Palestinian statehood: a turning-point

The Palestinian ambition of becoming a full member-state of the United Nations is approaching a crucial moment. A combination of numbers and strategy will bring its fulfilment closer, says Victor Kattan.

The United Nations is becoming the immediate focus of the Palestinians’ search for statehood. Mahmoud Abbas, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and president of the Palestinian National Authority (PA) has declared that at the United Nations general assembly in September 2011, the PLO/PA “will request international recognition of the State of Palestine on the 1967 border and that our state be admitted as a full member of the United Nations”.
 
This announcement is part of a wider diplomatic strategy that has seen the PLO/PA attempt to take the initiative in the context of a near-frozen “peace process” with Israel by intensifying its search for recognition of the state of Palestine. The rewards have included, in the first half of 2011, recognition by several Latin American countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Peru, and Bolivia (bringing the total number to 114). In addition, eight European states - Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom - have upgraded the Palestine “general delegations” in their capitals to diplomatic missions and embassies, a status normally reserved for states.
          
But if there has been progress in state-to-state recognition, the Palestinian ambition of actually becoming a full member-state of the United Nations still faces obstacles. In particular, the Palestinians would need a recommendation from the Security Council (UNSC), whose procedural requirements specify that an application for membership must be submitted by mid-July 2011. There is a real chance that the United States might use its UNSC veto to block the application.
 
This in turn raises the possibility that the PLO/PA will pursue an alternative route to advancing the Palestinian interest: that is, by seeking to upgrade their observer status at the UN instead of outright membership. This would give Palestine the position of an “observer state” - equivalent to the status the Holy See (Vatican) has held since 1964, and similar to that of Switzerland prior to 2002, when it became a member-state.
 
Such a strategy would obviate the need to secure support from the UN Security Council, and thus avoid too any deployment of a US veto. The advantage of this approach is that the proposal would be highly likely to succeed if it were voted upon in the UN general assembly (GA), since in most cases a simple majority vote in the assembly usually suffices to pass a resolution and there is no veto power in that body. The disadvantage is that as an observer state, Palestine will not be entitled to the benefits that full membership confers, e.g. on voting and drafting resolutions. Nonetheless, if successful the strategy would greatly enhance Palestine’s statehood claim.

The numbers game

In any event, it appears that the PLO/PA intend to use the forthcoming GA as a forum in which all 192 member-states can indicate whether or not they recognise Palestine. There are both practical and symbolic reasons for taking this course: it simplifies and speeds up the process of recognition, and allows Palestinians to communicate with all UN member-states at a central focal-point in a way that will undoubtedly also garner world headlines.
          
But this “fallback” recognition, short of full UN membership, would take Palestine only so far. For even if a significant number of additional states recognise it in a UN vote, all that can be said is that Palestine will be considered a state in the eyes of those states that recognise it - but not in the eyes of those that do not. This may seem like an unhelpful tautology, but it remains the case that under international law, recognition is solely a bilateral and political matter for each state to decide. If Britain, for example, unequivocally declares that Palestine is a state and enters into diplomatic relations with Palestine, then the relationship between the two will be between states. But Palestine’s relationship with the US and Israel, assuming that they refuse to recognise Palestine, would not be a relationship between states.

At the same time, an increase in the number of states according recognition to a “newcomer” can itself contribute to a gradual accretion of legitimacy. There are precedents here which may be relevant to the Palestinian case. The current number of states that presently recognise Palestine (114) may be insufficient (in the eyes of many practitioners of international law) to infer statehood, but it compares favourably to the number of states that recognise Kosovo (seventy-six states) and Taiwan (twenty-three states). Indeed, it is also impressive in the light of the number of states that voted in favour of Israel’s admission to the UN in 1949 (thirty-seven out of fifty-eight member-states), an endorsement then widely understood as marking its achievement of statehood.
 
Indeed, a direct parallel between Israel’s situation in 1949 and Palestine’s today - taking account of the much smaller membership of the UN at that time - suggests that the PLO/PA would need 123 “recognitions” to qualify for statehood according to the same proportion of votes in percentage terms that Israel received in 1949. True, voting in favour of a purported state’s application for membership in the UN is not the same thing as recognition; but it can be fairly assumed that the states voting in favour of Israel’s application to join the UN were in effect recognising Israel, whilst those abstaining or voting against the application were in effect withholding recognition of the new state (although many in this category did later recognise Israel). 
 
This calculation is arrived at as follows. The vote on Israel’s application for UN membership in 1949 was thirty-seven in favour, twelve against and nine abstentions in the then fifty-eight-member body. The fact that two-thirds of the members “present and voting” were in favour of admission was sufficient to enable Israel to join the UN, though in total just under this figure - 64% - had positively recognised Israel during the vote. In the context of the current composition of the general assembly, recognition by 64% of the 192 members would equal 123 votes. Accordingly, the PLO/PA needs only an increase of nine votes to its current number of 114 to achieve the same number of recognitions that Israel acquired in 1949.
 
Today, of the countries that voted in favour of Israel’s UN membership, twenty-one have already recognised the state of Palestine. They are: Argentina, Bolivia, Belarus, Chile, China, Costa Rica, Cuba, Czech Republic, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Slovakia, South Africa, Ukraine, Russia, Uruguay, and Venezuela. The countries that voted in favour of Israel’s admission in 1949 but which still do not recognise Palestine are: Australia, Canada, Colombia, France, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Iceland, Liberia, Panama, and the US. 

The website of Israel’s ministry of foreign affairs lists 156 states as having diplomatic relations with Israel, although in fact Bolivia and Venezuela severed these relations in 2009 during Operation Cast Lead over Gaza. In other words, at the time of writing, 154 states (or 80% of UN members) recognise Israel.

The Palestinians’ achievement of 123 votes at the UN in September 2011 would, then, amount in percentage terms to the same proportion as Israel received in 1949, and if the PLO/PA reached 154 votes (i.e. thirty more recognitions than they have at present) then they would be in a position of equality vis-à-vis Israel in terms of achieving equal recognition.

The practical focus

The heart of this diplomatic battleground over the next two months is the European Union and its twenty-seven member-states. The EU’s cumbersome “common foreign and security policy” also presents obstacles to swift action, however, and this places a premium on the PLO/PA widening its search for support. The Palestinian representatives might benefit from votes from (for example) Pacific island states such as Fiji, Nauru, the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Tonga; as well as European (and non-EU) states such as Andorra, Croatia, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Macedonia, Monaco, and Norway. They would also do well to seek recognition from states in a similar situation to themselves, i.e. entities which claim statehood but have limited recognition, such as Kosovo, the Holy See, and Taiwan.

The accumulation of votes, important though that is, is but part of a larger search for recognition of statehood which involves other initiatives. These could include (among other acts of internal sovereignty) moves by the Palestinians to assert sovereignty over their territory by enacting a constitution, holding elections, enforcing the rule of law throughout the 1967 territories, and enacting a Palestinian nationality law.

In other words, if the PLO/PA start to act and behave as though they are a state, the stronger their case will be. This might also entail ratifying the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court and other treaties, as well as applying for membership in more international organisations.

Whatever happens at the United Nations in September, a careful and focused strategy of this kind, which both seeks greater recognition for statehood among the international community and strengthens internal sovereignty, will surely bring closer the reality of a Palestinian state. 

About the author

Victor Kattan is a policy advisor for the Palestinian policy network Al-Shabaka, and a former teaching fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. He is the author of From Coexistence to Conquest: International Law and the Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1891-1949 (Pluto Press, 2009). His website is here

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Victor Kattan is a policy advisor for the Palestinian policy network Al-Shabaka, and a former teaching fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. He is the author of From Coexistence to Conquest: International Law and the Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1891-1949 (Pluto Press, 2009). His website is here