The Middle East Channel

Sticky wicket at the U.N.

It’s Palestine season at the United Nations! As the world’s governments field their teams and their talking points for the next round of diplomacy’s most bruising sport, some of you watching from home may be wondering how to judge who the winner is. Your confusion is understandable: Palestine has been on the U.N.’s agenda since ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

It’s Palestine season at the United Nations! As the world’s governments field their teams and their talking points for the next round of diplomacy’s most bruising sport, some of you watching from home may be wondering how to judge who the winner is. Your confusion is understandable: Palestine has been on the U.N.’s agenda since Britain placed it there in 1947; and, like other games invented by the British, this one is interminably long and difficult to follow. Use this guide to make sense of what happens next.

You can expect almost everyone to jump into the fray in New York this season, but four teams are especially worth watching: the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Europeans, and the Americans. Here is what each needs to do to win.

The Palestinians are entering the field with practically a home side advantage. They can look back on a long string of triumphs at the United Nations, including scores of supportive resolutions in the U.N. General Assembly and Human Rights Council, the International Court of Justice’s 2004 declaration that Israel’s West Bank wall is illegal, and the Goldstone Report’s finding that Israelis committed war crimes in Gaza in the winter of 2008. These achievements are not insubstantial; if nothing else, they have helped to keep the Palestinians in the game, despite the tremendous odds against them.

But in order to win more than a symbolic victory this year, the Palestinians will need to achieve one or both of the following goals:

  • Secure sweeping international support for their territorial claims — in particular, their right to exercise sovereignty over the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, subject only to minor and equitable negotiated revisions to the pre-1967 border, and
  • Obtain sufficiently broad recognition from world governments of Palestinian statehood to enable the International Criminal Court (ICC) to exercise jurisdiction to prosecute Israeli war crimes in Palestinian territory.

Of course, the Palestinians will eventually need to return to negotiations with Israel even if they achieve both of these objectives. But they would have improved their leverage in two ways: first, by making clear that the international community expects Israel to provide fair compensation in land for the settlements on Palestinian territory Israel annexes as part of a peace deal; and, second, by increasing the costs to Israel of continuing to expand settlements, which are considered a war crime under the Rome Statute of the ICC.

The Palestinians need not go to the Security Council to achieve either of these goals. Although the U.N. General Assembly cannot admit Palestine as a member without the Council’s approval, it can recommend parameters for resolving the conflict. While the Assembly’s recommendations are non-binding, they would have considerable influence if Europe signed on — and could even receive American endorsement once elections have passed. The Assembly could also welcome Palestine’s participation in its proceedings as a non-member observer state, which would help establish its credentials as a state for ICC purposes. Either of these outcomes would constitute a solid victory for the Palestinians.

The Palestinians will score extra points, especially on the Arab street, if they appear unflinching in the face of American power and Israeli intransigence. But while a confrontation with the United States at the Security Council is likely to be exciting, it is unclear how it would advance the Palestinian cause strategically. The Palestinians may find it difficult to convince the General Assembly to take up the matter while the Council is seized of it (though it’s not prohibited), which means that the action could be stopped for weeks while the Council deliberates. The United States is working hard to convince other Council members to vote against the resolution so that its veto won’t be decisive. And if the Palestinians return to Ramallah with nothing but a dead draft Security Council resolution in hand — an outcome they could have predicted a year ago — they shouldn’t expect a ticker tape parade. The crowds are more likely to demand that a new team be fielded the next time around.

The Israelis are less comfortable playing at Turtle Bay. Although the State of Israel was established 63 years ago on the recommendation of the U.N. General Assembly, Israelis have come to prefer other arenas, eschewing multilateral forums for bilateral negotiations where they are better able to control the outcome. In addition, the Netanyahu government’s obstructionist policies have made Israel anything but a crowd favorite, even if the U.S. Congress is sure to cheer him on.

Many Israelis would welcome more proactive steps by the international community to define the parameters of a peace agreement — and even to hold their leaders to account for their misguided settlement policy — but the Netanyahu government loses if either of these steps occurs. Although the Israelis have already succeeded in enlisting the United States to run interference in the Security Council by vetoing a Palestinian application for admission as a full member of the U.N., the prize Palestinians are after is not membership but recognition and the enhanced leverage it affords.

On the other hand, Netanyahu will win big if the Palestinians drop out of the game following a confrontation with the United States in the Security Council. He will have succeeded both in preserving Israel’s leverage (both in future talks and on the ground) and in embarrassing the Obama administration, for which he feels little affection despite its Herculean efforts on Israel’s behalf.

The Europeans are undoubtedly feeling plucky this year, enjoying the spotlight after years of being forced out of the game by the United States. Their problem is teamwork. If Europe can forge a unified position within the Security Council and the General Assembly, its influence will be greatly enhanced. That unity, however, has so far proved elusive. Some European governments have come out squarely in support of the Palestinians, whereas others are hesitant to take a stand that may be perceived as anti-Israel. Abstaining from taking sides may help the Europeans to avoid any injuries, but it will likely send them back to the sidelines.

The Americans can point to some major recent victories at the U.N., including passing sanctions against Iran and mobilizing the coalition against Libya’s ousted leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, but the Obama administration is entering the field this season with some severe handicaps. The U.S. has the power to veto a resolution admitting Palestine to the U.N., but exercising that power will further inflame the Arab street at a time when the United States wants to present itself as an advocate of freedom and self-determination. On the other hand, Republican leaders (and even a few Democrats) will blame Obama for any Palestinian success in New York this year, arguing that Obama’s rousing speech at last year’s General Assembly encouraged the Palestinians to turn to the U.N. in the first place. Mindful of the elections to come — and of the Democrats’ stunning loss in New York’s special election last week, which some regarded as a referendum on Obama’s Middle East policy — the Americans will be hesitant to support any outcome that Netanyahu disfavors.

In the short run, the Americans win if they manage either to convince enough Security Council members to vote with them against Palestinian admission or if they prevail on the Palestinians to head home without having a go at the General Assembly. However, the next time Palestine comes to the U.N. — and it will — the U.S. will find its credibility and authority further weakened. And if it refuses to play fair with the Palestinians’ current leadership, it may well have to contend with less sporting players next season.

Omar M. Dajani is professor of law at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law. Previously, he served as legal advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team in peace talks with Israel.

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