BICOM Briefing: Implications of the Palestinian ‘non-member state’ bid at the UN

Key Points

  • On Thursday 29 November, the UN General Assembly will almost certainly vote to change the status of the Palestinian delegation to the UN from non-member ‘observer entity’ to non-member ‘observer state’.
  • The move comes despite objections from the US, Israel and Britain alongside several other EU countries who consider it detrimental to the cause of returning to talks.
  • Last minute negotiations continue in New York over the text, with Britain withholding a decision on its vote to the last moment, but William Hague has said barring late compromises by the Palestinians, Britain will abstain.
  • Reports indicate that Israel will opt for a relatively low key response, and the issue is likely to go on hold in the immediate wake of the vote whilst Israel holds elections and the US administration reshuffles its foreign policy team.

What is happening at the UN?

  • On the afternoon of Thursday 29 November, the UN General Assembly will almost certainly vote to change the status of the Palestinian delegation to the UN from non-member ‘observer entity’ to non-member ‘observer state’. Whilst Israel, the US, the UK and a number of other states have tried to prevent the move, the Palestinians can rely on a near automatic majority in the General Assembly due to the support of Islamic and Non-Aligned states.
  • Last minute negotiations are ongoing over the precise content of the text, including the question of whether it will meet demands by the UK and others to refer clearly to the need for a negotiated agreement with Israel and to close off the option for the Palestinians to use the changed status to bring legal cases against Israel in international courts.
  • Diplomatic sources in New York indicate that such compromises on the Palestinian side look unlikely, but that negotiations will continue to the last minute.
  • The date of the vote has symbolic significance as the date when the UN Partition Plan to divide British mandate Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state was approved in 1947. This plan was never implemented as it was rejected by the Arab side.

What is the position of Britain and key international players?

  • Britain has consistently been opposed in principle to this Palestinian move. Foreign Secretary William Hague told the House of Commons on 20 November that, “We judge that that would make it harder to secure a return to negotiations, and could have very serious consequences for the Palestinian Authority.” On 28 November he updated the house that Britain had set three conditions for supporting the resolution.
    • a Palestinian commitment to returning immediately to direct talks;
    • a Palestinian commitment not to use the change in status to seek International Criminal Court (ICC) jurisdiction over the Palestinian Territories;
    • a Palestinian commitment not to use the vote to prejudice a Security Council decision on full Palestinian membership of the UN.
  • The Palestinians have so far not been willing to give these assurances and, barring a late change in the text, Britain will consequently abstain.
  • Israel considers the move a breach of the Oslo Accords and an attempt to pave the way to legal actions in the ICC and elsewhere. Israel argues that the establishment of a Palestinian state can only be brought about through a negotiated agreement with Israel. A year ago, when the Palestinians applied unsuccessfully for full membership of the UN, Israel temporarily suspended the transfer of customs revenues they collect on the Palestinians’ behalf. However, on this occasion reports indicate that Israel will be relatively low key in its response, and will not take steps that might undermine the stability of the PA.
  • The US is also strongly opposed to Palestinian attempts to shift the issue away from a negotiated solution and international forums. Though the administration is also likely to prefer a low key response, the US Congress has already cut back on funding projects due to the Palestinian move.
  • Other EU states are divided. France will support the resolution, in common with a number of other EU states, whilst Germany and the Czech Republic are expected to oppose it.

Would making Palestine a non-member state at the UN help the peace process?

  • Britain, the US and other European states have been trying to persuade the Palestinians not to pursue this path, or at least to soften the resolution, for fear that it could undermine the prospects for a negotiated agreement.
  • One of the principle concerns is that it would pave the way for Palestinian recognition by other international bodies, most importantly the International Criminal Court (ICC). This could lead to the Palestinians, or even third parties, attempting to bring charges against Israelis in the court, a development that would further embitter relations between the parties and side-line talks indefinitely.
  • In addition, if the UN General Assembly were to recognise Palestinian sovereignty in all of the Gaza Strip and West Bank within pre-1967 lines, without reference to the need to negotiate with Israel, this could tie the Palestinians own hands when it comes to making compromises in the negotiating room. A final status agreement will ultimately require both sides to show considerable flexibility on their demands.

What is likely to happen next?

  • In the aftermath of the vote the Israeli cabinet will meet to decide on a response. Possible retaliatory measures include announcing new settlement construction, or suspending transfers of tax revenues that Israel collects for the Palestinians. Reports indicate that Israel will opt for a relatively low key response and avoid harsher measures which might trigger the collapse of the PA.
  • Israel is now heading into an election on 22 January which will be followed by a period of several weeks during which a new government will be formed. The Palestinians and external players are likely to wait and see the outcome of this process before deciding their next steps.
  • Britain and other EU states have made clear their desire to see the US re-engage more fully in the issue and attempt to urgently bring about a return to negotiations. The US administration however is about to reshuffle its foreign policy team, so it will take time for any fresh US initiatives to surface.

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