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Showdown Over Palestinian Statehood Set To Spice Up UN General Assembly

Activists hold banners in front of UN headquarters as they deliver a letter addressed to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in the West Bank city of Ramallah on September 8.
Activists hold banners in front of UN headquarters as they deliver a letter addressed to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in the West Bank city of Ramallah on September 8.
UNITED NATIONS -- For years now, Palestinian diplomats have quietly been pressing individual countries to recognize Palestine as an independent state.

The push has borne fruit. As of today, more than 120 countries around the world have done so.

But this week in New York, as the UN General Assembly opens the General Debate of its 66th regular session, the Palestinians are expected to seek the biggest prize of all. They hope to turn their support for statehood into UN recognition as a full member-state of the world body.

The proposal is almost certain to set off one of the hottest debates of the UN's new year. It may also be one of the most divisive.

That's because the Palestinians are very likely to get the two-thirds majority approval they need from the General Assembly – that is, support from 129 of the body's 193 members. They can expect strong -- possibly unanimous -- backing from African, Asian, Latin American, and certainly from Arab countries.

But if the General Assembly gives its approval, the request for full membership still must go to the Security Council for endorsement.

And there, the United States has already said, it will veto it to support its ally Israel. Israel rejects the Palestinian's statehood drive, saying it violates the 1993 Oslo Accords under which self-government was to be granted by Israel in phases.

'Do They Get The Great Democracies?'

In the run-up to the UN showdown, both sides – the countries which will vote "yes" and those which will vote "no" – have been doing all they can to gain support. The biggest targets are Europe and the other Western democracies, which must decide whether backing their biggest ally – Washington – is worth the political damage it would bring them in the Middle East.

The Western powers are important for the Palestinian cause because, although it could not change a U.S. veto, it would give the Palestinian statehood drive weight that nobody could ignore.

“The question here is: Do they get the great democracies? That’s the question," says Elliot Abrams, a regional expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who held senior foreign policy positions under U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

"The United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the EU -- that’s really the question. If they win with the automatic vote but they lose the most prestigious democratic countries, then it will be a form of defeat for them.”

So far, the largest bloc of Western states – the European Union – has given no sign which way it could go. The EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, carefully avoided telling the Palestinians whether the EU opposed or supported their UN move when she visited Israel and the Palestinian territories in June.

“It seems that the French want to encourage some kind of resolution, but it’s not clear how far they’re willing to go in opposing the United States," says Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Arab studies at Columbia University. "I think Russia might support, China might support. Not clear how Britain will behave.”

Russia's ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, already said that Russia would vote in favor of any type of official UN recognition the Palestinians decided to seek.

An EU End-Around

Some European diplomats have told Western media privately that key EU states hope to avoid choosing altogether by floating an alternative draft resolution of their own at the UN. That would be to seek international endorsement of some of the parameters the Palestinians would like to see for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Israeli soldiers disperse demonstrators during a protest at an Israeli Army checkpoint in the center of the divided West Bank city of Hebron on September 14.
Those parameters include some things Israel does not currently accept, including basing any land swaps on the borders as they existed in 1967, before the Six-Day Arab-Israeli war, and sharing Jerusalem as a capital.

Britain, France, and Germany endorsed these negotiation parameters earlier this year as they sought to restart the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. U.S. President Barack Obama has also declared that a future Palestinian state must be based on the 1967 borders, while supporting Israel's need for security.

Whether the Palestinians would shelve their statehood drive at the UN in exchange for an effort to set a framework for peace talks is an open question. But at the very least the Europeans hope that coming forward with a proposal could help defuse an almost certain regional outburst of anger – and perhaps violence – should the United States veto the membership bid without an alternative.

Playing For Time

But there may be yet other ways the Palestinian drive for full membership at the UN could play out.

One would be for the Security Council to play for time should the General Assembly approve the Palestinian request.
Palestinian women sit outside their house in a refugee camp near the West Bank city of Jenin on September 15.

“The Security Council...could sit on the matter," Khalidi says. "In other words, even if the Palestinian delegation presents a request for consideration as a member state, which has to first go to the Security Council, that could be deferred by the Security Council. It could decide simply to look into the matter for weeks or longer. It does not necessarily mean that the Security Council will act immediately.”

That kind of an end to the Palestinian membership drive, of course, would only be a temporary reprieve, in which all sides would try to gain further support before a final battle -- or compromise -- in the months ahead.

Still another possibility is that the Palestinians – if certain of being blocked in the Security Council – could ask the General Assembly to be recognized as a state but not as a member of the UN. This request, which requires only a simple majority approval in the General Assembly and does not need Security Council endorsement, would give them the position of a “non-member state” with observer status, an upgrade from their current status as a nonstate observer.

"Nonmember state observer" is the same status the Vatican now has at the UN. Palestinian diplomats at the UN claim that would give them the right to sign certain international treaties, including joining the International Criminal Court (ICC), which they want to prosecute Israel over alleged war crimes.

The Palestinian drive for statehood at the UN seeks recognition based on the borders of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, with East Jerusalem as the capital. Israel warned on September 14 that approval would result in “harsh and grave consequences” for the Palestinians but did specify what steps it might take.