September 28, 2011 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 742

The Implications of the Palestinian UN Bid

September 28, 2011 | By C. Jacob and L. Barkan*
Palestinians | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 742


On September 23, 2011, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud 'Abbas submitted Palestine's application for full UN membership. The PA maintains that it had no choice but to make this move, in light of the impasse in the negotiations with Israel, the latter's refusal to halt the settlements, and the Americans' failure to propose an alternative plan for advancing the negotiations. The UN Security Council (UNSC) deliberations could take weeks, and some Palestinians have voiced a concern that the US might drag its feet and delay the vote on this issue.[1] In any case, the US is expected to veto the application's approval by the UNSC.

Palestinian figures and columnists have proposed two main alternatives in case of a UNSC rejection. One suggestion is to bypass the American veto by means of UN Resolution 377 (1950), known as the "Uniting for Peace" resolution, in order to obtain a General Assembly (GA) resolution equal in force to one in the UNSC.[2] A different version of this proposal is to approach the GA with a lower-level appeal, asking not for full membership but for the lower status of "non-member observer state," which is held, for example, by the Vatican.[3]

The second alternative is for the PA to be dismantled and for Israel to assume its authorities.[4] 'Abbas alluded to this possibility in his GA speech: "[Israel's] policy will destroy the chances of achieving a two-State solution upon which there is an international consensus, and here I caution aloud: This settlement policy threatens also to undermine the structure of the Palestinian National Authority and even end its existence."[5] It should be mentioned that, following this speech, he told Al-Hayat he had not spoken of dismantling the PA.[6] Former PA minister Sufyan Abu Zaida stressed that, when the Palestinians mention the dismantling of the PA, "it is not empty talk but a very real possibility."[7]

How Will the UN Bid Benefit the Palestinians?

In the immediate term, the bid has already yielded some achievements for the Palestinians. On the national level, 'Abbas has scored points by placing the Palestinian cause on the global agenda, as reflected by various European proposals. Additionally, the Quartet's representatives proposed a diplomatic initiative for an immediate return to negotiations, which proposes the following: "Within a month, there will be a preparatory meeting between the parties to agree [to] an agenda and method of proceeding in the negotiation. At that meeting, there will be a commitment by both sides that the objective of any negotiation is to reach an agreement within a time frame agreed to by the parties, but not longer than the end of 2012. The Quartet expects the parties to come forward with comprehensive proposals within three months on territory and security, and to have made substantial progress within six months. To that end, the Quartet will convene an international conference in Moscow, in consultation with the parties, at the appropriate time... There will [also] be a donors' conference at which the international community will give full and sustained support to the Palestinian Authority state-building actions... The Quartet recognizes the achievements of the Palestinian Authority in preparing institutions for statehood... [It] calls upon the parties to refrain from provocative actions if negotiations are to be effective. The Quartet reiterated the obligations of both parties under the Road Map."[8]

In response to this initiative, 'Abbas said: "We will not address any proposal that does not include a halt to the settlements."[9] PA Foreign Minister Riyadh Al-Maliki said, in a similar vein, that the Quartet's proposal was incomplete in that it did not address the settlements. The only new element in it, he said, was the setting of a timetable for the diplomatic process.[10]

On the personal level, 'Abbas managed to greatly improve his standing among his people, garnering considerable support among wide sectors of Palestinian society. He returned to the Palestinian territories as a national hero who had managed to withstand the pressures of the US, Europe, and the Arab world, and as the staunch defender of Palestinian rights.

As for the long term, there is no consensus among the Palestinians as to the advantages of the UN bid. The following are some examples of the benefits anticipated by some Palestinians:

Transformation in Legal Status of Palestinian Territories

If successful, the bid is expected to change the legal status of the occupied territories and of Palestinian prisoners, and consequently the attitude of the international community toward these issues. PA President Mahmoud 'Abbas explained: "Once we are recognized as a state, we will be [recognized as] a state under occupation. According to Israel, the Palestinian lands are 'disputed [territories],' but if we [are recognized as] a state under occupation, [these territories] will no longer be 'disputed' – like the territories in Sinai, the Golan Heights, Lebanon, and Jordan.[11] Nabil Ramlawi wrote: "Previous UN resolutions will be reaffirmed, and the Palestinian territories will become territories of an occupied Palestinian state that must be liberated [so as to] enable the Palestinian people to realize its right to self-determination."[12] PLO Executive Committee member Saeb 'Ereqat said that, once the status of the territories changes, the Palestinian prisoners incarcerated in the jails of the occupation, who number over 8,000, will be considered prisoners of war.[13]

Improved Terms of Reference for Negotiations

Saeb 'Ereqat said that the UN bid would result in negotiations with Israel according to a set timetable and aimed at effect an Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian territories.[14] Jihad Harb, of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, said: "The goal of the Palestinian appeal [to the UN] is to put the negotiations with Israel on a better footing by showing the international community how ineffective [Israel] is in [advancing] the peace process and by demanding that it take responsibility for this. The Palestinian activity is aimed at obtaining an international resolution (by the UNSC or the GA) stating that the bases for the peace process are the 1967 borders and the resolution of all permanent status issues within a year."[15]

Eligibility for International Assistance; Freedom to Form Military Alliances

'Abbas said that, as a non-member UN state, similar to the Vatican, Palestine would be free to form military alliances with any other country.[16] Saeb 'Ereqat said: "The UN Charters require all UN member states to assist a country occupied by another UN member state."[17]

Participation in UN Institutions

One of the most important achievements expected to result from the UN bid, from the Palestinians' perspective, is the eligibility to participate in UN institutions, which will grant them the right to take legal action against Israel and to demand the UN's intervention in resolving conflicts with it. Palestinian legal expert Mu'taz Kfeisha wrote: "After the declaration of statehood, Palestine will be able to use the internationally-sanctioned legal mechanisms in persuading Israel to accept peace and stop its ongoing crimes against the Palestinian people, for example, [the mechanism of] the International Criminal Court, INTERPOL and its associated police forces, the International Court [of Justice], the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, and the World Trade Organization Dispute Settlement Body."[18] Jihad Harb wrote that the advantages of appealing to the UN were "internationalizing the Palestinian cause, and [gaining] the option of working in the UN institutions and frameworks, and [utilizing] its mechanisms to end the occupation."[19]

Fears and Concerns

In addition to the hopes pinned on the UN bid, there were also concerns among the Palestinians, chiefly that the admission of Palestine as a UN member state might undermine the PLO's status as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, as well as undermining the rights of the Palestinian refugees. There were also concerns about a possible confrontation with the US, which might impose economic sanctions on the Palestinians, and fears of unilateral Israeli measures that might lead to the collapse of the PA and to security chaos.

These reservations are not new. For several months now, Palestinians, including some within the leadership, have been calling to give careful consideration to these diplomatic steps and to be wary of their implications.[20] Objections were also heard from the Palestinian opposition: Hamas stated that the PA and 'Abbas had operated on their own, without debating and consulting with Hamas and the other Palestinian factions, and presented several arguments against the move. It claimed that the UN bid was part of the strategy of negotiations, which Hamas rejects outright, in favor of the strategy of resistance; that it would undermine the right of return and the Palestinian rights in Jerusalem, while entailing recognition of Israel; and that it would entail relinquishing 80% of the territories of historical Palestine.[21] Opposition was also voiced in the Arab world: Jordan warned against unilateral Palestinian moves that would be detrimental to its interests and to the refugees' rights,[22] and it was reported that various Arab states had pressed the Palestinians to back down from the UN bid.[23]

PLO's Status and the Right of Return

In mid-August 2011, a month before the GA session in which 'Abbas requested UN membership for a Palestinian state, Guy Goodwin-Gill, a professor of public international law at Oxford University, claimed in a document he sent to the Palestinian leadership that UN recognition of Palestinian statehood might jeopardize the PLO's status as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, as recognized by the UN; in addition, it might leave the Palestinian refugees who live outside the 1967 borders without UN representation, thus undermining the right of return and their right to self-determination.[24]

Palestinian legal expert Muhammad Abu Hashem, a researcher at the University of York, described another problem concerning the refugees: once a Palestinian state is recognized, refugees who receive Palestinian citizenship will no longer be considered refugees according to international law; on the other hand, if they do not receive citizenship, this will essentially sever their legal ties with the Palestinian state, rendering it incapable of defending their rights.[25]

These opinions raised concerns and quandaries among the Palestinians. Several prominent figures sent a letter to the Palestinian leadership demanding that the UN bid – and any other Palestinian initiative – include assurances of the Palestinian rights, namely the refugees' right to return to their homes, the right to self-determination, and the right to an independent and sovereign state. They also demanded that the initiative ensure the PLO's continued standing as the sole representative of the Palestinian people.[26]

PA officials and supporters of the UN bid were swift to voice reassurances. They stressed that the bid would only strengthen the PLO's status as the Palestinians' worldwide representative and the defender of their rights, including the right of return until a comprehensive resolution was achieved to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As proof, they pointed to the fact that it was the PLO that submitted the UN application, rather than the PA, which was established by the PLO and has only limited authority. They emphasized that all issues of the permanent settlement, including the refugee problem, would be resolved through negotiations with Israel – even following UN recognition – and explained that UN Resolution 194 regarding the right of refugees to return to their homes and property would remain valid regardless of UN recognition of statehood. It should be noted that Palestinian officials avoided the question of how the PLO would maintain its role in the international community following recognition of a Palestinian state, and how these two Palestinian entities – the PLO and the Palestinian state – would interact, from a legal and diplomatic standpoint.

Saeb 'Ereqat stressed that the Palestinian leadership, in cooperation with the Arab League, had given serious consideration to the repercussions of the UN bid, and that 'Abbas would submit the application to the UNSC as chairman of the PLO Executive Committee as well as by power of his presidency of the Palestinian state. 'Ereqat said that "the PLO will remain the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and will maintain its political, legal, and diplomatic authority. This is an issue which will not be determined by the world; rather, we will determine it for ourselves." He added that the PLO would continue to oversee the negotiations over the permanent settlement, that the PNC would remain the parliament of the Palestinian state, and that the refugee problem would be resolved on the basis of international resolutions, as would the rest of the permanent status issues.[27]

'Abbas said: "The PLO represents the entire Palestinian people, all 8 million Palestinians worldwide, and not just those on Palestinian land, who number some four million. This organization will continue to operate until all issues are resolved, from all aspects, including the refugee problem... The Palestinian activity (agreements, etc.) is conducted by the PLO to this day. The PA is part of the PLO and derives from it, and is not an independent entity unto itself."

The PA president added: "We will reject any solution that is not in line with the international [resolutions]. We will reject any solution that does not specify the 1967 borders as the boundaries of the Palestinian state, nor will we accept any solution to the refugee problem that is not laid on the table [for discussion] – and this applies equally to other [issues], such as security, water, etc."[28]

Qais 'Abd Al-Karim, a member of the Political Bureau of the Popular Democratic Front, who accompanied 'Abbas in New York during the GA session, said that over the past two decades, the Palestinian state declared by the PLO in 1988 had gained permanent status in regional and international organizations without any detriment to the PLO's standing; therefore, UN recognition of Palestinian statehood would most likely strengthen the PLO's status as the representative of the Palestinian people, as well as strengthening international recognition of the Palestinians' national rights, chiefly the right of return and the right to self-determination.[29]

Hani Habib, columnist for the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam, explained that the right of return was not linked to the 1967 borders: "Some are concerned that recognition of a Palestinian state will constitute an obstacle to ensuring the Palestinians' right of return. This is because they accept the Israeli position that the right of return means returning to the territories of the Palestinian state. However, UN Resolution 194 speaks of the refugees' return to their [original] homes and property, so the existence of a Palestinian state will only reinforce and underscore this right."[30]

These explanations, however, failed to quell the turmoil in the Palestinian arena. Those with reservations about the UN bid continued warning that the move could undermine the refugees' rights and the PLO's status, while demanding that the Palestinian leadership take the necessary steps to avoid this. Hamas and the other opposition factions used this issue against the PA, cautioning not only against waiving the refugees' rights but also against giving up Palestine's "historical territories." It should be noted that the reconciliation agreement signed several months ago between Fatah and Hamas contains a clause on reforms in the PLO, meant to enable Hamas and the other opposition factions to join the organization. Possibly, Hamas fears that the marginalization of the PLO in favor of a Palestinian state – run by the PA – may block its way to a position of central influence in the Palestinian arena.

Hani Al-Masri, columnist for Al-Ayyam, wrote: "It is not enough to say that recognition of a Palestinian state and obtaining full membership or [the status of] permanent observer [in the UN] will not undermine the PLO's status and the basic Palestinian rights simply because it is the PLO that is submitting the request. This must be ensured by the character and content of the resolution and the measures associated with the UN bid: the wording of the resolution must [explicitly] emphasize that the Palestinian state, following its admittance as a [UN] member, will entrust the PLO to continue its missions as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people which defends their national rights. [After all,] following recognition of statehood, the PLO will not remain an observer [in the UN], its place being filled by the State of Palestine."[31]

Indeed, the letter submitted by 'Abbas to the UN Secretary General stated explicitly that the bid for UN membership did not contravene the rights of the Palestinian refugees, in accordance with UN Resolution 194, or the status of the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people.[32]

Additional Concerns

Bid May Trigger Needless and Dangerous Confrontation with US

In his Al-Ayyam column, political analyst Hani Al-Masri called to drop the UN bid because it would result in a US veto that might trigger an overall deterioration in the Palestinians' situation. He advocated appealing directly to the GA, where the Palestinians would encounter broad European support and to postpone the UN bid until circumstances are suitable.[33]

Lebanese-American journalist Raghida Dergham, head of the New York offices of the Al-Hayat daily, wrote in her column that some Arab states were pushing the PA into a confrontation with the US because they wanted to control the Palestinian cause and to steer it "towards goals that serve their regional and Islamic aspirations in the world." She called on 'Abbas "to carefully consider whether it [served] the Palestinian interest to lose America's influence and weighty [support] in its struggle to realize the two-state vision and to end the Israeli occupation of the 1967 territories... and whether he ['Abbas] wanted to become a marginal or symbolic [figure], leaving it to some other force to direct the Palestinian destiny, even if this force is some Arab country or countries." Dergham advised the Palestinians to appeal directly to the GA, where the Palestinians are ensured the support of the EU countries, and where the US would find it difficult to oppose the move or even abstain from voting.[34]

Admission of Palestine as Observer State Will Make No Difference on the Ground

Hani Al-Masri wrote: "A GA resolution admitting Palestine as an observer state [will] grant [certain] diplomatic and legal privileges but will not change the situation of occupation on the ground. This resolution might become [just] another resolution in favor of the Palestinians, like dozens of other resolutions [that have already been passed]. In fact, it will be of lesser [significance] than [some] other resolutions, especially Resolution 181 on the partition [of Palestine]."[35]

PA's Inability to Realize Its Sovereignty Will Cause Disappointment among Palestinians

Jihad Harb wrote that a successful bid for statehood would only trigger disappointment if the Palestinian leaders prove unable to realize their sovereignty over the PA territories.[36]

Danger of Sanctions and Chaos

Hani Al-Masri warned against a confrontation with Israel and the collapse of the PA: "A very bad scenario [involves] the imposition of American and Israeli sanctions. Are the Palestinians prepared [to face] the consequences of such a scenario and of their possible reactions [to it]? [These responses] may lead to a new confrontation with Israel, possibly resulting in the collapse of the PA, the Oslo Accords, and the peace process [as a whole]. It may also lead to the resignation of the president and to the creation of a political vacuum in the PA and PLO, [triggering] the spread of chaos and the loss of security control."[37]

Danger of Unilateral Israeli Moves

Al-Masri warned further that the bid, which is regarded as a breach of the Oslo Accords, may prompt Israel to take unilateral measures: "It is not enough to say that the UN bid does not contravene the peace process and the renewal of negotiations. This is merely an opinion, and one which can be easily rebutted, because the Oslo Accords and bilateral negotiations are [indeed] at odds with [the move of] taking the whole affair to the UN. We cannot ignore the threat of the Israeli government, which was stupid enough to lose [the support of] an important country like Turkey, that it would take [various] measures in response to the Palestinian UN bid, [such as] revoking the Oslo Accords, annexing the settlements and the Jordan valley, withholding Palestinian customs [revenues] from the PA, and other unilateral moves that could lead to the imposition of a state in temporary borders... like what happened with the [unilateral withdrawal from Gaza] of Ariel Sharon's government."[38]

Danger of Losing Trump Card in Negotiations

Palestinian legal expert Muhammad Abu Hashem said that the UN bid might eliminate the option of the one-state solution, which, he argued, was one of the Palestinians' trump cards in the negotiations with Israel.[39]

*C. Jacob and L. Barkan are research fellows at MEMRI.


[1], September 17, 2011.

[2] Resolution 377 states that, in any cases where the UNSC, because of a lack of unanimity amongst its five permanent members, fails to act as required to maintain international peace and security, the GA shall consider the matter immediately and may issue any recommendations it deems necessary in order to restore international peace and security. Haqq Al-'Awda (PA), August 2011.

[3] This option was proposed by PA advisors and senior officials including 'Abbas's advisor Nimr Hamad, Fatah Central Committee member Muhammad Ishtayeh, and Fatah International Relations Commission advisor Nabil Ramlawi. Al-Quds (Jerusalem), August 8, 2011; Al-Ayyam (PA), July 1, 2011.

[4], September 24, 2011.

[5] WAFA (PA), September 23, 2011.

[6] Al-Hayat (London), September 25, 2011.

[7], September 26, 2011.

[8] UN website, September 23, 2011.

[9] WAFA (PA), September 24, 2011.

[10] WAFA (PA), September 24, 2011.

[11] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), September 14, 2011.

[12] Al-Ayyam (PA), July 1, 2011.

[13] Al-Dustour (Jordan), September 18, 2011.

[14] Al-Dustour (Jordan), September 18, 2011.

[15] WAFA (PA), July 23, 2011.

[16] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), September 14, 2011.

[17] Al-Dustour (Jordan), September 18, 2011.

[18], September 17, 2011.

[19] WAFA (PA), July 23, 2011.

[20] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No.716, "Palestinian Senior Officials, Writers: It Is Doubtful Whether a Bid to the U.N. Will Benefit the Palestinian Cause," July 26, 2011, Palestinian Senior Officials, Writers: It Is Doubtful Whether a Bid to the U.N. Will Benefit the Palestinian Cause.

[21], September 20, 14, 2011.

[23], September 25, 2011.

[24], August 24, 2011.

[25], September 3, 2011.

[26], August 25, 2011.

[27] Al-Ayyam (PA), August 27, 2011.

[28] Al-Watan (Qatar), August 28, 2011.

[29] Al-Ayyam (PA), August 27, 2011.

[30] Al-Ayyam (PA), August 28, 2011.

[31] Al-Ayyam (PA), September 6, 2011.

[32], September 26, 2011.

[33] Al-Ayyam (PA), September 20, 2011.

[34] Al-Hayat (London), September 9, 2011.

[35] Al-Ayyam (PA), September 6, 2011.

[36] WAFA (PA), July 23, 2011.

[37] Al-Ayyam (PA), September 6, 2011.

[38] Al-Ayyam (PA), September 6, 2011.

[39], September 3, 2011.

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