Implications of the U.N. Decision to Upgrade Palestinian Status in the General Assembly


Implications of the U.N. Decision to Upgrade Palestinian Status in the General Assembly

Nov 29, 2012 2 min read

Former Visiting Fellow, Allison Center

James Phillips was a Visiting Fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation.

The Palestinian Authority, which has been pushing to be recognized as a state in the United Nations, has won a symbolic victory—an upgrade of its status.

Despite the fact that the Palestinian push for unilateral statehood violates all existing internationally agreed frameworks for negotiating a peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the United Nations General Assembly, as expected, decided to upgrade the status of the Palestinian Authority from an observer entity to a non-member state observer this afternoon by a vote of 138-9, with 41 abstentions.

Individual governments are not required to comply with General Assembly resolutions. Thus, as a practical matter, the U.N. vote changes little about how other governments regard Palestinian statehood claims. The countries that already recognize “Palestine” as a state—roughly 130 countries—will continue to do so. Their support in the U.N. today for the upgrade in Palestinian status is a reflection of their position, not a new development.

Similarly, those states voting against or abstaining from the vote are unlikely to change their position because a majority of the General Assembly supported the resolution. Most notably, the U.S. and Israel do not recognize Palestinian statehood claims and see the vote as a deliberate attempt by the Palestinians to achieve their goals while circumventing negotiations with Israel.

As President Obama said when the Palestinians sought U.N. membership last year, “efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state.” They remain insistent that recognition of “Palestine” can come only from a negotiated peace agreement with Israel.

The vote does, however, have significance in the U.N. system and for other international organizations. The Palestinian Authority will almost certainly exploit its upgrade to non-member state status to seek membership in U.N. specialized agencies, as it did last year with UNESCO. Their case will be strengthened by today’s vote. It will be particularly hard for those specialized agencies, like the International Atomic Energy Agency and the International Telecommunication Union, that include the Vatican among their membership to deny the Palestinians membership because the Holy See is also a U.N. non-member state observer.

U.S. law currently prohibits funding U.N. organizations that grant membership to the Palestinians. The Palestinian effort to gain membership in other U.N. specialized agencies fizzled when the U.S. cut funding for UNESCO as required by U.S. law. The most significant impediment to Palestinian membership efforts in other specialized agencies is the threat of losing U.S. funding, which means that the U.S. must maintain and enforce current law.

The Palestinian Authority will also likely seek to either join the International Criminal Court (ICC) or convince the organization to extend its jurisdiction to the Palestinian territories and investigate crimes allegedly committed by Israel. Earlier this year, the ICC prosecutor concluded that he does not have the authority to initiate an investigation because the issue of Palestinian statehood is in question. As a “non-member state” U.N. observer, the Palestinians can be expected to challenge this conclusion with a reasonable chance of success.

Understanding that the Palestinian push for unilateral statehood undermines prospects for peace, the Obama Administration this past summer threatened the Palestinian Authority with significant reductions in assistance if they proceeded with the vote. The Palestinians ignored these warnings. The Administration must now follow through or be perceived as weak and insincere, diminishing its influence for the next four years.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal