BICOM Briefing: The Israeli-Palestinian issue at the UN General Assembly

Key points

  • The plan of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas to request an upgrade at the UN to the status of non-member state appears calculated to force the issue on to the international agenda and gain leverage against President Obama, if he is re-elected in November.
  • Though the Palestinians can rely on a near automatic majority in the General Assembly, pursuing the upgrade is likely to create a direct confrontation with the US and Israel, on whose cooperation the Palestinian Authority is dependent financially.
  • The Palestinian application for full UN membership in 2011 failed after it was unable to garner the votes required in the Security Council, with Britain taking the position that negotiations were the best way to attain Palestinian goals.

What are the Palestinians planning for the UN General Assembly?

  • PA President Mahmoud Abbas intends to make a speech on Thursday 27 September at the gathering of world leaders in New York, to request a change in the status of the Palestinian delegation to the UN from non-member ‘observer entity’ to non-member ‘observer state’. However, there is no immediate timetable for drafting a motion or tabling a vote.
  • Though the Palestinians can rely on a near automatic majority in the General Assembly due to the support of Islamic and Non-Aligned states, pursuing an upgrade would create a direct confrontation with the US and Israel, on whose cooperation the Palestinians are dependent financially.
  • It seems likely that the Palestinians are using the possibility of bringing this resolution as a threat to leverage concessions from Israel and the Obama administration after the US elections.

What is the attitude of key international players?

  • Last year, the Palestinians failed in a bid to become a full member state of the UN, when it proved unable to muster the support of enough states in the UN Security Council.
  • The US and Israel are firmly against any attempt to address the conflict through the UN, and argue that the establishment of a Palestinian state can only be brought about through a negotiated agreement with Israel. The Palestinians have consistently avoided sustained negotiations with Israel since the election of Benjamin Netanyahu.
  • When the Palestinians applied for membership of the UN a year ago Israel temporarily suspended the transfer of customs revenues they collect on the Palestinians’ behalf, whilst the US Congress withheld donor aid.
  • A year ago Britain, in common with France, said that it would abstain on a vote to admit Palestine as a full-member through the Security Council, arguing that, ‘a negotiated end to the occupation is the best way to allow Palestinian aspirations to be met in reality and on the ground.’
  • EU states were divided about the idea of upgrading the status of Palestine to a non-member state in the General Assembly. France supported the idea, Germany was opposed, whilst Britain said that ‘any proposition put to the General Assembly must make a return to negotiations more likely.’
  • UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said recently that whilst he supported ‘the aspiration of the Palestinian people to join the United Nations’, he added that ‘all these processes should come out as a result of a negotiated settlement of the Middle East peace process, particularly the two-state formula, where Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side in peace and security.’

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

  • The recognition of Palestine as a non-member state at the UN, outside the context of the peace process with Israel, could do long-term damage to the prospects for a negotiated agreement. It would pave the way for Palestinian recognition by other international bodies, most importantly the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Palestinian Authority have threatened that they would use this opportunity to shift the conflict into legal forums, and away from attempts to reach an agreed solution through negotiations. This adversarial and zero-sum approach runs counter to the search for an agreement, which requires the two sides to reconcile competing claims through compromise.
  • In addition, if the UN General Assembly were to explicitly recognise Palestinian sovereignty in all of the Gaza Strip and West Bank within pre-1967 lines, this would risk undermining the prospects for a future negotiated agreement, which will require both sides to show considerable flexibility on their demands. If the Palestinians have their maximal positions endorsed by the UN, it will make it harder for them to compromise in the negotiation room.
  • In order to give future negotiations a chance of success, any international initiative would need to establish realistic and even-handed terms of reference, which balance the demands, interests and necessary concessions of both parties.