Palestine's UN bid: lessons from the history of Zionism

'Historian James Renton suggests that this week's application for UN membership by the Palestinians could provide the moral and legal backing required to achieve the reality of statehood, much as the Balfour Declaration of 1917 laid the ground for the birth of the Israeli state in 1948.
James Renton
21 September 2011

The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, is expected this Friday to submit to the United Nations Security Council an application for full membership. Success would mean the recognition of Palestinian statehood. The Obama administration has been desperate to stop this from happening. The US would be forced, they say, into vetoing such a bid; an act that would severely damage Obama’s reputation in the Arab world. US and European diplomats are trying desperately to talk Abbas out of it. Political sweeteners have been offered, along with dire warnings. 

The US government claims that a unilateral step of this kind will damage the chances of a negotiated peace with Israel. The only real path to peace, they argue, is through talks with Israel. Worse, a failed bid would raise and dash expectations on the Palestinian street, with the possibility of violence as a result. And here is the final argument against: legal recognition of statehood will not affect the facts on the ground. 

In fact, the bid is a clever move that has the potential to change the rules of the game. The Israeli coalition government of Binyamin Netanyahu has made clear by their actions that they do not want to see the establishment of a Palestinian state. Over the last two years, they have strived to avoid meaningful negotiations. Despite some tough talk, the weak Obama administration failed to resuscitate the dialogue between the two parties. The resulting impasse has finally killed off the Oslo process that began in 1993. 

According to Oslo, the Palestinians would get statehood after they met all of their obligations and agreed on the key issues with Israel. More than twenty years later, there is no state. Arguably, any real hope of this kind of peace died with the failed talks at Camp David in 2000, and the second intifada that followed. Since then, various Israeli governments and the Fatah leadership have gone through the motions. But it has been a process without an end in sight. 

Recognition of Palestinian statehood would turn the tables on Israel and the primary actors in the international community, the Quartet of the USA, Russia, the EU and the United Nations. It would provide the Palestinians with a new legal and moral basis that would make statehood the starting point, as opposed to the end point, of future negotiations with Israel. 

The US veto in the Security Council means, however, that the Palestinians will not get the legal recognition of statehood that they seek. The next best thing is observer state status, which can be awarded by the UN General Assembly (the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) already holds non-state observer status). Such a move would have no legal significance, but would provide symbolic recognition of Palestinian statehood by the majority of the world’s nation-states. It is expected that the Palestinians will easily exceed the two-thirds of state support required. Even without the legal force of full UN member status, the backing of the General Assembly will be a powerful statement of world opinion. 

As to the consequences, much depends on the wording of the Palestinian submissions to the Security Council and the General Assembly, the future political acumen of Abbas and his team, and the vicissitudes of international politics. What is without question, however, is that recognition of even a symbolic kind on this global scale adds tremendous moral and political strength to the Palestinian cause, and the intangible quality of political momentum. 

The new approach of the Palestinians echoes the successful Zionist strategy of the early twentieth century. By the time of the First World War, many Zionist leaders believed that their aims could not be realised without the declared support of the major powers of the day. They understood that the success of their movement required the decisive imposition of a legal and political reality from the outside. The war brought them the public backing that they were after. In November 1917, a month before Britain occupied Jerusalem, the British government declared its support for a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. Until the Jewish State was established in 1948, the Zionists used this statement, the Balfour Declaration, as the basis for their claims in the Holy Land. It became their Magna Carta, cited at every opportunity. 

Armed with the Declaration in 1917, the Zionists faced a choice as to how they would advance their cause further. They did not choose to negotiate with the Palestinian Arab elite, who were adamantly opposed to political Zionism. Instead, they focused on pressuring Britain to fulfil their pledge, and to adopt the best possible post-war peace settlement for Zionism in Palestine. Having issued the Declaration, and under unrelenting Zionist pressure, the British government felt morally bound to adhere to it; their good name, their prestige, depended upon its implementation. 

In 1922, the League of Nations, predecessor of today’s UN, approved the terms of British rule in Palestine, which were based on the promise of its support for Zionism. From that moment, Britain and the members of the League were legally obliged to secure the establishment of a Jewish national home in the Holy Land. In this transformed political and legal framework, the Zionists went on to build the facts on the ground that made statehood possible. 

During this period, the Palestinian Arab nation was not recognised by the international community, and their complaints about Zionism were ignored. Petitions were sent to US President Woodrow Wilson, the champion of self-determination, the British Government and the League of Nations, to no avail. Today, the Palestinians’ claim to statehood enjoys the backing of the majority of the world’s nation-states. Official recognition of that fact could change the course of the conflict. 

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