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Palestinian Concerns About Going to the UN

October 8, 2011

 On September 23rd, President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Mahmoud Abbas submitted an application to the UN Security Council (UNSC) for recognition as a full member of the UN. A recent poll by Palestinian polling organization, Near East Consulting showed that 84% of Palestinians in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Gaza support Abbas’s initiative (it should be noted that NEC results often lean in favor of Abbas’s Fatah party). Some members of the Palestinian community are concerned, however, about the potential drawbacks of such an action.

The first of two primary concerns is a lack of clarity about how the global Palestinian community will be represented if Palestine is recognized as either a member state or a non-member state of the UN. The PLO is currently recognized by the world and by the Palestinian community as the sole legitimate international representative of the Palestinian people. If Palestine is accepted as a state then what becomes of the PLO? Oxford University international law professor Guy Goodwin Gill published a legal opinion highlighting this issue, and putting forth concerns that the Palestinian community may have little or no true representation in whatever entity emerges out of the UN process.

The second concern of Palestinian UN bid skeptics relates to international recognition of the 1967 borders. UNSC Resolution 242 demands that Israel withdraw from territories occupied in the ’67 war, and in 1988, the PLO officially recognized Israel outside of those territories, but the UN has never taken the official position that the 1967 line (commonly referred to as the “Green Line”) is the border between Israel and the future state of Palestine. Those who oppose the UN initiative contend that further affirming the Green Line as the final border further concedes the Palestinian claim to the other 78% of historic Palestine. This, they fear, will create an obstacle to re-acquiring more of their land in a future paradigm under which such action would be possible.

These considerations are most significant for the refugee population, and the trepidation about the leadership’s UN strategy is largely based on concern for the interests of the Palestinian Diaspora. A significant incentive for Israel to accept complete right of return is the opportunity to establish a comprehensive peace with a functioning and independent Palestinian neighbor. For this reason, Palestinians are reluctant to sign any agreement that advances a Palestinian state without also gaining commensurate recognition of the rights of refugees.

Unilateral actions toward the establishment of an independent Palestinian state necessarily separate the pursuit of statehood from the pursuit of the right to return because it is completely impossible to try to advance right of return unilaterally. The Palestinian Authority can begin to behave like a government; it can try to extend its jurisdiction unilaterally, it can promote the development of Palestinian industry, and it can seek international recognition, but there is nothing Palestinians can do to return refugees to Israel, as that country is in full control of its borders. If unilateral pursuit of statehood is effective, Israel can simply begin acquiescing to it, and yet remain firm in its denial of the rights of refugees.

Upon further inspection, however, it becomes clear that these concerns – that the PLO and the refugees will be sidelined, and that action in the UN will set potentially dangerous precedents – are not well founded. Dr. Gershon Baskin, co-director of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, argues that the question of the identity and management of this new “Palestinian state” is an internal Palestinian issue, and that the PLO could, theoretically, simply fill the position of “the state” in matters regarding the UN. This seems to be the position of President Abbas, who clarified during his address that the PLO would continue to be the sole international representative of the Palestinian people. Furthermore, it is almost guaranteed that the United States will uses its veto to prevent the Security Council from giving its blessing to Palestinian UN membership, rendering this entire question moot.

More significantly, almost all criticism of the UN bid is really just a rejection of the basic two-state paradigm. There is no point in attacking the Palestinian leadership for deepening the world’s commitment to the 1967 borders when there is not even the smallest chance that a negotiated agreement with Israel will ever result in the Palestinans gaining more than that. The same logic is just as applicable to the refugee issue. Israel well never sign an agreement that recognizes full right of return for refugees to the properties they held before 1948. Such is the nature of any relationship in which one party is so much more powerful than the other. If the goal does remain a two-state solution, then internationalizing the conflict, as the UN bid proposes to do, is, despite all potential drawbacks, undeniably better than continuing to work under the irreparably flawed Oslo framework. Mouin Rabbani of the Institute for Palestine Studies highlights this in his post on the London Review of Books blog.

Apart from the almost complete absence of preparatory dialogue and consensus, many of the objections Palestinians have raised to the UN initiative don’t make much sense. Fears that UN membership would somehow dilute either the representational claims of the PLO or refugee rights were misplaced for the simple reason that the application never had a chance of success to begin with. Such criticisms made even less sense when the posited alternative was to remain mired in Oslo or the movement promoting boycott, divestment and sanctions. BDS is a tactic rather than a national programme, and its sponsors and activists are no substitute for a national movement in urgent need of rejuvenation.

If Palestinian critics of the UN bid are, in fact, really just supporters of one state, then they should recognize that none of the precedents set by this latest round of diplomatic activity have any bearing whatsoever on the likelihood of a paradigm shift from two states to one. The international community is, at this point, completely devoted to a solution based on two states. John Stewart, host of The Daily Show, put it best when he referred to the territories in question as “the place that everyone but Palestinians call Israel, and the place that everyone but Israelis call Palestine.” The one-state solution will therefore only be considered once the prospects for two-states are so remarkably dim that no country can pretend otherwise. At that point, every standing agreement, UN resolution, diplomatic note, and private arraignment based on two states will become completely irrelevant.

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