Briefing on the United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood and UN membership in September

After the Israelis refused to extend their settlement freeze last September, leading to the break-up of the peace talks, the Palestinian Authority announced that it would seek recognition as an independent state and membership of the United Nations at the General Assembly in September.  Already well over 100 countries (representing 80-90% of the world’s population) have recognised Palestine and have said they will vote for Palestine to become a member of the UN.

There will be two votes in September.  One on recognition of Palestine as a state and, if that is passed, another on admission of Palestine as a member of the United Nations. The UK is still undecided and its vote could be very influential.  116 countries have so far said they will vote to admit Palestine to the UN and two thirds (128 or up to134 if all countries are present) is needed to be certain.

Although the US will use their veto at the Security Council, this can be overridden (according to most lawyers) by a two-thirds majority at the General Assembly. Membership of the United Nations will greatly strengthen the Palestinians hand in challenging constant breaches of international law by Israel in the occupied territories, eg blockading Gaza, expanding settlements, building the wall inside the West Bank, expropriating Palestinian land, deporting Palestinians from Jerusalem.

What is the Government’s current policy?

The Government’s official line is still that “the way to a viable and secure state is through negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians” (William Hague replying to Labour MP Margaret Curran on June 14).

Hague also told Margaret Curran MP that he is undecided on whether to vote for FOR or AGAINST a Palestinian state and the UK Government “will make a decision on UN membership only at the appropriate time”.  He told Labour MP Sandra Osborne that “all European countries … have withheld a decision on the question of Palestinian recognition and membership of the UN”.  This was being done largely to pressure the Israelis. As he told Tory MP Sir Malcolm Rifkind: “One advantage of the United Kingdom and other EU nations considering our position on this matter over the next few months is that it will maximise the pressure on both Israelis and Palestinians to enter such negotiations.”

What is Labour’s position?

Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander has pressed the Government on when they will decide how to vote but has yet to take a position himself. Labour front-benchers have held meetings with senior Palestinian politicians from Fatah who are looking especially to Labour (as Fatah is a sister party) to put pressure on the Government to come out unequivocally in favour of Palestinian UN membership.

What is Obama’s position?

In his UN speech last year President Obama set the target of September 2011 for “an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations – an independent, sovereign state of Palestine”.  The EU endorsed this target. So did the Quartet. He has however urged European countries to vote AGAINST UN membership on the grounds that there should be negotiations first.

What are the chances of new negotiations now?

In his speech to both houses of the US Congress in May the Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu publicly rejected President Obama’s call for an independent Palestinian state along the 1967 borders and made it clear that Israel wants to keep most of the West Bank in Israeli hands. He said the “vast majority of the 650,000 Israelis who live beyond the 1967 lines … will be incorporated into the final borders of Israel”. That would put most of the western side of the West Bank inside Israel as well as the thick wedges of Israeli settlement that reach into the centre of the occupied Palestinian territory.  He also said: “It’s absolutely vital that Israel maintain a long-term military presence along the Jordan River.” That would mean that the whole of the eastern side of the West Bank and the whole of its external border with Jordan would remain in Israeli hands.  A map showing what would be left if the Israeli settlements and military areas stayed with Israel is shown below (on the far right).

In two sentences he thus torpedoed any chance of a resumption of peace talks and humiliated President Obama.  For this he won a series of standing ovations from the members of both houses of Congress. You can see this speech and the standing ovations almost at the end of every sentence on Youtube . This speech – and especially the applause from the audience – has done more to convince the Palestinians of the absolute futility of the peace process than any other event in the last ten years.  If you watch it you will understand why.

Israel was offered 55% of British Mandate Palestine by the UN partition plan in 1947, took 78% of the land by military conquest in the 1948 war of independence (forcing half the Palestinian population out) and occupied the remaining 22% in 1967. No country recognises Israel’s right to any of the West Bank or east Jerusalem, including the US, and the UN has voted many times for an independent Palestinian state on the 1967 borders covering 22% of the Mandate territory (second from the right on the map below). If the settlements and military areas were excluded, the Palestinian state would be about 12% of the Mandate area (with a population close to the population of Israel).

What will be the practical effect of a UN vote for Palestinian membership?

It will make Palestine a state with observer status at the UN (at present they are just a liberation movement with observer status).  Crucially, it will recognise Palestinian sovereignty over the occupied territories. At the moment the international community rejects Israel’s occupation of those territories but it does not yet recognise Palestinian sovereignty. This will turn the Israeli army from occupiers of what they claim is a “disputed territory” into invaders of a sovereign state and a fellow member of the United Nations.

Recognition will greatly strengthen the Palestinians hand in challenging Israel’s constant breaches of international law in the occupied territories, eg blockading Gaza, expanding settlements, building the wall inside the West Bank, expropriating Palestinian land and deporting Palestinians from Jerusalem.

What is Israel doing?

Israel is mobilising its embassies to lobby for a vote AGAINST recognition in September.  It has set up a special team to coordinate the campaign and told its diplomats (according to leaked documents published in Ha’aretz) that:  “This team is analysing …  options … to foil the process… You are to report on your activities … once a week. Your plan must include approaching the most senior politicians.”

The 27 European Union states have been targeted as the key battleground in Israel’s diplomatic campaign. Netanyahu and Lieberman have visited the UK, Ireland, Italy, and will make separate trips to Romania and Bulgaria, and then to Poland and Hungary in the coming weeks to shore up support for Israel’s position.

What arguments are the Israelis using?

Israel’s only argument is that a UN vote would bypass the peace negotiations and this violates the principle that the only route to resolving the conflict is through bilateral negotiations.  But there are no negotiations and Israel finished them off by restarting settlement building (who would negotiate while the goalposts are being moved every day?).  There is no historical precedent for an occupied people being left to “negotiate” their own freedom with the country that is occupying them.  Israel is now reckoned to have the fourth largest armed forces in the world. The Palestinians have none. The Palestinians have nothing to negotiate with other than international support.

What is likely to happen?

Most European countries appear to be leaning toward supporting the Palestinian resolution but Obama and the Israelis are working hard to stop more countries, especially European countries, from joining them.
Will the Fatah-Hamas divisions make any difference? President Abbas negotiates as the head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (representing all Palestinians) and not as the president of the Palestinian Authority (representing only the occupied territories), so talks were able to go ahead in spite of the dispute between Fatah and Hamas. But the reconciliation between Fatah, Hamas and the other Palestinian parties signed in Cairo in May is a huge step forward.

What is the Palestinian position?

In their view the Palestinians are asking for no more than they have been promised. Any backsliding now will undermine the credibility of mainstream Palestinian politicians and tip Israel and Palestine back towards violence. They do not see admission to the UN as an alternative to talks but the best guarantee that negotiations will go forward on a more equal basis.  If the promise of an independent state is broken, the Palestinians say they will not return to negotiations which have yielded precisely nothing in the last 23 years.