Letter from the UN: The Palestinian Bid for Membership

VOL. 41


No. 1
P. 57
Letter from the UN: The Palestinian Bid for Membership


Letter from the UN   The Palestinian Bid for Membership


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By Graham Usher

The Palestinian Authority’s application to become a full member state at the United Nations represents the latest stage in its “alternative peace strategy” born of the collapse of the U.S.-sponsored Oslo peace process. But—argues the author—the new strategy remains overly dependent on diplomacy and uncertain Palestinian allies like the European Union. If it is to achieve a balance of power for future negotiations more favorable to the Palestinians, however, it will need to be anchored in a greater national consensus at home and in the diaspora, and allied more closely to the emerging democratic forces in the region.

ON 23 SEPTEMBER, Palestinian Authority [PA] president Mahmud Abbas submitted a formal application for the PA to become a full member state of the United Nations. “This is a moment of truth,” he told a packed General Assembly. “Our people are waiting to hear an answer from the world. Will it allow Israel to occupy us forever?”

The bid for full membership marks the climax of an apparently new PA policy born of the failure of the Oslo peace process. It remains unclear, however, whether the new policy is an end or a beginning.

The Obama administration has said it will veto the application on the Security Council. It may not need to. The PA currently has six “yes” votes out of a possible fifteen on the Council. It needs nine to force a vote. Without them, there will not be a vote at all. This is an outcome the United States will try to ensure, if only to reduce the regional perception of an American veto cast against Palestinian rights in defense of Israel’s occupation.

Blocked at the Security Council, the PA could turn to the 193-member General Assembly to take a lesser action than full membership. It has enough votes there to approve an upgrade in its UN status from observer to a nonmember observer state, which gives it important rights not presently available to it as an observer. Israel has threatened to retaliate for this alleged “violation” of the Oslo accords, warning, among other things, that it will bar the transfer of tax revenues that the PA needs to pay its 150,000 employees. The U.S. Congress has already imposed sanctions: since August it has frozen $192 million in U.S. aid as punishment for the PA going to the UN at all. The 27-member European Union (EU) as a bloc is opposed to the PA’s full membership bid and divided on the lesser upgrade.

Currently the only thing Abbas has in hand for his efforts at the UN is an anodyne statement from the so-called Middle East Quartet comprising the United States, the EU, the UN, and Russia. This calls on Israel and the PA to resume negotiations “within a month” and without “preconditions” with the aim of reaching a final agreement by the end of 2012. Israel has welcomed the statement. The PA said it contained “encouraging elements,” but ruled out any return to talks unless they were accompanied by a full settlement freeze and explicitly based on the 1967 armistice lines as the future border of a Palestinian state. The Quartet statement mentions neither.

The statement, which was rushed out within three hours of Abbas’s speech, was seen as a ploy to keep the bid dormant in the Council. “It buys time” for the Quartet to try to resume negotiations, said an EU diplomat. But it also sets a trap, at least for the PA. If Abbas were to endorse the Quartet timeline as it stands, he would undo much of the kudos he has won from his people for refusing to bend under threat of a U.S. veto. But if he were to reject it outright, he would risk alienating the EU, UN, and Russia—Quartet members he believes are crucial antidotes to Washington’s pro-Israeli bias.

How Abbas ultimately responds to the statement will go some way in answering the question that has dogged the PA ever since it announced its plan to go to the UN: Is it simply a tactic aimed at strengthening the PA’s hand for a return to Oslo-like bilateral negotiations? Or is it a genuinely new strategy that returns the Palestinian issue to the UN and international law on the basis of a unified national movement at home and the political opportunities made possible by the democratic Arab uprisings abroad?

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GRAHAM USHER is an author and journalist who has covered the Middle East and South Asia, especially the Palestine issue, for twenty years. He was at the United Nations in New York in September to cover the Palestinian bid for membership.