Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Can the United Nations Make Palestine a State?

by Elliott Abrams
June 23, 2011

Can the United Nations General Assembly make Palestine a state?  The answer is no, and yes.

It appears that the Palestinians initially thought they could become a UN member state even if the United States vetoed their efforts in the Security Council. There was discussion a few months ago of a “Uniting For Peace” resolution in the UNGA, a procedure allowed by the UN Charter for action when the Security Council is tied in knots and unable to act. But UN lawyers soon clarified what is obvious on reading the Charter: that provision may be available for certain actions, especially dealing with threats to peace, but does not override the Charter provisions relating to membership. Chapter II, Article 4 says that “peace-loving states” that accept their obligations under the Charter are eligible for membership, but “The admission of any such state to membership in the United Nations will be effected by a decision of the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” Membership thus requires an affirmative recommendation by the Security Council and as well as an affirmative vote in the General Assembly. As the United States has told the Palestinians there would indeed be a veto, there will be no opportunity for “Palestine” to become a UN member state next Fall.

But the Palestinians may have a trick up their sleeve that could get them much of what they seek. While the General Assembly cannot alone grant UN membership to states, it can grant “permanent observer” status—something never mentioned in the Charter but now accepted by long practice. And indeed the PLO is an observer, elected in 1974, but its exact (and unique) UN status is as an “entity” that is a permanent observer. By contrast the Vatican has the status of being the sole “non-member state” that is a permanent observer. While the Vatican alone holds this status today, in the past Switzerland, Austria, Finland, Italy, and Japan have held it before becoming full members of the UN. The General Assembly has the ability to accord that “non-member state permanent observer” status to the PLO or to “Palestine.” And that may now be precisely the Palestinian objective.

Within the UN, the change in Palestinian status would not matter much. All permanent observers, member states or not, have the same “standing invitation to participate as observers in the sessions and the work of the General Assembly.” The Palestinians can already attend and speak at meetings (as Yasser Arafat so memorably did in 1974, a gun holstered on his hip), and even with the new and elevated status would not have a vote.

But outside the UN, the change in status might matter a good deal. Today the Palestinians are unable to bring cases against Israel at the International Criminal Court, because only states can do so. If they try again after a UN vote gives them “non-member state” status, they can claim that the General Assembly has recognized them as a state and the ICC should follow that precedent. Governments that do not accord them full diplomatic status today might be tempted to follow as well. Campaigns against Israel for “occupying the territory of another state” might gain strength, and indeed the whole “BDS” or boycott, divestment, sanctions movement could.

Moreover, the Palestinians would have at least something to show for this year’s diplomatic campaign–besides frustration and some resentment in Washington and a few European capitals. They would have failed in their original goal but could claim at least a partial victory, even if real statehood continued to elude them.

That’s the rub, of course– it would. Indeed it might be even further away, if the main effect of their campaign were to delay serious negotiations and further alienate Israelis and Americans. For in the end, it isn’t just the UN Charter that tells us the General Assembly cannot create a Palestinian state. Reality teaches the same lesson.

That the PLO is following this path suggests a lack of interest in the genuine negotiations that are the only real path to statehood. This is not surprising at a moment when Palestinian attention is mostly focused on domestic politics–Fatah vs. Hamas–and the PLO’s leader, Mahmoud Abbas, has his sights set on retirement next year. It may yet be possible for the United States to come up with a form of words that brings the two parties to the negotiating table this summer and thereby allows Abbas to back away from the UN shenanigans. But this entire episode reveals a lack of Palestinian seriousness about negotiations and suggests that, while talks may commence and avoid the September UN confrontation, they will go nowhere. Like the talks the United States engineered in September 2010, such negotiations might start with hoopla and ceremony, but would most likely break down in the subsequent few months.

Post a Comment 25 Comments

  • Posted by Dan Friedman

    What a mess! Time for Israel to formally annex the “territories” and have the IDF take away the shiny new guns the US gave to the PLO. End of mess.

  • Posted by Paul Surovell

    The President has presented a viable framework to end the mess. Mr. Friedman’s comment constitutes incitement.

  • Posted by Joel

    Annex the territories and do what with the Arabs? Israel annexed East Jerusalem and got 250,000 Arab malcontents. You want 1.5 million more? My guess is that Dan doesn’t live in Israel.

  • Posted by Miriam Galitzki

    Excellent article !

    Here’s a comment: no matter what manouvers Palestinian leaders are going to conduct at the UN (to satisfy their own “orgulio”), they WILL NOT make the Palestinian people happy. Switzerland only joined the UN in 2002, but the Swiss were quite happy long ago.

  • Posted by xxu

    Palestinians and Israelis have been talking for more than a decade and what have they got, nothing. Israel left Gaza but blockaded it, effectively making it big jail. Going to UN gives them a chance not to get a state (as long as US has veto, it won’t happen) but to show the world who is really obstructing the peace process here. Just saying that PLO is not interested in talks is not enough you have to justify it too.

  • Posted by Soyuz

    @Dan: US gave PLO guns?! You will be Epic Fail in propaganda exam!

  • Posted by Alun Palmer

    Is that what you want, Don? It would make all the Palestinians into Israeli citizens, and then arabs would outnumber jews in Israel. That is the one-state solution. It might even work out, but I don’t think Israel will do it. That is why they want to be an occupying power forever, just to avoid being outnumbered. Once Palestine is recognised by the UN as a state, and it is clear that the votes exist to at least make it a non-member state (or even a member, but the US can and will veto the latter), then it will become an occupied country and not merely an occupied territory. There are two ways out of that, one state or two, and I have explained why it’s not in Israel’s interest to have one, so as they have all the power, there will be two. It’s only a matter of when and on what land.

  • Posted by Ray Hanania

    I’d love to read Elliott Abrams write about how Israel continues to prevent peace, refusing to suspend settlement expansion. To suggest that the Palestinians are the main cause of the breakdown of negotiations is a partisan argument made by individuals advocating for one side, rather than advocating for a just peace. As for annexing the West Bank, Israel is already doing that and in so doing insuring that there will be a conflict against Israel for a very long time, in different stages of intensity.

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    Unfortunately , there are plenty of countries in the UNGA ( including some on the Security Council ) who would vote for a Palestinian State simply to slap the United States in the face . It’s also impossible , at this point , to know what level of chicanery the Palestinians are willing to stoop to .

  • Posted by Dan

    We say we support a Palestenian state, but when they take the steps to create one, we cry foul?

  • Posted by kassandra

    Dean, Dean, The world has passed you by. Most countries, with the exception of Nauru and the USA, see the occupation of Palestine as against international law, never mind its utter immorality. Take a look at the Fourth Geneva Convention. It’s only the USA that sees the world only thru the prism of Israel. It’s only the US Congress that puts the interests of Israel before those of its own constituents. Even Elliott Abrams, no friend of Palestine and a known neocon, is able to see the advantages of Palestine’s UN bid.

  • Posted by bill stender

    This article is a neat summary of the hubris of US/Isreal… There is no discussion of morality or justice, simply the casual and cold calculations on how to keep them in situ, powerless and pitiable. Morality and justice is their Achilles heel of course, their kryptonite, and this mention of the threat of the ICC acknowledges it. Their hubris will _inevitably_ be beaten to tiny pieces on the rocks by the sea of humanity.

  • Posted by Jeff White

    Israel has nuclear weapons.
    Simple Answer: Iran should have it because Israel has it.

  • Posted by Butch

    I don’t know what will happen at the U N,
    I do know Palestinians will never be happy until all Jews are dead, there will never be peace in the middle East, if they can’t find someone to war with, they’ll start a war with each other, look whats happening now, there is not an answer to this problem…..Don’t take my word for it; just read Zechariah it tells us all about this problem.

  • Posted by Dr Don Beck

    My partner, Elza Maalouf, who is from Lebanon and I designed and implemented a Summit on the Future of Palestine with 700 Palestinian leaders. We used a new process called Natural Design with a fresh framework based on understanding the “third side of cultures,” the basic value systems — and how to create a “Hong Kong of the Middle East.” This is what I used in South Africa over 63 trips to Johannesburg to shift out of apartheid. This difficult cannot be resolved using traditional negotiation processes. Time for fresh, well documented approach.

  • Posted by Robert Arbuckle

    How long has Isralel blocked ,obscured,deflected,worked against,not mention invaded killed and imprisoned those who deny their right to occupy another state. To say that the attempt in the UN makes it harder to settle is a joke. Israeil does not want to settle except in palestinian land.

  • Posted by Neel

    ALL YOU FOOLS! Use your brains,the solution to the whole conflict is SIMPLE. I repeat SIMPLE. Israel has been an occupier over palestinian territory for more than 40 years. So after 40 years of occupation, what have the palestinians got? Nothing!

    SIMPLE SOLUTION: 20% of Israeli population is Arab, Since Israel is a democracy where they all have a vote. All that has to be done is get those 20% of people to BREED. If you can’t fight them out, BREED them out. have kids, lots of kids. Come another 40 years, and you will be able to legally vote your own Arab MKs into parliament, and legally change the name of Israel too, I don’t know what you want, may be Arab Land, or call it even Palestine!

    The best thing about this plan is, you don’t get to be labelled a terrorist, or a criminal, you get to keep 100% of the land for Arabs, and who knows, you can even pass laws like they are doing to drive unwanted populations out!


  • Posted by shirley Clay


  • Posted by Zachrthomas

    Wow all you people are idiots. Palenstine doesn’t deserve a state. When you house millions of terrorist and future terrorist you kind of lost my countries vote. Everyone knows palenstine and the rest of the middle east want the Jews dead.

    Jeff white: you don’t seem very bright! let me simplify this for you.. Imagine if you were surrounded by people that want to kill you.. you would defend yourself.

    Once again Iran is a terrorist country(go figure) why would you want them to have nuclear weapons? I firmly believe the middle east will be the cause of ww3 and a nuclear war! so I’m going to go ahead and thank you people for supporting them/sarcasm!

    May God bless Israel!
    Btw I don’t live in Israel just support them no matter what. Tired of them being persacuted throughout history and now.

  • Posted by Pauleen

    Hi. You’ve written a very good article here and I agree with what you say regarding the potential “theatrics” of this whole exercise and the possibility of increasing animosity with Israel and the US (as well as some European states). I also agree that it is very indicative of how certain elements in Palestine are no longer interested in constructive engagement in the peace dialogue (I believe also that this is true). This is of course apart, as already mentioned earlier, from any moral discussion as to whether or not Palestinians should be granted sovereign statehood. And I commend you for writing a non-partisan article.

    Regarding the territorial dispute in the region, it certainly now goes beyond who has hurt who and persecuted which people. Because any detailed study of the events even prior to the fall of the Ottoman Empire would suggest that the problem was created by more than just Israel and Palestine, and the two shouldn’t be treated as a single bloc, nor should the Palestinians and the other predominantly Arab Middle Eastern countries should be bundled together as one. Certainly in the past and even now, colonial mentality among Zionists in Europe set their sights long ago with creating an Israeli state, which is not repulsive by any means, but the colonial mentality dictates a “winner-take-all” subduing of non-Jewish inhabitants of what was then Palestine, including an indifference towards the welfare of non-Jews. Some of the surrounding Arab states may have recognized this beforehand and attempted to bloc it, or they may have their own prejudices, but Palestinian tribes initially were not one of them. The conflict erupted into the Arab-Israeli War in 1948 only when all parties felt threatened regarding the loss of resources and their land. This threat of resource scarcity was also for the most what triggered the six day war of 1967.

    But what was then mostly just a resource war has transformed over time, because of violence experienced on both the Palestinian and the Israeli sides, into an ethnic war which takes more than division of territory to resolve. But certainly if the Palestinians are allowed some form of autonomy, and not the kind that they have now in the territories (which is minimal), it may help to dissipate the hostilities a bit, but certainly it will take years, maybe decades to mend Israeli-Arab relations.

    Thanks, I think I veered off topic a bit. But excellent article.

  • Posted by Pauleen

    Would like to add however, because my post may be interpreted as me blaming Palestine mainly for the slow movement of negotiations, that I don’t blame them solely. Certainly Israel, as the more powerful party and certainly more political clout internationally, has the greatest responsibility to stick to its obligations and pledges. It is clear throughout the years that the Israeli government has not. But this is apart from some parties in Palestine who no longer wish to participate in the negotiations.

  • Posted by Chithra KarunaKaran

    Make Palestine Whole — Again

    Yes we can!

    Help create the Sovereign Democratic Republic of Undivided Palestine for EVERY Christian, Jew, Arab, Muslim, atheist, tribal, indigenous person living there or who was displaced by the creation of Israel.

    Overturn the injustice, heal the wounds, make Palestine WHOLE.

    1. US stop meddling.
    Get out of the room.
    You are not a neighbor and no American is a resident of Palestine.

    Therefore, US, you are purely self-interested, you have a short-term ad hoc perspective, you are not committed to The Greater Collective Good of ALL the Palestinians peoples — Arabs, Christians, Jews, atheists, tribals, indigenous, ALL of whom reside in undivided Palestine or were displaced from it.

    2. Israel stop putting up roadblocks. Do not prevent efforts to make Palestine Whole once again. Israel is located in Palestine.

    3. Arabs, develop strategies of non-violence, give up terror as a means to retaliate against the injustices caused to you by stealing your land and displacing the Arab, Christian, tribal and indigenous people of Palestine, due to the creation of Israel, by the UN.

    UN, especially the In-Security Council, you created the problem in the first place by dividing Palestinians and creating the State of Israel. The UNSC — United Nations Security Council cannot set policy, it cannot hold itself above the One State One Vote authority vested in the UNGA — The United Nationas General Assembly.

    Now UN, go ahead, solve the problem you created.

    UN, especially the UNGA, it is now up to you to ***Facilitate*** an Undivided Palestine — Arabs, Christians, indigenous, tribals and Jews are ALL Palestinians — help the Palestinians work it out.

    This September 2011, the United Nations will deliberate once again. A UNSC vote is looming that may divide Palestine once again.

    2011 is the critical year to make Palestine whole once again.

    To prevent division into two separate states.

    To re-establish an undivided Palestine.

    A Palestine that now can become a sovereign, democratic republic with membership in the UN.

    Dr. Chithra KarunaKaran
    City University of New York [CUNY]
    Ethical Democracy As Lived Practice


  • Posted by ophir

    the UN cant make country for the palestine people, they cant deal with no assistant from countries in the world.
    if now they will have a country it will collapse and wont survive

  • Posted by Juana Bokanovich

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  • Posted by valeri

    To dr.Chintra.

    I don,t know what kind of “Doctor” you are but definitly not from this planet.

    Start your ACTIVITY (for training) from more resent Historical Fact: “Make Russia Whole- Again”

    Don’t foget ask Every Christian,Jew,Muslim..Ukrainen,Belorussian,Armenian,Uzbeck,
    Georgian….living there or who was displased by the creation of 16 new states.
    Overturn the injustice and re-establish an undivided Russia Whole once Again.
    This task will be little easy for you because WHOLE RUSSIA WAS EXISTED just 20 years ago.


    How you can re-establish something which was never existed?

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