THE PALESTINIAN STATEHOOD BID
Context, Political Impact, and Legal Ramifications
By: Alex Mette
espite so far having fallen short of full fledged statehood, The Palestinian bid for a seat at the UN has made significant progress in gaining public attention for the Palestinian people's cause. While the final outcome of Abbas and the PLO's actions remain to be seen, it’s clear that the implications are primarily political though there are some important legal elements that will be discussed as well. The two are very much connected, especially in that the legal implications of an upgrade to observer status may provide the Palestinians with some new leverage and an impetus on both sides to resume negotiations. In terms of popular support, the move has helped improve public opinion of Abbas and added new life to the Palestinian issue internationally. While highly contested by the United States and Israel, widespread support for a Palestinian state was seen throughout the world, namely in China and South America. In fact, it is extremely likely that a vote in the General Assembly would lead to an upgrade in the Palestinian's status, a fact that further highlights the unpopularity of Washington's position. The move also helped inform the debate surrounding the role of the United States in the region, especially in light of the Arab Spring. Most recently, Palestine successfully became a member of UNESCO, gaining an important foothold that has the potential to lead to membership in other UN bodies but has thus far yielded significant financial loss as a result of economic actions taken by the US and Israel. Most importantly, the movement for Palestinian statehood stands as an example of a unilateral move by the Palestinians to break the status quo and put forward an issue around which international support can coalesce. The implications of the statehood bid are primarily abstract as it is widely recognized that the United States will veto any vote in the Security Council for a Palestinian state. Instead, the move has increased awareness of the unequal status of the Palestinian people in the international community and forced Washington's hand during a pivotal time in the Middle East. Despite the fact that Palestine will unlikely be unable to achieve full statehood in the immediate term, several options remain going forward that will help further the cause of the Palestinian people including potential membership at other UN bodies, most important being recognition by the International Criminal Court, and an upgrade to non-member status following a vote by the general assembly. While the US has continued to demonstrate its unwavering commitment to the Israeli position, the simple fact that the Palestinians were able to bypass the traditional venues for negotiations – venues that have continually failed to yield a successful peace deal or even halt illegal settlements – and give new impetus to their cause, is a sign of optimism. Another positive development is the peace deal between Hamas and Fatah and ongoing unity talks, which despite the negative spin in the US and Israel, are welcome news for the Palestinians and will give future negotiations a better chance at success. Further, the reconciliation process, though still at an early stage, has already shown signs of a changing Hamas. Due in part to the drive for unity with Fatah as well as developments outside of Palestine, Hamas appears to be distancing itself from
some of its traditional backers. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to a position of overt political power with an accompanying shift away from Syria and Iran is a welcome change for the West given the moderate character of the Brotherhood compared with Damascus and Tehran. Further, while still not recognizing Israel's right to exist, a stance that makes recognition of the group impossible for the US, Hamas has committed itself to “peaceful resistance acceptable to the international community.” Palestinian Statehood and the Arab Spring The Palestinian statehood bid comes at a time when Washington finds itself in an extremely difficult position vis a vis the changing nature of the Arab world. The upheaval caused by the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya as well as the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain in particular have put the US in an awkward position with regard to the rhetorical if not popular domestic desire to promote democracy and Washington's relationships with undemocratic regimes. In terms of the Palestinian issue, the US was slow to condemn Mubarak for fear that it would send a message to regional allies, namely Saudi Arabia, that the US would support the public in a prodemocracy revolution and to Israel who feared a new government would not uphold Camp David. Washington's position contributed to a loss of legitimacy in Egypt as well as the broader Middle East as the Obama administration has offered contradictory messages for countries such as Bahrain and Libya. The Palestinian's were able to take advantage of the unique opportunity presented by the Arab Spring and force the United States to address the question of a potential veto at the Security Council, preceded by a flurry of diplomatic activity as the US and Israel lobbied world powers not to support the Palestinians. By forcing the US to face this possibility Abbas brought Palestine into the forefront during a time when Washington was extremely sensitive to public opinion in the Middle East and was undergoing a dramatic shift in policy perspective in the region. In a more abstract sense, by capitalizing on the energy of the Arab Spring in a way that is relevant to the position of the Palestinians, the PLO gained needed popular support and prevented the feeling of a missed opportunity to bring new life to their cause during a time of high political engagement and energy. Further, the success of popular uprisings to bring about change in the region has contributed to a growing belief among Palestinian youth in the power of non-violence. The Arab Spring started a debate in the US that continues today about the sustainability of our relationships with undemocratic regimes. Further, our national security interests are being viewed increasingly through a pragmatic, rather than ideological lens. The prominence of domestic, mainly economic issues and fear of a nuclear armed Iran in the run-up to the presidential election has meant that the Israel-Palestine issue has seen little attention outside of the statehood debate. This has helped to raise questions in the US among politicians and American citizens about the nature of our relationship with Israel and whether continuing to prevent the advancement of the Palestinian case is justifiable in terms of a further loss of legitimacy in the highly engaged and invigorated political climate in the Middle East today and more fundamentally, whether it’s even in our interest to oppose a movement that is largely symbolic. Further, in terms of economic issues, several Republican candidates stated they would categorically reassess and even zero out our foreign aid and in some cases, included Israel in that equation, a clear example of economic pragmatism outweighing traditional politics.
Legal Implications The likely legal implications of the current movement for statehood are limited but important, mostly in that they further the Palestinian cause without compromising on key issues. However, the short-term results of the move, especially economically, will likely be negative (a reality that is widely understood by Palestinians). The most significant concrete change that could be seen as resulting from an upgrade in the Palestinian's status would be a potential decision on the 2008 ICC case. This case remains undecided as Luis Moreno-Ocampo is thought to be waiting for a decision from the General Assembly on Palestine's status before proceeding. If brought before the ICC, this case would not only assess possible war crimes committed on both sides but would set a precedent for hearing cases by a non-member (Palestine) and a non-signatory (Israel) and could set the stage for addressing questions more relevant to the statehood issue and more importantly to the peace process. Critics of Abbas' decision to submit an application for membership to the UN have raised two questions regarding whether the impact of the move harms the interests of the Palestinian people. First, would recognition of a Palestinian state signify agreement, or even a position on borders? And second, would it eliminate the PLO as the legitimate representative of all the Palestinian people? The first question is based on the definition of eligibility for statehood put forth in the Montevideo Convention that requires a clearly defined territory. However, a contradictory line of legal thought holds that recognition of a state is de facto rather than relying on the specific criteria. Simply put, if other states recognize Palestine, then it has the legal basis for statehood. Further, while full membership in the UN may be the hallmark of statehood, it is not the sole arbiter of statehood, much less of membership in the international community. Secondly, critics of the statehood bid fear that it will compromise the right of return and result in the disenfranchisement of refugees and Israeli Arabs. If the PLO is replaced by the Palestinian State, they hold, it will mean that the PLO is no longer the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and no longer able to exercise sovereignty over all the Palestinians. Further, some hold that the creation of a Palestinian state would support Israel's claim of a Jewish state thereby threatening its non-Jewish population as well as the majority of Palestinians living outside of the West Bank or Gaza. However, the statehood question does not deal explicitly with borders or recognize a Jewish state by virtue of the existence of a Palestinian state. Further, because the creation of a state would see the accompanying development of a state government, the PLO and its role would indeed change – most likely in order to take on a complementary role to the Palestinian State – but not necessarily to the detriment of the millions of Palestinians living outside of the OPT. On the most fundamental level, the statehood bid is changing the terms of the debate. The Palestinians are seeking to counter the argument that the preconditions set out by Montevideo are the sole, much less most important, criteria for determining status as a state. By emphasizing the widespread international recognition of the Palestinian State and historical legitimacy of the Palestinian's governing bodies they are advocating the de facto view of statehood while generating momentum domestically and internationally for their cause. Further, the issue raises awareness of the Palestinian's unequal status under international law and inability to have their voice heard in organizations such as the ICC. By pursuing a seat at the UN the Palestinians have invoked a strategy that “amounts to a demand for inclusion within an international society of states as a state under occupation rather than as a territory yet to achieve independence.”
Fanning the Flames of Fear While the specter of a third intifada, resulting from building up the hopes of Palestinians in a fruitless effort to gain recognition at the UN, has been raised, it’s clear that Palestinians fully understand the potential ramifications of this issue and still support the PLO's decision to push forward. In fact, polling suggests that support for the move at the UN stood at 84%. Interestingly, the same polling found that the vast majority of those polled also believed their bid for statehood would exact a negative response from Israel (90%) and the US (87%) and more than half believed it would have a negative effects in the short-run. Based on this, it’s obvious that Palestinians understand that they will likely suffer as a result of the move and do not expect significant changes to their daily lives as a result of any decision in the UN. In fact, the portrayal of a possible state as having a meaningful impact is more the product of an alarmist attitude in the US and Israel towards any move that they themselves have not instigated. It appears that most Palestinians see the issue not as an end in itself, but as one step in a broader strategy to secure their rights and to bring about positive change to the status quo that has for decades failed to yield peace. “Most Palestinians back President Mahmoud Abbas's move but understand that the realities of life under Israeli occupation won't change […] many ordinary people simply feel forgotten and excluded.” Statehood and the Peace Process Whether the decision to pursue a seat at the UN will have a negative impact on the peace process is a question that has been raised again and again by American and Israeli officials who say that the path to peace is through a negotiated settlement (a position the Palestinians have never argued.) Aside from obvious doubts about the seriousness of Israel to restart talks given ongoing illegal settlement activities and Washington's ability to broker a deal in the run-up to the 2012 election, the statehood bid is not seen as a substitute for negotiations. Rather it is a way to create a break from the path of negotiations that have failed to address the most fundamental demands of either side. “Many Palestinians, especially youths who make up the majority of the population, see the U.N. bid as something else: a sharp break with a peace process and the beginning of a new era.” The campaign for a Palestinian state has generated momentum on the Palestinian side, both among the population and government officials and will contribute to continuing negotiations between Hamas and Fatah. Support for the move, despite the fact that it is a symbolic and to a lesser extent legal strategy unlikely to yield immediate results, should be taken as a positive sign of a commitment to non-violent and institutional methods of resistance. All of these signs are encouraging in terms of future negotiations. Conclusion: the Role of the United States The Palestinian statehood bid is above all else a move meant to alter the balance of power and end the status quo, two factors that have in the past meant indefinite stalling and a lack of commitment to talks. For the US, it has come at a time when new questions are being raised in a climate of cynicism regarding its broader mid-East policy and unconditional support for Israel. The Palestinians will continue to gain access to the UN and will use the international bodies available to them to further their cause. Washington is in a position whereby it must weigh this reality against the implications of continuing to act as a spoiler in the legitimate and non-violent aspirations of the Palestinian people.