Q&A: Palestinians’ upgraded UN status
On 29 November 2012, the United Nations General Assembly voted to upgrade the
status of the Palestinians to that of a “non-member observer state”.
It follows a failed bid to join the international body as a full member state in 2011 because of a lack of support in the UN Security Council.
Here is a guide to the move’s likely significance.
What were the Palestinians asking for?
The Palestinians have long sought to establish an independent, sovereign state in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip – occupied by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War. The 1993 Oslo Accord between the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Israel led to mutual recognition. However, two decades of on-off peace talks have since failed to produce a permanent settlement. The latest round of direct negotiations broke down in 2010.
Palestinian officials have since pursued a new diplomatic strategy: asking individual countries to recognise an independent Palestinian state with borders following the ceasefire lines which separated Israel and the West Bank before June 1967.
In September 2011, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and chairman of the PLO, sought full member-state status at the UN based on pre-1967 frontiers. But the bid effectively stalled two months later after Security Council members said they had been unable to “make a unanimous recommendation”. Mr Abbas then submitted a downgraded request to the General Assembly for admission to the UN as a non-member observer state – the same position that the Vatican holds. Previously, the PLO only had “permanent observer” status.
The change allows the Palestinians to participate in General Assembly debates.It also improves the Palestinians’ chances of joining UN agencies and the International Criminal Court (ICC), although the process would be neither automatic nor guaranteed. If they are allowed to sign the ICC’s founding treaty, the Rome Statute, the Palestinians hope to take legal action in the court, for example, to challenge Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
What was the general process?
The chances of the Palestinians obtaining non-member observer state status were high – a resolution need only be passed by a simple majority at the 193-member UN General Assembly, and there is no threat of veto as there would be at the Security Council.
According to the PLO, more than 130 countries already grant the Palestinians the rank of a sovereign state. Palestinian officials had said they hoped to win the votes of 150 to 170 countries at the UN to show the isolation of the US and Israel on this issue. In the event, 138 countries voted in favour.
President Abbas addressed the General Assembly on 27 September and said his government would seek the UN upgrade in the current session. He said he realised that “progress towards making peace is through negotiations between the PLO and Israel”, acknowledging international concerns about future talks. “Despite all the complexities of the prevailing reality and all the frustrations that abound, we say before the international community there is still a chance – maybe the last – to save the two-state solution and to salvage peace,” he added.
After Mr Abbas laid out his intentions, his aides consulted other countries before drafting a resolution. It was not tabled until after the US presidential election.
The Palestinians’ earlier attempt to gain full member-state status failed because it had to be approved by the 15-member UN Security Council. In the face of strong lobbying by Israel’s close ally, the United States, it could not secure the nine votes it would have required. In any case, as a permanent member of the council, the US was expected to use its veto power to stop the bid.
Palestinian officials insist they have not abandoned their application to become a full UN member state, saying it is suspended for the moment.
Is this symbolic or will it change facts on the ground?
Getting recognition of Palestinian statehood on the pre-1967 ceasefire lines has largely symbolic value. Already there is wide international acceptance that they should form the basis of a permanent peace settlement. The problem for the Palestinians is that Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, rejects these territorial lines as a basis for negotiations. He has described them as “unrealistic” and “indefensible”. He says that new facts have been created on the ground since 1967: about half a million Jews live in more than 200 settlements and outposts in the West Bank including East Jerusalem.
These settlements are considered illegal under international law, though Israel
disputes this. Mutually-agreed land swaps have been discussed in previous talks
as a way to overcome this problem.
The Palestinians argue that admission even as a non-member observer state at the UN will strengthen their hands in peace talks with Israel on core issues that divide them: the status of Jerusalem, the fate of the settlements, the precise location of borders, the right of return of Palestinian refugees, water rights and security arrangements. The Palestinians present the step as necessary to protect their right to self-determination and a two-state
The draft resolution “expresses the urgent need for the resumption and acceleration of negotiations within the Middle East peace process, based on the relevant United Nations resolutions, the Madrid terms of reference, including the principle of land for peace, the Arab Peace Initiative and the Quartet Roadmap, for the achievement of a just, lasting and comprehensive peace settlement between the Palestinian and Israeli sides that resolves all
outstanding core issues”.
Israel says that any upgrade of the Palestinian status at the UN would pre-empt final-status negotiations. The Israeli prime minister’s office reacted to the decision with the following statement: “This is a meaningless decision that will not change anything on the ground. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that there will be no establishment of a Palestinian state without a settlement that ensures the security of Israel’s citizens… By going to the UN, the Palestinians have violated the agreements with Israel and Israel
will act accordingly.”
What legal action could the Palestinians consider?
In April, the chief prosecutor of the ICC rejected a declaration by the Palestinian Authority unilaterally recognising the court’s jurisdiction. The prosecutor said the ICC could not act because Article 12 of the Rome Statute established that only a “state” could confer jurisdiction on the court and deposit an instrument of accession with the UN secretary general. In instances where it was controversial or unclear whether an applicant constituted a “state”, it was the practice of the secretary general to follow or seek the
General Assembly’s directives on the matter, he added.
While Palestinian chances of joining the ICC would be neither automatic nor guaranteed as a non-member observer state, officials have indicated they will make a new attempt after the General Assembly vote. “Those who don’t want to appear before international tribunals must stop their crimes and it is time for them to become accountable,” the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, recently told reporters.
According to the Reuters news agency, Mr Netanyahu has privately expressed
concern that Palestinians might accuse the Israeli government of violating the
Geneva Conventions’ prohibition on forced displacement of populations by
establishing settlements on occupied territory. The Palestinians might also
seek to have the ICC investigate war crimes allegations from the 2008-2009 Gaza
Why has this happened now?
The main reason is the impasse in peace talks. Ahead of the original UN bid,
the Palestinians pointed to the September 2011 date that US President Barack
Obama had laid out at the General Assembly a year before as the deadline to
achieve a two-state solution. The Quartet of Middle East peace negotiators –
the US, European Union, Russia and UN – had worked towards the same deadline. A
later statement by the Quartet called for an agreement by the end of this year.
Despite the lack of progress on restarting direct negotiations with Israel,
Palestinian leaders argue that they have succeeded in building up state
institutions and are ready for statehood. The World Bank has said the same,
although it has expressed concern about whether the economies of the West Bank
and Gaza are strong enough to support a future state.
Last year, the full UN membership bid easily won the support of ordinary
Palestinians who had been energised by uprisings in other parts of the Arab
world. Although there was disappointment at what followed, a decisive vote by
the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in favour of
admitting the Palestine as a member state in October 2011 helped to compensate.
This was broadly seen as a step towards strengthening the Palestinians’
position at the UN, although it led to the US suspending funding for Unesco.
How does this fit with previous declarations?
In 1988, the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, unilaterally declared a
Palestinian state within the pre-June 1967 lines. This won recognition from
about 100 countries, mainly Arab, Communist and non-aligned states – several of
them in Latin America.
UN acceptance of Palestine even as a non-member observer state would have
greater impact as the UN is the overarching world body and a source of
authority on international law.
Who supported and opposed the latest UN option?
So far this bid has failed to excite public opinion in the occupied territories
in the same way as in 2011 and the build-up to it has been more low-key. It is
backed by Mr Abbas’s Fatah movement, which controls Palestinian Authority-run
parts of the West Bank, and was agreed with representatives of other groups in
It was initially criticised by senior figures in Hamas, the rival Islamist
group which governs the Gaza Strip. However, following the recent eight-day
Israeli military offensive on Gaza, Hamas’s political leader, Khaled Meshaal,
said he “welcomed” the effort. The militant group, Islamic Jihad is also said
to have given its unofficial support. “There is not a single party or faction
that is not onboard,” senior PLO official Hanan Ashrawi told journalists on 28
Within the wider region, the 22-member Arab League has endorsed the approach.
The main opposition came from Israel. Looking to dissuade President Abbas from
his plan, it has threatened to withhold crucial tax revenues it collects on
behalf of the PA and restrict movements of its officials from the West Bank. On
14 November, a position paper leaked from Israel’s foreign ministry also
proposed “toppling” Mr Abbas if Palestine’s bid for UN non-member observer
state status was approved. Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Lior Ben Dor said
that if President Abbas continued with the bid, he would be in breach of the
1993 Oslo Accord, under which the PA was established.
In the past few days, Israeli officials have indicated that immediately after
the vote sanctions would be introduced against the Palestinians. However, they
say Israel will not take irreversible steps and will not act to bring down the
PA. Only if the Palestinians use their upgraded UN membership to press cases at
the International Criminal Court will Israel consider more drastic steps, they
add. Speaking to the BBC about the UN bid, deputy Israeli foreign ministry
spokeswoman Ilana Stein said: “It is mainly a declarative move, the question is
what will the Palestinians do with it. Depending on what steps they take,
Israel will act accordingly.”
The US, a major donor nation to the PA, could also impose some financial
penalties. After Palestine was admitted to Unesco, Washington cut funding to
the organisation under legislation dating back to the 1990s. This mandated such
a step if any UN agency granted full membership to Palestine before a permanent
Reports before the vote said that Israel had attempted to negotiate with the US
over the wording of the UN General Assembly resolution. There were attempts to
gain guarantees that the Palestinians would not go to the ICC. However, on the
eve of the vote, Mrs Ashrawi insisted: “We have not succumbed to blackmail or
Some European nations which provide large amounts of aid to the PA are worried
that the Palestinians’ UN strategy could prove risky. Only nine out of the 27
EU member states recognise Palestine bilaterally. Out of those which do not,
France voted for the bid, and Germany and the UK abstained. The UK has
requested “certain assurances or amendments” from t he Palestinians, including
a commitment not to pursue “ICC jurisdiction over the Occupied Territories at
this stage”. The Palestinians described the conditions as “unrealistic”.