Abbas’s Gambit at the UN: Possible Scenarios and Options for Palestinian Membership
On September 20, the Brookings Doha Center hosted a policy discussion with Mahjoob Zweiri, professor of Middle East history at Qatar University, and Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center. The talk addressed challenges, scenarios and possible outcomes of the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations, and was followed by a lively question and answer session moderated by Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. The discussion was attended by members of Qatar’s academic, business, diplomatic and media communities.
Zweiri began the discussion by explaining the reasoning behind the Palestinian bid. He argued that the Palestinian cause has been repeatedly forgotten by the international community and that Palestinians now want to remind the world of their plight. He also stressed that the Palestinians are justified in going to the UN. The failure of negotiations in the past five years reveals the inadequacies of the peace process and validates their response. Zweiri also said that American foreign policy has failed to deliver any results for the Palestinians. The situation inside the United States has led the Obama Administration, which claimed to prioritize Arab-Israeli peace, to focus on other issues. While President Obama expressed his hope for having a Palestinian state at the UN General Assembly in 2010, Palestine has not been at the top of his foreign policy agenda.
In addition, Zweiri emphasized the changing regional mood that has emerged during the Arab Spring, mentioning not only the uprisings throughout the region, but also the impact of changing alliances, and the growing Turkish role. All of these developments have led to the Palestinians going to the UN with full support of the Arab states. Though Palestinians declared statehood unilaterally in 1988, this marks the first time they do so with the support of Arabs. Due to the Arab spring, Zweiri explained, we are also witnessing a new discourse about Israel: Arabs accept the Israeli state but want it to respect international law. They are now holding Israel accountable for its actions. Zweiri also emphasized the need for external powers to recognize the new regional mood and its implications. He warned, “I’m not saying it will lead to paradise, but it will lead to change in the region. Now is the time.”
Salman Shaikh began his remarks by describing the developments of the Arab Spring, along with the Palestinian bid at the UN, as a game-changer. Shaikh explained that past failures of “amateurish” U.S.-led negotiations have led the Palestinians to attempt a new paradigm of internationalizing the dispute. Trust has been lost in the United States as a negotiator. Therefore, nearly 61 years since the Partition Plan was first presented in the United Nations, the issue of Palestine is going back to halls of the UN. While the focus remains on a two-state solution, the conditions for achieving that goal remain elusive as ever.
Shaikh went on to explain the various scenarios that could play out at the UN. If the Palestinians receive the nine affirmative votes needed for their bid to pass in the Security Council, the United States will likely use its veto. The United States wants to avoid this scenario and therefore hoping to achieve the seven “no” votes or abstentions in advance of a vote. A further scenario would see the Palestinians receive sufficient support, yet the vote may not be taken immediately. Another possibility is that the President of the Security Council could refer the case to a special committee inside the Council including all members to discuss the issue for what could be months. In the case of Israel’s application, committee discussion lasted from November 1947 until March 1948. Such a pause could involve an “agreed timeout to get negotiations re-started,” but a total breakdown in talks is also a possibility and could have devastating consequences on the ground.
The Palestinians also have the option of seeking membership through the General Assembly, which has the power to upgrade their status from a nonmember entity to a nonmember state with observer status. If this were to happen, the Palestinians could then take Israel to the International Criminal Court. In an effort to diffuse the situation, some Europeans are reportedly trying to make a new category for nonmembers, prohibiting them from going to the ICC. Resolution 373 provides another possible scenario. This “Uniting for Peace” resolution allows the General Assembly to override a Security Council veto and can be used only if half of the member states agree to special emergency session, and two-thirds vote in favor of the resolution.
Shaikh stressed that it remains to be seen who will emerge as winners and losers. Israel may come out more isolated than ever, and we may find ourselves in a situation similar to 1967 where Israel felt that it had to take action to safeguard its security. Arabs themselves have indicated that they will strongly support the bid, but Shaikh warned that such promises have been made before, without always being fulfilled, and questioned whether Arab states would use the full extent of their leverage.
As for the United States, if it does use its veto, Shaikh emphasized, it will emerge as one of the biggest losers out of this episode and in the Arab Spring more generally. An American veto would demonstrate how much the nation’s power has diminished in the region. Countries like Russia and China that have not gone as far as the United States in supporting people’s aspirations would actually come out rather well, in terms of popular support, if they vote in favor of Palestinian statehood.
Following the speakers’ remarks, a question and answer session covered a range of topics, including Palestinian reconciliation efforts and the impact of the Arab Spring on Palestinian negotiations. Moderator Shadi Hamid asked how far down the line credible negotiations might restart, given that mood in Israel has been shifting steadily to the right, and that Palestinians appear increasingly content to play a waiting game. Salman Shaikh answered that the two-state solution remains the goal for both sides and pointed out that this could be one of the last opportunities for the international community to get behind those parameters, particularly because of settlement building on the ground. According to polls on both sides, however, Israelis and Palestinians remain in favor of the two-state solution, so now is an opportune time to move forward with negotiations. Zweiri responded that a U.S. veto of Palestinian statehood could be seen as ending the entire two-state solution paradigm and that all parties should try to avoid getting to that point. He therefore emphasized that this is a critical moment for the Untied States, as its actions will affect the viability of the very notion of two states.
Palestinian Ambassador to Qatar Munir Ghanam commented that Palestinians will either come out of the situation as “big winners or small winners.” He emphasized that “we’ve been losing for over 60 years” and added that the Palestinians will continue in the peace process and toward statehood. Ghanam added that “we will be very sorry to see the United States use the veto because the greater loser would be the United States,” as it would never be seen as an honest broker of peace in the future. Ghanam added, “The whole atmosphere around us is changing, and I hope that all the partners here are aware of the real consequences if the Palestinians feel that they are not being heard.”
Another audience member asked whether the region’s new democracies are too concerned with domestic matters to spend diplomatic energy on the Palestinian crisis. Shaikh responded that the passions of the Palestinian issue run parallel to the talk about justice and dignity for all Arabs that have been reiterated throughout the Arab Spring. In this new atmosphere, Shaikh said, Israelis need to make peace not just with a few select leaders, but also need to extending peacemaking efforts to the people of the region. Zweiri agreed, stating that the Arab Spring has set a new agenda in the regional and international orders. While the region’s new democracies are busy domestically, there is an undeniable change in security arrangements in the region, as Western-backed dictators are losing power. Shadi Hamid added that a more democratic Egypt will have to take into account the desires of its people – who are universally angered by the state of affairs in Israel-Palestine. Shaikh also recognized that even in Europe, sensitivities have been inflamed over the issue and may affect policy.