Media Mention of Hussein Ibish in Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty - September 20, 2011 - 12:00am

On September 19, Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas formally told United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon that he would be submitting an application for full UN membership for the state of Palestine after his speech to the General Assembly on September 23. This reiterates the plan outlined by Abbas in a speech to the Palestinian people last week.

It is not absolutely certain that such a resolution would win the required nine-vote majority in the Security Council, but even if it did, the United States is publicly committed to vetoing it. So the Palestinians cannot, at this stage, win full UN membership under any circumstances.

This means that the Palestinians, if they are to pursue a UN-based strategy to its logical conclusion, will have to turn to the General Assembly for something less: UN nonmember observer-state status. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) has been a nonmember observer at the UN since 1974, with several upgrades in rights and privileges since then.

Nonmember state status for Palestine, as opposed to the PLO's "political entity" observer mission, would not greatly alter the procedural tools available to the Palestinians in that body.

But many Palestinians might regard it as an important symbolic victory, an international recognition of their right to statehood and another step towards eventual full UN membership and independence.

Invoking A Powerful Historical Precedent

There are two specific aspects to UN nonmember state status that appeal to some Palestinians.

First, is the powerful historical precedent it invokes. There is presently only one nonmember state at the UN, the Holy See, but the Vatican has no interest in becoming a full UN member state for a variety of reasons.

However, historically, there have been 16 UN nonmember states and, accounting for the unification of Germany and Vietnam, all 16 are now full UN members. This history alone helps to explain a large part of the appeal such a status holds for Palestinian leaders.

Second, some Palestinians hope that a nonmember UN observer state of Palestine would be able to access international law enforcement agencies and mechanisms to pursue charges against Israel.

Specifically, some Palestinians are hoping their nonmember state could become party to the International Criminal Court, potentially making Israel and Israeli officials liable for war crimes under the Statute. These not only include unlawful acts of violence against persons or property, but also settlement activity and "the crime of apartheid."

However, although theoretically it is possible for a non-UN-member "state" of Palestine to accede to the Statute, actually pursuing indictments and prosecutions against Israeli officials will be more of a political and diplomatic process than a legal one.

It is difficult to imagine a multilateral, diplomatic international law-enforcement body filing charges against Israel under the current international climate.

An Israeli border policeman stands guard as young Palestinians are stopped and checked in the West Bank town of Hebron
The history of the Goldstone Report into the Gaza War found opposition to acting under its findings coming not only from traditional defenders of Israel such as the United States and France, but also Russia and China, who were concerned about the potential precedent it might set concerning the actions of large armies in heavily populated insurgent areas.

Possible Backlash

There are two ways in which the Palestinians could seek such status in the General Assembly.

The first would be to reach an understanding with the European Union -- uncomfortably split between members which are supportive, opposed to, and ambivalent about such an upgrade for the Middle East Quartet.

The second would be to do it in a confrontational manner, which could provoke a serious backlash from Israel, the United States and possibly even some European states.

A confrontational approach could well result in the cutting off of aid from the United States -- the single biggest individual donor to the Palestinian Authority (PA) annually -- and a wide range of potential Israeli retaliations, including the withholding of Palestinian tax revenues which make up the bulk of the PA's budget.

Moreover, a crisis in relations with the United States is extremely unlikely to promote the realization of a genuinely independent, sovereign state of Palestine.

That can only be achieved through negotiations with Israel and no party is competing with the Americans to serve as the broker for such talks.

Therefore, what the Palestinians would gain through a confrontational General Assembly vote, which they could no doubt win, would be largely, if not entirely, symbolic, but with very real, painful costs.

Indeed, the Palestinians might be setting themselves up as the mirror image of the Republic of Kosovo, which has de facto independence but no UN membership and limited international recognition, primarily due to Russian and Serbian opposition.

Palestine could end up with enhanced status at the UN and widespread international recognition, but no actual sovereignty and with de facto independence at least as difficult to achieve as ever.

Potentially A Pyrrhic Victory

Palestinian leaders argue convincingly that they have little confidence in the willingness of the present Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to enter into serious negotiations leading to their independence, and that the bilateral negotiating process brokered by the United States has essentially broken down, at least for the time being. So it is understandable that they are looking for an alternative.

But the practical consequences of a confrontational approach at the UN, which alienates much of the West -- especially the United States -- and provokes Israeli retaliation, could prove a Pyrrhic victory.

Worse still, if the United States, Israel and others overreact by cutting off funds to the PA and leaving the Palestinians destitute and in despair, this could provoke an outpouring of anger and even violence that would turn into a security and political nightmare for Israel and the PA alike.

In both of these instances, the "cure" would be worse than the disease, and measures designed to make matters better or make an important point could actually render the existing political situation far more difficult.

Since the Palestinian leadership has taken no formal action yet, the window for a compromise is not yet closed. It is strongly in the interests of all parties to find one.

Hussein Ibish writes regularly on Middle East affairs for numerous American publications, is a columnist for Now Lebanon and blogs at The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.


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