Commentary: Why Palestine’s Bid Matters

If you’ve been carefully following the Israeli-Palestinian peace process over the past few years, this weekend’s announcement by Mahmoud Abbas that the PLO seeks to submit a bid for statehood at the UN may seem to be nothing more than an unsurprising progression for Palestine given the ineffectiveness of the US lead peace negotiations. For those of you who haven’t been following the negotiations, the announcement by the PLO would instead seem immensely important but for the wrong reason– that perhaps Palestine does have a valid chance of UN membership with its proposal.

In fact, Palestine’s recent bid for UN membership puts it in a winning negotiating position no matter what happens. Given the US’ wishes to maintain Israel as an ally, the White House has already revealed that if the motion is put through the UN Security Council, it will use its veto powers to ensure that the bid stops right then and there. Naturally, this makes the votes of all the other Security Council members irrelevant (even though Palestine would otherwise have enough Security Council votes to support its bid).  Although this bid would easily pass in the General Assembly (GA), the near impossibility of passing the Security Council without a US veto makes the whole process seem futile. However, Palestine doesn’t see this as a futile exercise in diplomacy since the US will want to do anything in its power to avoid a Security Council veto to begin with. A veto would not only mean further angering most Middle Eastern nations, but also creating enormous tension within the UN since it would be viewed as a unilateral move by the US to stop the much larger general assembly (and all the other Security Council members) from expressing their views. Such a move would prove to annihilate any hopes the US had of ameliorating its Middle Eastern relations.

It’s anyone’s guess as to whether or not Palestine’s application will actually make it on the Security Council floor. In all likelihood, fervent negotiations will take place with both Israel and the US trying to provide enough of an incentive for Palestine to end its bid. While the PLO would like negotiations to resume based on the 1967 borders (i.e. before the Six Day War), it’s unlikely that Israel would agree to this condition since this would imply half a million Israeli settlers could be subject to removal by the International Criminal Court (ICC) proceedings. Instead, if any concessions are to be made by Israel it would likely be some sort of informal agreement to halt settlements from further expanding into the West Bank. This would mark a radical departure from previous policy, but it would enable Israel to maintain its current settlements, give the PLO enough of a reason to back out of its bid (hence helping the US save face), and prevent any ICC action against West Bank settlers. Given US pressure on Israel to come up with some sort of agreement, we may very well see this concession announced fairly soon.

If that’s not enough leverage for Palestine, consider that it has another ace up its sleeve: application for non-member state status. Although becoming a non-member state of the UN (like the Holy See) doesn’t allow it to vote in the GA, it would allow it to start legal proceedings against Israel in the ICC. Moreover, since becoming a non-member state only requires passage in the GA, it should rack up the requisite number of votes and evade a US veto altogether. Naturally, using the ICC could work both ways, since Israel could also charge PLO officials with being complicit in the numerous rocket strikes on Israeli targets seen over the years. It would also likely mean forgoing voluntary aid from the US which amounts to over $300,000,000.

If preliminary negotiations fail and the US is forced to veto Palestine’s bid then certainly the Obama administration will need to prepare for heavy damage control. With the upcoming elections the implications of this Palestinian bid may very well extend into the US presidential race as well.

Posted by Alfredo Luque

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