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Palestinian statehood: Individual nations, not the U.N., will have the final say [Blowback]

June 17, 2011 |  1:43 pm


Victor Kattan, a policy advisor for Al Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network, responds to two June 13 Times Op-Ed articles on the role of the United Nations in determining Palestinian statehood. Kattan is the author of the book "From Coexistence to Conquest: International Law and the Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1891-1949." His blog is at victorkattan.com.

In their Op-Ed articles on Palestinian statehood, Hamas official Mousa Abu Marzook and John R. Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, both misunderstood the nature and function of U.N. recognition in international law. Bolton's claim that President Obama is "the most anti-Israel president since 1948" was particularly galling. Was it not the president of the administration in which Bolton served who claimed to have had a "vision" of an Israeli and a Palestinian state "living side by side in peace and security," exactly as Obama wants?

As Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reiterated recently, the option of going to the U.N. in the fall to seek recognition of a Palestinian state is a measure of last resort that will be pursued only if negotiations fail. In this regard, Abbas has repeatedly declared that he is ready to negotiate with Israel, including on the basis of the framework that Obama outlined most recently in his May 19 address.

If the Palestinians decide to seek a declaration of recognition at the U.N. General Assembly, no U.S. president or Israeli leader can prevent that. They can certainly cajole other states not to recognize Palestine, but there is no veto power in the Assembly. If, however, the Palestinians seek U.N. membership and would therefore have to earn a recommendation by the Security Council, the U.S. will have the power of veto. In light of Obama's address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last month and 40 years of U.S. vetoes, it is highly probable that the U.S. would veto a Palestinian application for U.N. membership.

The issue of U.N. membership must, however, be separated from statehood. Palestine can still declare that it is a state and call on other nations to recognize it without seeking U.N. membership. Kosovo, Taiwan and the Vatican, for example, are considered states by some members of the international community and yet do not have U.N. membership. Switzerland only became a member in 2002, but no one would argue that it wasn't a state before then. It is for countries individually to decide whether they will recognize Palestine as a state. The reason why the Palestinians will seek recognition at the U.N. is because this is the most convenient forum in which to seek collective recognition. The Palestinian foreign minister expects that 150 states will recognize Palestine there.

If -- and it is still a big if -- negotiations founder and the Palestinians feel that they have no other option but to go the U.N. route, and if 150 states do recognize Palestine in September, then Palestine will be considered a state in the eyes of those countries that recognize it but not in the eyes of those that do not. If Britain, for example, unequivocally declares that Palestine is a state and enters into diplomatic relations, then the relationship between the two will be one between states. But Palestine's relationship with the U.S. and Israel, assuming that they refuse to recognize Palestine, would not be a relationship between states. This may seem like a tautology, but under international law recognition is solely a political matter for each state to decide.  

So does the Palestinian plan to seek recognition at the U.N. make any difference, or is it merely "entertainment" as Bolton has alleged? It depends on what happens. It is not the General Assembly resolution that will make Palestine a state. It is what states say during the vote and what they do afterward. This is not a question of whether or not a resolution is binding. Abu Marzook's comparison with the vote on the U.N. Partition Plan in 1947 is misleading, as the resolution itself did not create Israel. Rather, the 1947 plan was formulated by the international community to allow both Arabs and Jews to exercise their respective rights to self-determination upon Britain's withdrawal from the territory. It was associated with decolonization.

Israel exists today not because of the U.N. vote in 1947 but because it won the war in 1948, when many of Palestine's indigenous Arab population either fled or were expelled by Israel to create a Jewish majority. Israel has kept hold of the territory it acquired since that date, and it has been recognized as the sovereign power within the ceasefire lines established in 1949 by most states in the world, including the Palestine Liberation Organization.

A U.S. vote in the U.N. General Assembly against Palestinian statehood would be most unfortunate. Even "symbolic votes" affect legitimacy. In the light of the current clamor for democracy in the Middle East, the U.S. could end up positioning itself on the wrong side of history. It would also be acting against its own stated policy, as it voted in favor of the 1947 plan, which sought to establish an Arab state as well as a Jewish state. The U.S. also voted in favor of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1515 in 2003, which reaffirmed President George W. Bush's "vision of a region where two states, Israel and Palestine, live side by side within secure and recognized borders." 


Palestinian statehood: What's the U.N.'s role?

Abbas takes greater risks as he again tries to unify Palestinians

The long view in Israel against the 1967 line

Middle East peace: The wrong pact

-- Victor Kattan

Photo: The United Nations General Assembly in session on June 8. Credit: Bebeto Matthews / Associated Press

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