Marwan Muasher
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
September 14, 2011 - 12:00am

Palestinians plan to seek recognition as a state later this month at the United Nations, despite last-ditch efforts by the Americans to avoid a showdown. While the Palestinians enjoy broad international support for their statehood bid, some warn that a UN vote could inflame tensions and ignite violence at a time of regional upheaval.

In a Q&A, Marwan Muasher, former foreign minister of Jordan who played a central role in developing the Arab Peace Initiative and Middle East Road Map, analyzes the effects of a UN vote recognizing Palestinian statehood and the danger that the window for a two-state solution is closing fast.

How are the Palestinians planning to seek recognition as a state at the United Nations?

It’s not entirely clear what the Palestinians will do at the United Nations. President Mahmoud Abbas says that he wants to go to the Security Council first, while others think it would be better to circumvent the Security Council and go directly to the General Assembly. In the Security Council, UN membership requires nine votes without a veto. But it’s clear that the United States will veto any resolution.

In the General Assembly, the Palestinians hope to get recognition from at least two-thirds of the members of the United Nations—about 130 countries. The Palestinians will not get membership, but they will win an elevated status that includes membership in UN organizations, notably the International Criminal Court, International Court of Justice, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. This would allow Palestine to act as a state and hold Israel accountable in ways that it couldn’t do before.

The deadline for submitting a vote is September 20.

Is it too late to avoid a vote at the United Nations on Palestinian statehood?

It is obvious that the United States is negotiating with the Palestinians to see whether there is an alternative to a UN vote. But it won’t be clear until the last minute if this last-ditch diplomacy is successful or not.

Washington’s public position is that it’s trying to restart negotiations, but the offer of renewed peace talks without agreeing to broader terms of reference and without agreeing on an end game will not entice the Palestinians to rethink their quest for statehood. If there are other concrete assurances that can be given to the Palestinians, then that’s another story. But at this stage, it is increasingly likely that the Palestinians will go to the UN.

Who will vote in favor of recognizing Palestinian statehood in the General Assembly?

There are already 116 countries in the world that have recognized the state of Palestine. The Palestinians’ goal of getting 130 votes in the General Assembly requires two-thirds of all member states to be present at the time of the vote. The challenge will be to make sure everyone is there and no one opts not to attend the session.

The Palestinians have initiated a major campaign to ensure that they will get the necessary votes, but it remains unclear what will actually transpire. It is now apparent that some members of the European Union will vote in favor of statehood, but most will abstain and possibly one or two will vote against.

What are the chances that the United States will veto a request made to the Security Council?

The United States will veto any resolution. Given the domestic situation in the United States, it would be incredibly hard for President Obama not to veto. At the same time, however, this places Washington in a difficult situation.

What is at stake in the UN vote is a Palestinian state based on the prevailing borders before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and this is already the American position. The U.S. argument that this is a unilateral action by the Palestinians does not take into consideration that there are other unilateral steps being taken by Israel that are also not supposed to take place, most recognizably the settlement activity. Israeli settlements are literally eating away at the land that the Palestinians need for their state.

A veto runs counter to Washington’s own support for people seeking freedom and will undoubtedly damage its credibility in the Middle East. The U.S. position would then seem to be that if Syrians, Libyans, or Egyptians call for freedom that’s fine, but if Palestinians do it’s a different story. That is not going to be a strong argument to curry favor in the Arab public given the context of the regional uprisings.

Why are the Palestinians seeking a vote now?

There are several reasons why the Palestinians are pushing ahead with a UN vote. The Palestinians feel that by seeking recognition on the basis of the 1967 lines, they might in legal and international terms stop Israel from taking away more land—particularly with the current Israeli government talking about keeping all of Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley. If current patterns continue, the Palestinians would be left with a much smaller state that would not be viable or contiguous. They feel like this is one of the only ways—at least according to international law—to preserve the possibility of a two-state solution.

There is also a feeling that nothing else is working. The Palestinians do not feel that this is a substitute for negotiations and in no way means that they will stop negotiations, but should run parallel with talks. Peace talks have gone nowhere in the last decade and with the unspoken U.S. position that this is on hold until after the American elections, the Palestinians feel that they can’t wait that long while settlement activity endures.

The Palestinians argue as well that this is not a unilateral move, but is actually taking things to a multilateral level. The United Nations, after all, is the world’s international forum.

And finally, the Palestinians also feel that their own negotiating position will be buttressed if they are considered a state and can hold Israel accountable for its actions. Under occupation today, Palestinians do not have this leverage.

Will a UN vote help or hurt the peace process?

A vote will cause Israel to take a defensive position, but the potential game changer in the peace process is the Palestinian street the day after the vote. If the vote is successful in the General Assembly and especially if there is a U.S. veto in the Security Council, this will likely trigger a reaction on the Palestinian street calling for statehood to be implemented on the ground, not just on paper.

If the street manages to remain peaceful, it will put a great deal of pressure on Israel and the international community to stop ignoring the issue. The big challenge is to keep a Palestinian uprising peaceful. And if Israel reacts violently, no country—including the United States—can afford to overlook the situation.

It is unclear what will happen after September, but things won’t remain quiet until the next U.S. presidential elections. And if the United States vetoes, it will almost surely trigger a reaction in Palestine and across the Arab world.

We have heard a number of frantic efforts to argue that a vote would actually be against the interests of the Palestinians. And we have seen legal arguments that suggest that a vote will impact the right of return or the size of Palestinian land, but all of these are gimmicks that don’t withstand legal scrutiny. UN resolutions in no way affect the right of return or the other issues, but the fact that we are hearing these arguments points to concern felt in Israel and Washington. This is now seen as a serious move, whereas last year the possibility of a vote was not taken seriously.

Today, the feeling everywhere is that a vote will impact things on the ground and come with serious implications.

What is the danger that a UN vote could incite violence on the ground in Palestine and Israel? Would violence reduce the chance of a resolution?

Violence would diminish the gains that the Palestinians enjoyed in recent years. Under Salam Fayyad, the Palestinians have been building a state on the ground and gained the respect of the international community for doing so. The Palestinians themselves realize today that the armed second intifada—particularly with the suicide bombings in the early 2000s—damaged the Palestinian cause.

There is some maturity in the Palestinian street and an understanding that peaceful change is the best option. That argument has been bolstered by the Arab awakening, where powerful leaders in Egypt and Tunisia have fallen despite huge military machines. And even though the Syrian government is shooting its own people, the protestors are peaceful and the regime’s days are numbered.

This all supports the argument that peaceful change is possible. The Palestinians need to be wise enough to stay peaceful. If it turns violent, then Israel and the international community will say that this is unacceptable and respond.

Is a Palestinian awakening possible?

There is certainly frustration with the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, but the feeling against the Israeli occupation is much stronger. And the Palestinian government under Salam Fayyad has done positive things inside the territories and the economy is booming now. So the likelihood of a Palestinian awakening against the authorities rather than the occupation is relatively small.

Is there a risk that this will inflame tensions and further destabilize a region already in tumult?

A UN vote will not destabilize the region. In countries that are already undergoing change and demonstrations, this will certainly be one more issue that will be raised by protestors. And even in countries that are not transforming, this will result in demonstrations. But we should place more importance on what will take place inside Palestine over the rest of the region.

What should the Israelis and Palestinians do to find a two-state solution?

Israel needs to understand that this is a new era and new environment in the Arab world. The argument that Israel cannot afford peace now because of a hostile neighborhood will become a self-fulfilling prophecy if it allows occupation to persist without an agreement with the Palestinians. The publics and regimes across the region—as Arab regimes in the new Middle East will need to be more responsive to the opinions of their populations—will become more hostile to Israel.

The Palestinians are not blind or oblivious to what is happening around them in the region. The Arab awakening has taught them two things. One, change is possible despite strong militaries. And two, change is possible peacefully. While they have felt powerless against a powerful Israeli military and the unwillingness of the international community to bring this to closure, the region is teaching them that they can do something about this. After September, it will be naïve to think that the status quo is sustainable.

There is a very small window for peace. If that window is not utilized today, peace will not come for a long time.

What should Arab states be doing?

The Arab Peace Initiative prescribing an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict and a normalization in relations between Israel and the Arab region has been on the table for nine years and it has not been acted upon. The only way to solve the problem is through a regional solution. But the problem with this is that today the regime in Syria—a neighbor and key player in Israeli-Arab relations—is falling and so it might not be possible tomorrow morning. But once the dust settles on the new Middle East, the regional solution offers the best way forward. Both Israel and the United States must understand that they are dealing with a different Arab world than the one they knew last year.

What role should Washington play? Does the United States need to outline a new roadmap for the peace process?

Washington’s biggest contribution, not just to the cause of peace but to reform in the Arab world, is to help bring the Arab-Israeli conflict to a close. This will help improve American standing. The credibility of the United States is declining as the perception grows that the Palestinians are treated differently than all other Arabs yearning for freedom.

This also stems from an opinion that the United States is only interested in a process that never ends—and as this goes on with no resolution in sight, Israeli settlement building continues and decreases the chance of a credible two-state solution.

The United States doesn’t need to come up with a new roadmap. Instead, it needs to support a package that is actually a product of all of the different negotiations that have taken place over the years, including the Clinton parameters and the Arab Peace Initiative. The parameters of a two-state solution are known to all. It would be a mistake to think that we need to reinvent the wheel.

On their own, the parties will not reach a solution anytime soon. Without the active involvement of the United States, a solution will not be found. If Washington clings to the flawed notion that it can’t want peace more than the parties themselves, then peace will not be possible. And this will impact U.S. national security interests.

The United States needs to lead. A two-state agreement is possible. A majority on both sides wants such a solution, but they also want somebody to put it on the table because neither side on its own can do that now.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017