and retained its status as a non-member as part of its neutrality, a policy the Swiss felt could be consistent with UN membership after the end of the Cold War. With full membership in the UN, the Swiss are now better able to participate in key decisions of international diplomacy.

Today over 100 states already recognize Palestine. On a recent trip to Ramallah, I saw signs of foreign investment – not to mention aid – that was surely enabled by this recognition.  A recent Saudi loan to Palestine bailed out the government earlier this summer. Donations from countries such as Malaysia and The Netherlands have funded the construction of various government buildings.

What, then, will the upgrade to state non-member status do for Palestine? Why go this route? Well, there’s no apparent downside to this upgrade, even if the upside isn’t very large. Becoming a state non-member could give Palestine standing to sue Israel in the International Criminal Court. I have also heard the argument that UN state non-member status would force other states to recognize Israel as an occupying power under international law, which would then make Israel financially responsible for Palestine’s current budget shortfall. More generally, membership would embarrass the US and make life more difficult for Israel.

It’s not clear to me if forcing the US’ hand is worth it to the Palestinians. On one hand, Palestine doesn’t want to alienate or anger the US; on the other hand, the Palestinians have very limited leverage. Recent news out of the UN suggests that the Palestinians might go directly to the General Assembly. It’s possible that this approach will allow the US to save face, and also allow the Security Council process to continue. This isn’t the best-scenario outcome for the US, but it’s better than having to exercise its veto in what would be a very unpopular move internationally. The precise timing of any moves made by Palestine are also important here, given that it’s a presidential election year in the US. Although it’s possible that Palestine will wait until November to make a move, the latest word is that Palestine will request the upgrade at the end of the month, as the UN reconvenes. Either way, my bet is that by this time next year, Palestine’s representative to the United Nations will be seated next to the only current state non-member of the UN – the Apostolic Holy Nuncio of the Vatican.

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