As we go to press, the Palestinian Authority has announced it will request full membership as a state at the UN Security Council. If Washington vetoes the move or the PA backs down, the Palestinians will probably seek a status upgrade at the General Assembly, from observer to nonmember observer state.
The PA’s appeal to the world body arises from the collapse of a two-decade Oslo “peace process” that has brought the Palestinians neither peace nor a state. But there is confusion at the heart of the move: is it an elaborate ruse to strengthen the PA’s hand in negotiations, or is it a new diplomatic strategy grounded in international law and political mobilization but born of the opportunities opened by the Arab revolutions?
It’s certainly a risk. Any bid before the Security Council will incur not only a US veto but Congressional sanctions and Israeli retaliation, including a possible ban on transfer of PA revenues to pay its 180,000 employees. Even an upgrade, which carries a lesser status, could incur Israeli reprisals. And both could trigger violence in the occupied territories and beyond. UN membership is said to be the preference of PA president Mahmoud Abbas, his Fatah movement, most Palestinians and the Arab League. The upgrade already has the support of most nations at the General Assembly, including several European states. The EU’s official position as a bloc, however, is to support a return to negotiations.
The Obama administration sees both a veto and a no vote as a train wreck. Either action would deepen—at a time of revolutionary upheaval—the already widespread Arab perception of America as Israel’s defender and Palestine’s enemy. Embassies in Cairo and Damascus have been burned for less. Former Saudi US ambassador Turki al-Faisal has warned that if Washington vetoes a Palestinian state, it will lose Saudi Arabia, historically its closest Arab ally.
The PA’s turn to the UN is an act of last resort. Since Obama was elected there have been just two weeks of PA-Israeli negotiations. Obama’s last throw on the PA’s part was a plea last year for Israel to obey a partial freeze on settlement construction. Israel refused, for the third time. Obama later vetoed a unanimous Security Council resolution calling for a freeze, something that had been Washington policy.
UN membership would strengthen the PA legally and politically. Even an upgrade may allow it to join bodies like the International Criminal Court; there, say legal experts, it could potentially prosecute Israel for grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, including the illegal transfer of settlers into occupied territory. The PA also knows that an overwhelming show of support for nonmember observer state status would not only strengthen its claim to eventual statehood. It would expose the United States and Israel as the real holdouts in the conflict, and “finally extract a price for US shameless pandering to Israel,” says Palestinian analyst Rashid Khalidi.