Friday Puzzler: Why Oppose Palestinians’ UN Bid?

Mahmoud Abbas speaks at the UN yesterday. Voice of America photo by Peter Fedynsky, via Wikimedia.

By Barbara F. Walter

Why are Israel and the United States so opposed to the UN granting Palestinians non-member observer state status?

Yesterday the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to grant Palestinians non-member observer state status. Israel and the United States (along with seven other smaller states) voted against the measure despite the fact that the largely symbolic vote offers Palestinians few real benefits. At most, Palestinians will now be able to participate in General Asembly debates and possibly join some UN Agencies and the ICC, but not more than that. Benjamin Netanyahu claimed yesterday that UN recognition would push the peace process backwards and delay the establishment of a Palestinian state. It’s not clear, however, why this would necessarily be the case.

So today’s puzzler is this: Why is Israel (under Netanyahu) opposed to granting the Palestinians observer state status at the UN, and why have the Palestinians (under Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas) continued to pursue it?


    1. Actually, as Kevin Jon Heller over at Opinio Juris noted:
      “Finally, I’ll say it once again: Palestine should be careful what it wishes for. I think it is highly likely that, if the OTP investigated the situation in Gaza, Palestinians would end up in the dock long before Israelis. From a legal perspective, Fatou Bensouda would find it much easier to prosecute Hamas’s deliberate attacks on Israeli civilians than Israel’s disproportionate attacks, collective punishment of Palestinians, and transfer of its civilians into occupied territory. The latter crimes are fraught with ambiguity and difficult to prove. I know I wouldn’t start with them, were I the Prosecutor.”

  1. Israel, Marshall Islands, and Palau are the top three countries, and Micronesia is fifth, and Canada seventh, in terms of voting along with the US in the UNGA ( p. 102), the island countries being heavily dependent on US economic aid. That leaves Czech Republic, Nauru, and Panama. CR is one of Israel’s staunchest allies for frankly unknown reasons ( Nauru is in an economic mess, and the island state is known for throwing UNGA support to whichever economic power will offer it aid ( Panama probably does not want to jeopardize the Canal expansion ( These are all just guesses.

  2. I agree with Dr. Walter on this. The bid for non-member observer status has been taken out of proportion by analysts and media outlets. This in no way brings the Palestinian Authority closer to statehood. It does however provide the value of being able to put claims forth to the ICC, which in terms of bargaining power, would give Palestine a strong leverage point that could serve useful to thwart Israeli attacks in the future.

    It will be interesting to see how this affects the overall peace process.

  3. My sense of is that the Israelis are worried about the vote delimiting and solidifying the status quo. With this move, the Palestinians are taking the diplomatic offensive that assumes a two-state solution along something that looks like current borders. Right now, on the NYT website, the breaking news is: “Israel Plans Development in Strategic East Jerusalem Area, Provoking Palestinians” …..

    1. Nisha- only it’s more complicated: what do you call a status quo? the practical status quo is that there is no Palestinian state and that Israel controls the WB. The juridical status quo (at least until last night) is that the only border that was enshrined in UN resolution is that of 1947, not 1967. Resolution 242 and 338 indeed call for a return to status-quo-ante (before the wars of 67 and 73, respectively), but do not define these borders. In a sense, then, last night’s resolution is upholding the status quo- that of 45 years ago (by the way- I think it’s a good thing). Border fixity anyone?. Or Nisha, in your words, territorial sovereignty anyone?

      1. Boaz,

        I think if you asked representatives of most of the states that voted in favor of the Palestinian status upgrade, they would say that they view the upgrade as indicating support for an internationally-recognized Palestinian state along pretty much the 1967 borders. Of course, the problem is with the “pretty much” part of this statement. But I actually think this is a case that goes against the border fixity norm, and that this is part of what underlies Israel’s reaction to the vote.

        1. If it’s 1967, it’s not against the border fixity norm: The norm was not yet in place in 1948-9 when Israel expanded the original borders. It was in 1967, which made the further expansion much tougher (despite the overwhelming disparity of power). And which, in my mind, make us come to it again and again even though facts on the ground have been changing. Granted, though, the case is much more complicated because there was no Palestine between 47 and 67, and the status of Jerusalem was originally as part of neither state.

  4. I’d say there are two reasons:

    1. It’s a bargaining chip. You may gain something from having a standard state in front of you in terms of commitment and the like (not sure this is true, but let’s assume it is), but since this is valuable for the other party you may want to extract something in exchange of it
    2. In order for the above bargaining strategy to be credible, you need to incure into some sunk cost. In terms of discourse (suggesting that non recognition is a matter of principle, not strategy), for example, or appointing “hawks” to key posts. This, as well as the concern for mantaining credibility may perpetuate a strategy of irrational commitment.

  5. Two things:
    1. When you don’t actually want to talk (or at least not seriously) but you want to create the appearance that you are flexible and the other is inherently violent and not a partner for negotiation, diplomacy is by far a greater threat than rockets.
    2. It’s the 1967 thing. Netanyahu and his coalition partners have a very different map in mind, and the UN resolution return the discussion to the 1967 lines. They don’t like it…

  6. Here is what this accomplishes – it makes any permanent two-state solution harder. Even though it doesn’t change the facts on the ground, by using the 1948-49 armistice line as the boundary it makes it more difficult for the PA to ever give up anything on its side of the line. Included on its side of the line are the Temple Mount and the old Jewish Quarter and Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem that in the 2000 and 2001 discussions would have been left in Israel as part of a land sway. Israel will never give up complete control of these areas to another sovereign after what happened there from 1949 to 67.

    The PA wanted this because it provides both (1) further demonstration of international support (2) more recognition of a Palestinian state which was supposed to be one end point of the Oslo process without the PA having to address Israeli security which was the second end point of the Oslo and (3) will provide additional pretext to avoid final negotiations since the goal of the PA is not a permanent settlement and they have desperately tried to avoid being boxed into one since their rejection of the proposed settlement in 2000.

    The Israelis opposed it because it shortcuts the Oslo process and is a further step towards the Palestinians have a state with a final peace. What is interesting to note is that Israel’s opposition and reaction to the vote which much muted compared to last year which I suspect is due to a combination of the current government (1) finding it more convenient for its own purposes if there are even more obstacles to a settlement (perhaps a convergence of interest with the PA) and (2) having pretty much given up on the chances in any reasonable short term for any settlement.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like