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Palestinians hope to defy Obama and seek UN recognition for state

The US is likely to veto it, but Palestine may still proceed with ambitious plans to seek full membership of the United Nations.

Pro-Palestinian campaigners protest outside of the Washington Convention Center at the weekend.
Pro-Palestinian campaigners protest outside of the Washington Convention Center at the weekend.
Image: Jose Luis Magana/AP

BARACK OBAMA THREW down a gauntlet last weekend: no vote at the United Nations, he asserted, would ever create a Palestinian state.

The Palestinians hope to prove him wrong. But their planned bid for UN recognition this fall of a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — territories occupied by Israel since the 1967 Mideast war — enters largely unknown legal ground, and the Palestinians are still trying to work out how best to work the UN labyrinth.

By a strict reading of UN rules, an American veto at the Security Council — which appears likely — would seem to derail any attempt to win recognition of Palestine as a UN member from the General Assembly, where there is widespread sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Never before has the assembly taken on a new member state without a prior nod from the Security Council.

But legal experts say there may be ways to maneuver around that block. The question is whether any declaration the Palestinians can secure from the General Assembly would be a largely symbolic gesture, or would be strong enough to win them valuable legal leverage against Israel’s occupation.

And at this stage, it’s also uncertain whether Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas will actually proceed with the UN option. He is to consult with leaders of the PLO and his Fatah movement on Wednesday to consider his next move.

Dropping the UN bid would dash rising expectations among Palestinians that statehood will be declared in September. Proceeding would risk confrontation with Obama, who last week laid out his parameters for a peace deal — including assurances that it must be based on the pre-1967 war lines — in hopes of getting the Palestinians to desist from unilateral actions.

Seeking UN recognition of a Palestinian state is an idea born out of frustration, after two decades of on-and-off Israeli-Palestinian talks produced few results. Abbas has said he prefers to establish a state through negotiations, and that he is being pushed into unilateral steps by Israel’s refusal to engage in talks on terms backed by the international community.


For years, the Palestinians have been collecting recognition of a state of Palestine from individual countries — and so far 112 nations have done so, mostly in the developing world. The Palestinians predict they will have 135 recognitions by September — more than two-thirds of the UN’s 192 full member states.

Their bid at the United Nations would be a more dramatic step: seeking some sort of official recognition by the world body as a nation defined by the 1967 borders.

As a first choice, the Palestinians would seek full UN membership as a nation state, Nabil Shaath, an Abbas aide, said yesterday.

Right away they would probably face a problem in the form of a US veto.

The UN Charter states the admission of new members “will be effected by a decision of the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” The council makes its membership recommendation through a resolution, meaning it must be approved by at least nine of the council’s 15 members and not be vetoed by one of the five permanent members, including the US.

The General Assembly has never admitted a member without a favourable ruling of the Security Council, said John B Quigley, an international law professor at Ohio State University.

A way around?

But, he said, the Palestinians and their supporters could try to rally arguments for the assembly to bypass council approval.

Quigley cited an advisory ruling from the International Court of Justice — a UN body — that a decision on membership must not involve political considerations and should only determine if a would-be member is peace-loving and meets the criteria for statehood.

Conceivably, General Assembly members could claim that a US veto was issued for inappropriate reasons, opening legal arguments at the UN.

That may be a hard case for them to make, however. Quigley noted that another ICJ advisory ruling states a recommendation from the Security Council is needed for UN membership.

Another possibility of bypassing the Security Council — at least to a degree — is the so-called “Uniting for Peace” resolution, first invoked in 1950 to circumvent further Soviet vetoes during the course of the Korean war.

Such a resolution allows the General Assembly to consider collective action if the Security Council, because of a veto, “fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.”

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has nonetheless continued to refuse contemplating redrawing his country’s borders to those of 1967, describing those borders as “indefensible”.


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