Leader Development & Education for Sustained Peace Program: Cross-Cultural, Geopolitical & Regional Education

Topic Debate: Palestine’s Bid for UN Non-Member Observer State Status



Background: On 29 November, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority (PA) had successfully gained recognition of Palestine as a non-member observer state in the UN General Assembly in New York. This bid for formal recognition of Palestine as a state follows the failed bid for full UN membership in 2011 and Palestine’s former standing as a permanent observer “entity”. The state status pursued by the PA is similar to the status held by the Vatican and differs from its former “entity” status of intergovernmental organizations and national liberation movements.

Palestine’s interaction with the UN began in 1974 when the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) won observer status. As this status lacked formality, the rights of the PLO and the people it represented varied case by case. In 1988, after changed designation from the Palestinian Liberation Organization to Palestine, the UN General Assembly extended privileges typical of member status to Palestine. Although Palestine’s privileges included participation in the general debate in the General Assembly and the right to cosponsor resolutions, Palestine lacked the full privileges of a member state.

In 2011, Abbas pushed for an elevation of UN recognition of Palestine from a permanent observer entity to full UN membership. However, Palestine was unable to gain sufficient support from the UN Security Council and faced the veto power of the United States. Ever since the 2011 bid for full-member state status, the negotiations between Israel and Palestine have stagnated.

Recognition of the state of Palestine was obtained by a simple majority vote of the 193 members in the UN General Assembly. The process of requesting non-member observer status differs from requesting full UN membership as non-member observer status is absent of the UN Security Council and the threat of veto. As the PA maintains bilateral relations with more than 130 UN members, Palestinian leadership decided to suspend full membership bids in favor of an easily attained non-member observer status.

On 29 November, the vote for Palestinian non-member observer state status passed with a simple majority vote of 138 in favor, 9 in opposition, and 41 abstentions. The countries which voted in opposition to the PA’s bid include Israel, the United States, Canada, Czech Republic, Panama, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau.

This change in Palestine’s status does not only give Palestine state recognitions, but also allows the country to use resources and institutions available to the international community such as the International Criminal Court.

Debate: Now that the PA has achieved UN recognition of Palestine as a non-member observer state, scholars contest the effect of this decision on United States interests and its impact on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The following experts provide a few perspectives on the impact of the UN vote and this contentious issue:

  • Robert McMahon and Jonathan Masters, coauthors of ‘Palestinian Statehood at the UN’ and writers for the Council on Foreign Relations, offer their overview of the bid and its implications including how a UN vote affirming non-member status affects life inside Palestine, how it affects the peace process, and what is at stake for the U.S.
  • Brett Schaefer and James Phillips, authors of “The U.S. Must Oppose the Palestinian Statehood Effort at the U.N.” and fellows at the Heritage Foundation of International Regulatory Affairs and Middle East Affairs respectively, argue that Palestine’s bid is dangerous and must be opposed. Schaefer and Phillips argue, “The Palestinians could then exploit U.N. recognition to demand membership in U.N. specialized agencies and organizations.” Further, the authors argue that “the Palestinian effort to use the U.N. to bolster statehood claims threatens U.S. interests and undermines all internationally accepted frameworks for peace.”
  • Debra DeLee, CEO of Americans for Peace Now (APN) and former Chair of National Democratic Committee, represented APN in addressing concern over Palestine’s bid for statehood. DeLee stated that “This effort is explicitly predicated on support for Israeli-Palestinian peace based on parameters long-endorsed by the U.S. and governments around the world, and once again demonstrates Abbas’ laudable determination to achieve progress through non-violent means.” DeLee continued by saying that “The decision of the Palestinians to once again take their case to the UN does not signal that they are ‘going unilateral’ or rejecting peace. Rather, it reflects the Palestinians’ understandable conviction that, under present circumstances, negotiations will never end the occupation or deliver statehood.”
  • Aaron David Miller, Vice President at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Middle East negotiator of republican and democratic administrations, argues that “the observer state initiative won’t make the difference that either its advocates or detractors imagine” because “in the end, the results in New York will change nothing on the ground for the better in the region.” In addition, Miller explains that the “observer status will only deepen the adversarial relationship between Abbas and Netanyahu, give the Israelis another reason not to negotiate and get the president into a fight with Congress should he support the Palestinian bid.”

Question: What impacts do you think Palestine’s non-member observer state status will have on US interests and security? What impacts do you think the new Palestinian state status will have on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?



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