By Jim Zanotti and Marjorie Ann Browne
The following discussion sets forth possible implications stemming from the process, outcome, or aftermath of U.N. action on Palestinian statehood. Such implications could include consequences for day-to-day interactions between Israelis and Palestinians, precedents that could lead to further international action on behalf of the Palestinians, and ramifications for possible future negotiations and internal Israeli and Palestinian political developments.
On-the-Ground Consequences and Further International Action
Many proponents of emphasizing Palestinian claims to statehood acknowledge that greater international support through the United Nations or elsewhere will not resolve disputes between Israelis and Palestinians on core issues—borders, security, settlements, refugees, Jerusalem, water rights. Some observers express skepticism that international or unilateral action on the statehood question can transcend symbolism to significantly contribute to Palestinian independence.
An upgrade in status would not confer characteristics of sovereignty that might strengthen the Palestinians’ position in a negotiating context—such as an independent military capacity and control over territory and borders. Israel would probably retain control over East Jerusalem and overall control—despite the PA’s limited self-rule—in the West Bank, while the Sunni Islamist group Hamas (a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization) would probably continue its de facto rule over the Gaza Strip.
If Israel continues to control developments on the ground in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, along with access to Gaza, the PLO might face questions about next steps from its own people. PLO officials have portrayed the possibility of U.N. action as consequential, if not ultimately decisive, on the statehood issue. However, reduced levels of financial and political support from international patrons stemming from U.N. action could hinder possible subsequent efforts by Palestinian leaders to follow up such action with measures seeking to change Israel’s posture in the West Bank and Gaza, and to rally popular and international support for these possible follow- up measures.
A resolution upgrading the permanent observer status of Palestine in the United Nations to a non- member state may also set in motion developments that eventually change how Israelis and Palestinians address their ongoing, fundamental disputes. If Palestinians and other international actors perceive that Palestinian political or legal claims have more basis for redress, altered expectations and calculations could lead to a new dynamic in how Palestinian and third parties relate to Israel with regard to core issues of the dispute. Possible developments—many of which Israel decries as connoting or possibly leading to its “delegitimization”—include greater levels of Palestinian civil disobedience or unrest; international boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movements; and an increase in grievances filed concerning Israeli actions in international courts—such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ)1 and the International Criminal Court (ICC)—and other forums. A General Assembly resolution purporting to recognize Palestinian statehood could strengthen the Palestinian case for membership in or greater access to some of these international courts and forums, but would not automatically confer such privileges or rights upon the Palestinians.2
Some PLO leaders have stated that following acknowledgment of even limited Palestinian sovereignty, aspects of Israeli control over the West Bank and Gaza would constitute a “state occupying another state.” This argument is presumably advanced in order to increase international pressure on Israel to reduce its presence and military control over the territories. Yet, several international actors might reject this argument, particularly if the state’s borders have not been definitively established in the Security Council. Israel is likely to reject it under any circumstances.
Back to Negotiations?
Abbas maintains that he still favors a U.S.-led negotiating process under the right conditions, and that U.N. action supporting Palestinian statehood could help bring Israel and the Palestinians to the bargaining table on a more equal footing.3 Yet, pursuit of U.N. action on Palestinian statehood outside of negotiations could be interpreted as a lack of faith by the Palestinians in the ability and/or willingness of the United States to be an “honest broker” and guarantor of the peace process. Additionally, some analysts argue that the PLO’s pursuit of U.N. action on Palestinian statehood undermines prospects for resuming negotiations because it violates previous Israeli- PLO agreements that form the foundation for a peace process.
Still other analysts warn that nominal Palestinian sovereignty gained through unilateral or international means might serve possible Israeli interests in avoiding serious negotiations toward a two-state solution by relieving the sense of international urgency for action on the issue.4
Until late September, when Palestinian resolve to submit an application for U.N. membership became clearer, the most credible alternative to a U.N. vote appeared to be the possibility of a last-minute agreement by the international Quartet (United States, European Union, United Nations Secretariat, Russia) on parameters for a resumption of Israel-PLO final-status negotiations—drawing from the guidelines President Barack Obama offered for future negotiations in speeches he gave on May 19 and May 22, 2011. President Obama called for basing the borders of Israel and a future Palestinian state on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps to establish secure and recognized borders for both states under the principle of “two states for two peoples.”
However, future resumption of negotiations may be unlikely unless Israel drops its insistence on Palestinian recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state”5 and the PLO drops its insistence on a halt to Israeli settlement building. Moreover, even if negotiations resume, their prospects remain uncertain, if not dim. The unwillingness of Hamas to recognize Israel’s right to exist and renounce violence further complicates matters. Israel remains unwilling to negotiate directly with Hamas, and Israelis and Palestinians appear unwilling to compromise conflicting positions concerning the claims of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.
Broad international support for Palestinian statehood could amplify Israelis’ concerns about their own security, particularly in view of ongoing political change in the surrounding Arab world and the volatility and possible deterioration of Israel’s political and military relationships with Egypt and Turkey. Israeli threat perceptions could lead to greater flexibility on its positions on some of the core issues expected to be resolved in a final-status Israel-PLO peace agreement, although the political climate in Israel makes this unlikely.
The rationale, espoused by commentators and some former Israeli leaders commonly identified with the left and center of the political spectrum, would be that time for reaching a deal with the Palestinians is running out, as changes in the region lead Palestinian leaders and Arab state governments to show greater responsiveness to popular anti-Israel sentiment, and that negotiating peace is Israel’s best chance to ensure its long- term security.6
Israeli leaders might, instead, be more likely to become less flexible in negotiations due to calculations that Israeli concessions are likely to embolden—not assuage—Palestinians and other Arabs, encouraging them to seek greater gains at Israel’s expense. Many Israelis see the wave of change in the Arab world, and especially in Egypt, as a repudiation of the logic of trading land for peace, and as contributing to an unpredictable environment that merits caution, not concessions. If these views prevail, Israel might conclude that its best options lie in using its military and other strategic assets to shape desired outcomes either unilaterally or in concert with regional and international allies and supporters. Possible specific Israeli responses may include, among others:
- withholding transfer revenue (taxes and customs Israel collects on behalf of the PA) that constitutes nearly two thirds of the PA’s budget;
- increasing construction and approval of Israeli settlements and infrastructure in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; and
- tightening security in and around the West Bank and Gaza.7 Internal Palestinian Developments
Although the PLO is internationally recognized as the sole representative of the Palestinian people, the nature, outcome, and aftermath of U.N. action aimed at advancing the cause of Palestinian statehood could have a significant effect on internal Palestinian developments, which would in turn affect the Palestinians’ dealings with Israel and the international community. The following questions could become pertinent:
- Will Mahmoud Abbas and his PLO/PA/Fatah colleagues and possible successors be willing and able to drive the Palestinian agenda toward a negotiated peace with Israel, or will past experience, regional trends, and popular sentiment compel them to pursue alternatives?
- Will efforts by Fatah and Hamas to form a consensus PA government and reunite the West Bank and Gaza under limited self-rule resume in light of their May 2011 agreement? What form might these efforts take?
- Could the outcome of international or unilateral action contribute to internal challenges to Fatah-led PA leadership in the West Bank and/or Hamas rule in Gaza? What are the relative risks of uprisings fed by changed popular expectations or the actions of organized militant groups?
- If a Palestinian entity claims or receives greater international recognition of its sovereignty over the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem on the basis of the 1967 lines, how might the rights and privileges of Palestinian refugees and other diaspora members living outside the 1967 borders be affected?8
Analyst in Middle Eastern Affairs
Marjorie Ann Browne
Specialist in International Relations
This article is a section of a larger Congressional Research Service report, Palestinian Initiatives for 2011 at the United Nations September 23, 2011, pages 8-12, which may be accessed here (PDF).
1. Only states may bring contentious cases to the ICJ. Under Article 93 of the U.N. Charter, all U.N. members are ipso facto parties of the Statute of the International Court of Justice. However, states that are not U.N. members may only become parties upon recommendation by the U.N. Security Council. Accordingly, unless granted U.N. membership, it does not appear that the Palestinians could become a non-member party to the ICJ statute absent Security Council approval, even presuming that the Palestinians were deemed to satisfy the conditions for recognition as a state. See U.N. Charter, art. 93(2) (“A state which is not a Member of the United Nations may become a party to the Statute of the International Court of Justice on conditions to be determined in each case by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.”).
2. A September 2011 International Crisis Group report provided details on possible routes open to the Palestinians for availing itself of the ICC’s jurisdiction and that of other international bodies. The report also stated: “[T]he ICC looms largest, for Palestinians, for Israel and for the U.S. That is because it affirms criminal responsibility of individuals [emphasis original] and because Rome Statute parties are legally obliged to enforce [the ICC’s] rulings – both of which, together, lead Israeli officials to fear the repercussions of a hypothetical future adverse finding.” International Crisis Group, op. cit. See also Makovsky, op. cit.
3. See Mahmoud Abbas, “The Long-Overdue Palestinian State,” New York Times, May 16, 2011. See also Yossi Alpher, “An opportunity for Israel,” bitterlemons.org, January 10, 2011.
4. Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, “Who’s Afraid of the Palestinians?”, New York Review of Books, February 10, 2011.
5. Palestinians would generally view such recognition as foreclosing discussion on the status of Palestinian refugees who claim a “right of return” to their original or ancestral homes in present-day Israel. Most Western and Israeli discussions of the issue anticipate that, under a final-status Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, a symbolic number of refugees might return to their earlier homes, but the vast majority would instead receive compensation and resettlement rights in a Palestinian state.
6. See, e.g., Ehud Olmert, “Peace Now, or Never,” New York Times, September 21, 2011.
7. Makovsky, op. cit.
8. Guy Goodwin-Gill, Opinion Re The Palestine Liberation Organization, the future State of Palestine, and the question of popular representation, August 2011, available at http://s3.documentcloud.org/documents/238962/final- pdf-plo-statehood-opinionr-arb.pdf. Goodwin-Gill is a British barrister and a senior research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford University.