Hussein Ibish
Foreign Policy (Opinion)
September 30, 2011 - 12:00am

In a perfunctory meeting on Wednesday morning, Sept. 28, as expected, and per its usual procedure for dealing with would-be new United Nations members since the late 1960s, the Security Council referred the Palestinian application to one of its standing committees. The committee -- which meets and votes in secret and requires unanimity to refer the matter back to the Security Council -- is scheduled to begin considering the application on Friday morning. The membership process usually takes weeks, but can take only days (as with the most recent U.N. member, South Sudan) or years (as in the case of Kuwait). Neither the committee nor the Security Council is under any specific obligation to act on the request in a limited time frame, so the process theoretically could drag on indefinitely.

Because the required nine-vote Security Council majority is by no means yet ensured, and because the United States is publicly committed to vetoing a Security Council vote if one ever takes place anyway, full U.N. membership is effectively barred for the Palestinians under the present circumstances. Therefore, the application will have to serve as leverage to achieve something else if it is to produce anything meaningful. So what options does this leave the Palestinians? Let's take a look at five, moving from the least to the most confrontational:

1) Declare moral and political victory and move on.

The Palestinians have made their moral and legal case for statehood in President Mahmoud Abbas's speech and their formal application. And if the established international peace process should decisively fail, they do have other options, no matter how risky. The Security Council referral to the committee buys everyone time to look for compromises, particularly given that the Palestinian membership bid cannot succeed. If they choose not to press the issue in the Security Council, the Palestinians could seek advantages in other venues, as follows.

2) Work with the Quartet on more advantageous language for renewed negotiations. It is highly significant that the Middle East Quartet -- the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the U.N. Secretariat -- issued a statement in conjunction with Abbas's address and the Palestinian application. The statement showed that the Quartet has not resolved the differences that emerged in its ranks this year, particularly over whether Palestinians should be required to recognize Israel as a "Jewish state." But it reasserted the importance and viability of the established processes.

Working with the Palestinians and the Israelis separately, the Quartet could issue a statement laying out the framework for new negotiations, timetables, and even clearer terms of reference that might provide the Palestinians with a significant diplomatic achievement -- even if the renewal of direct talks with a reasonable prospect of success has to wait until political circumstances in the United States, in Israel, and among the Palestinians become more favorable.

3) Pursue a General Assembly resolution in cooperation with the EU.

The Palestinians are well positioned to win almost any of a number of possible resolutions they could bring before the General Assembly, but they can do this in either a cooperative or a confrontational manner with Western states. They could work with the European Union, which is badly and uncomfortably divided on the issue, to craft language that Europeans could unite behind and that would protect them from the most serious American and Israeli retaliation, as well as provide them significant diplomatic advances. Many important EU member states, particularly France and Spain, are supportive of Palestinian nonmember U.N. observer status, but others are concerned that this would provide Palestinians' with access to the International Criminal Court and other law enforcement mechanisms to pursue charges against Israel. Some Europeans have been working on a new legal status for Palestine that would be an upgrade from the PLO observer mission but would protect Israel from potentially facing such charges.

4) Pursue a General Assembly resolution independently.

Palestinians could independently pursue nonmember observer-state status, and they would no doubt have a majority to secure that. But this could precipitate a crisis not only with the United States -- which has threatened to cut funding to the Palestinian Authority (PA) -- but probably with some important European countries as well, the two main reliable external donors to the PA's annual budget. A crisis in relations with the Americans would also greatly complicate the resumption of negotiations, which Abbas and other Palestinian leaders acknowledge will be essential for the actual realization of an independent Palestine.

The least aggressive independent action the Palestinians could pursue in the General Assembly would be a resolution acknowledging their right to statehood, but not securing nonmember state status. The most aggressive would be a resolution under the "Uniting for Peace" formula laid down in General Assembly Resolution 377A (1950), which was designed to overcome differences among Security Council permanent members on urgent matters. This would have to be tabled following a U.S. veto in the Security Council and would authorize member states to take coercive measures "to maintain or restore international peace and security." This might be interpreted as authorizing sanctions and other coercive measures against Israel. However, numerous countries have had sanctions and boycotts against Israel and, indeed, the Palestinians for decades without the authorization of Resolution 377. More importantly, a 377 resolution would not address or enhance the question of Palestinian statehood or U.N. membership, and in that sense is completely off topic.

5) Try to force a vote in the Security Council.

The Palestinians are trying to secure commitments for a nine-vote majority and could try to force a vote on their application in the Security Council, even though they know this will ultimately be vetoed by the United States. Palestinians believe they have recently won over Gabon and Nigeria, meaning that, in addition to Brazil, China, India, Lebanon, Russia, and South Africa, they have eight commitments to vote yes. The rest of the members are likely to vote no or abstain. The Palestinians are focusing their efforts on Colombia and Bosnia, both of which will be difficult to convince. Alone among South American countries, Columbia does not recognize Palestine, and it has an important security relationship with Israel. Bosnia, which is a confederation of three ethnic communities, is divided on the matter, with Muslim Bosniaks and Croats supporting Palestinian membership but Serbs opposing it because of a potential similar application by Kosovo.

If Palestinians cannot secure a nine-vote majority, then there is virtually no rationale for pressing their case in the Security Council. But if they can, some Palestinians and their allies argue that they could achieve a "moral victory" by forcing the United States to use its veto to block Palestinian membership. Such a moral victory, however, could come at a tremendous cost -- loss of U.S. and other Western aid, a souring of relations with the United States, and unspecified harsh retaliation threatened by numerous Israeli leaders, including potentially withholding Palestinian tax revenues that make up the bulk of the PA's annual budget.

For the moment, the Security Council has bought everyone time by referring the matter to the committee and has averted but not foreclosed a universally damaging confrontation. The various compromise tracks are very much in the Palestinians' interests, and there are promising signs they understand this. In defiance of all expectations, while the Israeli cabinet was unable to agree on any unified response to the Quartet's statement, by contrast, following a meeting of its executive committee, PLO Secretary-General Yasser Abed Rabbo welcomed the statement, though he also reiterated the Palestinian demand for a settlement freeze.

If they play their cards right, Palestinian leaders will have made the moral case for their statehood, demonstrated that they do have options outside the established peace process, and secured new diplomatic leverage and political capital at home. But if they mishandle diplomacy in the coming weeks and months, they could face a very dangerous crisis in relations with the West, and especially with the United States, which they can ill afford.


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