Palestinians Seek U.N. Support for Independence Without Risking U.S. Veto

By Patrick Goodenough | November 2, 2010 | 5:13 AM EDT

Riyad Mansour, the permanent observer of “Palestine” to the United Nations, addresses a Security Council meeting on October 18, 2010. Since 1989 the world body has referred to the PLO observer as “Palestine” even though no such state exists. (UN Photo by Paulo Filgueiras)

( – In its plan to seek United Nations support for a declaration of an independent state, the Palestinian Authority may invoke a little-used mechanism to bypass the Security Council – and thus the risk of a U.S. veto, a top Palestinian official said.

Having the U.N. General Assembly consider the statehood issue instead would benefit the Palestinians, who enjoy significant support among the two biggest blocs, those made up of developing and Islamic states.

P.A. negotiator Saeb Erekat told the Palestinian news agency Ma’an that an option under consideration would involve a request for the Security Council to recognize an independent Palestinian state based on the ceasefire lines that were in place before the 1967 Six Day War – that is, the entire West Bank as well as the Gaza Strip.

If that did not succeed, he said, the Palestinian leadership would ask the Council to activate the so-called “Uniting for Peace” resolution (UNSC resolution 377), first passed in 1950.

Resolution 377 deals with cases “where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression,” but where the Security Council does not respond because of differences among the five veto-wielding permanent members.

At the request of at least seven of the 15 Security Council members, or of a majority of all U.N. member states, the General Assembly then convenes an “emergency special session” on the issue, to be held within 24 hours.

Prior to 1989, the PLO observer to the U.N. was referred to by that name. In this photo, PLO observer Zehdi Terzi addresses a special political committee at the U.N. in New York on November 11, 1976. (UN Photo by Saw Lwin)

Only 10 such emergency special sessions have been held since resolution 377 was passed. Seven dealt with Middle East crises (including Suez, the Six Day War, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) and the other three with apartheid-era South Africa, the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the 1960 Congo crisis.

(The tenth session, dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was convened in 1997 but was “resumed” more than a dozen times over the ensuing years, most recently in January 2009. Never having been formally closed, its status is “adjourned.”)

The option of seeking U.N. backing for an independence declaration has been simmering for weeks, since U.S.-mediated direct negotiations between the Israeli government and P.A. stalled just weeks after their launch in early September.

Other officials who have hinted at the U.N. option include P.A. chairman Mahmoud Abbas and senior aides Yasser Abed Rabbo and Nabil Shaath.

The P.A. has refused to return to the talks unless Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announces a new freeze on construction at Israeli settlements in the disputed territories. An earlier, 10 month-long moratorium expired in late September.

The Arab League has set a Nov. 8 deadline for President Obama to pressure Netanyahu on the settlement freeze issue, failing which the 22 Arab states say they will consider alternative strategies, such as the U.N. option. 

Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit address a joint press conference in Ramallah on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2010. A senior P.A. official says Egypt has proposed a joint Arab initiative to bring Palestinian statehood demands to the United Nations. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

Erekat told Ma’an that Egypt has proposed a joint Arab initiative to bring Palestinian statehood demands to the U.N.

Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa, who is based in Cairo, told Fox News Radio this week that taking the matter to the U.N. was “one of the most important alternatives” currently under discussion.

Two decades after the Madrid Mideast peace conference, he said, “the prevailing view is that the peace process has failed.”

Palestine’ at the UN

If the P.A. seeks U.N. backing, winning majority support should not prove difficult. Two blocs that historically have taken the side of the Palestinians in the conflict, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Non-Aligned Movement, together account for 124 countries out of the total 192 U.N. member states.

The General Assembly since 1989 has referred to the PLO observer as “Palestine” even though no such state exists, and the world body’s annual calendar features numerous events, including conferences and an “international solidarity day,” highlighting the Palestinian issue.

A body called the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People has held 326 meetings since being established by the General Assembly in 1975. Critics like the Anti-Defamation League note that it is the only U.N. committee that is devoted to a specific people.

The U.N. also has a Division for Palestinian Rights and a dedicated “Information System on the Question of Palestine.”

In 1975, Islamic states and Cuba sponsored a resolution equating Zionism – the movement underpinning Jewish self-determination in a national homeland – with racism. The General Assembly passed the measure by a 72-36 vote and it remained on the U.N. books until eventually repealed in 1991.

A recent opinion poll carried out by Israeli and Palestinian institutions found 69 percent of Palestinian respondents were in favor of approaching the Security Council for statehood recognition “if the peace talks fail.” Other options gaining support included a unilateral declaration of independence, presumably without resort to the U.N. (54 percent), non-violent resistance (51 percent) and a resumption of an armed intifada (41 percent).

Pro-Israel groups in the U.S. have been urging the Obama administration to issue a pre-emptive statement declaring unambiguously that it will veto any attempt by the P.A. to have the Security Council pass a resolution establishing a Palestinian state.

“Only by foreshadowing that the U.S. will veto any such resolution in the Security Council can President Obama deter the PA from pursuing this course of action,” Zionist Organization of America national president Morton Klein said in a statement last week.

“Conversely, any failure by President Obama to indicate clearly and publicly that the U.S. will veto any such resolution would be a failure to support Israel’s vital and legitimate interests, to which President Obama has said he is firmly committed.”

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said Monday that pursuing U.N. support for an independence declaration “doesn’t solve the conflict.”

“Comprehensive peace in the Middle East can only be resolved through direct negotiations where the parties agree to end the conflict.”

Asked whether the Obama administration was discouraging the Palestinians from taking that route, Crowley replied, “We are encouraging them to return to negotiations.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow