Debating the UN bid for Palestinian statehood

Experts discuss what may happen with the Palestinian bid for UN statehood and what it means for all concerned.

UN security Council

A delegation of Palestinian leaders has flown to New York for the opening of the UN General Assembly, beginning on September 20, to request UN membership for a Palestinian state.

Senior members of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) have said they will go to the Security Council. The bid is opposed by Israel and the United States, with the latter threatening to veto any bid for full UN membership.

This diplomatic high-wire act to statehood has garnered international attention and controversy. Experts and stakeholders say the outcome of the bid is unknown. They agree that it marks a change in strategy from previous bi-partisan negotiations, which have failed thus far to bring about a Palestinian state.

Many are sceptical of the move, and several questions remain unanswered. Will it bring an end to the Israeli occupation? Will it alter the US’ diplomatic role in the region? Will it get Palestinians and Israelis back to the negotiating table? Or will it inspire grassroots Palestinian mobilisation?

Al Jazeera speaks to stakeholders, academics, analysts, and activists asking them what they think of the upcoming bid. What is the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s [PLO’s] statehood strategy at the UN, and what are the possible repercussions for all those concerned? 

Avi Shlaim

Shlaim is a professor of international relations at the University of Oxford and a fellow at Saint Antony’s College. He was born in Baghdad in 1945 and grew up in Israel. He is a globally renowned scholar on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The background to the UN bid is the Palestinian experience in the last twenty years, since the beginning of the American process of sponsoring Madrid [Conference] in 1991.


Let us look at [the UN statehood bid] from what America has done and what Israel has done. The Americans are much further off now than in the immediate aftermath in the two years following the Oslo peace process [in 1993]. Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, was assassinated in 1995 and it all went downhill from there. US President George W Bush was a complete nightmare for the Palestinians. He gave Sharon a complete free hand [over] the Palestinians.

The option for the Palestinians of just sitting back and doing nothing isn’t a very good one. The bid for statehood is not changing anything on the ground, but in the international arena. It will change the terms of the debate and tilt the balance of power internationally against Israel and in favour of Palestinians. It is mainly a symbolic act. It will change the dynamic in a very symbolic way.

Until now America and Israel control this process. The basis of negotiations was on Israeli terms. The Palestinians had to negotiate with Israel on its own terms. It will change the foundation and change the ground rules. It has become crystal-clear that the occupation is illegal and Israel is building on territory of a sovereign state.

Why are Israel and the US so hysterical about the UN bid if it doesn’t make a difference? They are hysterical about it because until now, for the past 20 years, they have had everything their way. There was the American-sponsored peace process, which was leading nowhere slowly, and Israel was carrying on with its expansionist agenda and pretending to be involved in a peace process. Now this has ended. There is no pretending.

Hassan Jabareen

Jabareen is a lawyer and the founder and general director of Adalah, a legal centre for Arab minority rights in Israel. He also has taught at Israeli law schools since 1998 as an adjunct lecturer on the legal status of Palestinian citizens of Israel.


The bid for statehood will be considered an internationally embarrassing legal move in the history of the Palestinian national movement.  It is not whether I am for or against the bid, but by my legal analysis the PLO didn’t think through all the legal scenarios of the UN bid and what the legal consequences are.

A resolution which may be accepted by the UN General Assembly in September 2011 should be read legally with the partition Resolution 181 of 1947. To note, Resolution 181 of 1947 cannot contradict the new resolution of September 2011. The rule of interpretation in international law states that the last rule trumps the previous rule or the rules should be read together, harmoniously.

Resolution 181 calls for two states, a Jewish state and an Arab state. Despite the fact that the Arabs were against the resolution, it formed the legal basis for Israel as a sovereign state. This is why the Declaration of Independence of Israel relied strongly on this resolution. Based on the Partition Plan, the Jewish state was supposed to be on the border of 1947, which then was about 50 per cent of Palestine. Today, Israel is recognised as a sovereign state, yet there is no recognition of Israel’s borders. To note, the International Court of Justice’s position regarding the [separation] wall states that the Green Line is a ceasefire border – but it does not mean that it is an internationally recognised legal border.

The upcoming move may make legal revisions to the resolution from 1947 regarding geographical aspects. Therefore, the Jewish state will be on the borders of the Green Line, 75 per cent of Palestine, rather than 50 per cent, as designated by the partition resolution of 1947.

How will the statehood bid affect the status of the refugees?  Resolution 194 of 1948 states that the Palestinians have the right to return and the right for compensation. One interpretation is that resolution 194 continues to be valid. Another interpretation is that the September 2011 resolution created two ethnic states: Israel as a Jewish state and not as a Jewish-Arab state and Palestine as a Palestinian state and not a Palestinian-Jewish state. In order to keep the order of ethnicity, the right to return, should be exercised in the new state of Palestine but without losing the right for compensation.

How will the resolution affect the Palestinian citizens of Israel? One might argue that if with the resolution of September 2011 based on the order of ethnicity of two states for two peoples, then the group rights of the Palestinians in Israel, such as cultural rights and language rights, should be exercised in the new state (of Palestine) as Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister of Israel, suggested a couple of years ago.

International human rights law is stronger than UN resolutions. It mandates that every state should treat its citizens equally and that every refugee should return to his or her homeland. Thus, the September 2011 resolution may create a new struggle between international human rights law, which the Palestinians ironically will fight to uphold, and UN resolutions which affect international relations between states.

Daniel Levy

Levy is a former advisor to Israeli cabinet ministers and is now a US-based analyst. He currently directs the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and is an editor of Foreign Policy’s Middle East channel.


This action undertaken by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation at the UN is not taken in the context of strategy, but because it has stumbled into it and is trying to reclaim some political ground. I think the bid is taking place in a strategic vacuum, and therefore my analysis of what might happen at the UN is based on this being a consequence of political frustration and anxiety, rather than intentionality.
The move is not something that is born of a trenchant critique and reassessment of a failed way of going about advancing their causes. Going to the UN would make more sense as step one in a multi-pronged strategy to bring about a national achievement.

Despite an absence of clear intentionality, if Palestinians do proceed, just winning a vote in the General Assembly, then it gives them a little more recourse to international organisations. None of this is automatic.

The only viable Palestinian path to full UN membership is via the Security Council, and that route is blocked by the certainty of a US veto. Failure at the Security Council may itself be a drawn-out process. Any application would almost certainly have to be considered by a technical committee of the whole and that could take time.

Even if they go to the Security Council, the Palestinians would then deny themselves the option of going for a win at the General Assembly during this window of heightened UN attention. They might otherwise find their entire UN moment sidestepped by extended committee deliberation.

Noura Erakat

Erakat is a human rights attorney and writer. She is currently an adjunct professor of international human rights law in the Middle East at Georgetown University and is the US-based Legal Advocacy Coordinator for the Badil Centre for Palestinian Refugee and Residency Rights.

One of the greatest concerns and the reason that [the statehood bid] has created polarisation in the Palestinian community has been that it is not clear what the objective of the statehood bid by the PLO is.


One can say that, theoretically, it is self-evident that this is something Palestinians have been working for explicitly for, their own state, since 1988 – since the PLO conference at Algiers. There was no PLO meeting to go to the UN; it was just an executive decision by the president to go through with statehood. It generates a lot of scepticism of why statehood? Why now? And what is the strategy?
The bid [for statehood] could be read as severing ties and therefore embarking on a new strategic course from bilateral negotiations to multilateral advocacy. However, because that course has not been addressed, it seems as though after statehood, Palestinians will return to bilateralism.

I have heard rumblings that there is a strong preference to go to the General Assembly rather than the Security Council. I am 110 per cent convinced that the current Palestinian leadership is not prepared to do that [go to the Security Council]. It is not whether or not the Palestinians prefer it [a state] or what it means, but the Palestinian leadership is not prepared to do this. They have been approaching statehood with extreme tunnel vision.

We should be asking: What is the right strategy more broadly at this juncture of Palestinian national determination? The aftermath of the Palestine Papers, what can confidently be called the failure of the peace process and the two-state solution, and the context of the Arab Spring, should inform what tactics and other strategies are, including statehood. In-so-far as one is concerned, whatever we do at the UN is not productive. Palestinians are setting themselves up for more risks that they do not seem adequately prepared to handle.

Dan Gillerman

Gillerman was Israel’s 13th Permanent Representative to the UN. He served in the UN from January 2002 through 2008. Gillerman is currently in New York for the 66th opening of the General Assembly.


I think Palestinians’ main objective is to try and get as many countries around the world to … recognise them. But I think it is also very much a sort of sign of protest and demonstration, because they probably feel that this is what the people expect of them. Quite frankly, I think they are making a big mistake. I know for a fact that many Palestinians, many Palestinian leaders, and even Prime Minister [Salman] Fayyad thinks it is a very bad idea. That in no way will [it] result in having their own state, but at the same time, may create very high expectations among their people.

There will be much drama at the UN, which is a theatre anyways, and, after the drama, the average Palestinian in Nablus or Ramallah or Jenin will wake up, look around him, and realise nothing has changed and will be very frustrated. That frustration could lead to violence and the derailment of any Palestinian prospect of returning to the negotiating table and continuing the peace process.

I was an ambassador at the UN for nearly six years, and I can tell you that personally I would be very happy to raise my arm and vote for a Palestinian state. I think the Palestinians deserve their own state and should have their own state. Israeli leaders have repeatedly expressed their desire for a Palestinian state, but the way to achieve that is not through a unilateral declaration of independence, with nothing more than a big act at the UN, but by negotiations and agreements. At the end of the day, they may get UN recognition, but they will not get a state.

“Basically there are two things in life that people shouldn’t do in public – make love and make peace – and they should both be done with your eyes slightly shut and the lights slightly dim.

 Dan Gillerman

One reason the peace process did not progress is that the current US administration has created among the Palestinians very high expectations. They [the US] have … first demanded an open freeze on settlements, and then demanded a return to the 1967 border. As Mahmoud Abbas said to many world leaders, Obama has perched him up on a high tree and run away with a ladder. How can he be less Palestinian than the president of the US?

Unfortunately, what we are witnessing today is speech making taking over from peacemaking. I think one of the problems is that the peace process has become so public and it has really turned from a peace process into a press conference. I think basically there are two things in life that people shouldn’t do in public – make love and make peace – and they should both be done with your eyes slightly shut and the lights slightly dim. What we do need is a very secret, discreet, and quiet back channel that will bring both parties together to the negotiating table and reach an agreement on Palestinian statehood. 

Husam Zomlot

Zomlot is a senior official in Fatah’s Department of Foreign Relations. He grew up in the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza before studying at Birzeit University in Ramallah and holds a PhD from the London School of Economics. He is currently in New York representing the PLO at the 66th UN General Assembly. 


I am supporting the bid and am part of the machine for several reasons. We have been engaged with the international community for many years and are ready for the state to come.

The bid in the very large idea has really been a contract between us, the Palestinians, and the international community, whereby by the end of it there will be a state.

According to the World Bank and IMF [International Monetary Fund] and according to UN organisations, we have done the job that prepares us for a state. We can assume the responsibility of middle-income countries. Now it is time for the other part of contract, the international community, who have contributed monetarily, to recognise us. If the state doesn’t come about bilaterally, it should multi-laterally.

There are three main benefits that have directed or inspired our move – legal, political, and strategic. Legally, this will establish a legal parity, as a state. The main idea is for defence, to prevent an attack. There is a lot of talk about the ICC and how as a state we can pursue cases through them. Our intention is not only to pursue cases, but to stop a crime from happening. Legally, a Palestinian state is a deterrent weapon. We are not going to engage in attacks like Israel does. Our deterrent is international law. Soldiers at checkpoints will think twice before hurting a lady at the border.

In political terms we have won half of the exercise. We have reinforced forcefully on the international agenda the need for a Palestinian state.

 Husam Zomlot

In political terms we have won half of the exercise. We have reinforced forcefully on the international agenda the need for a Palestinian state. It is an important cause, and nothing will guarantee it is a priority. Now every single activist and journalist has been speaking about Palestine. Thus our political cause has already been achieved.

Strategically, our interest is to challenge the status quo. You may ask: “How this will challenge the status quo? How has Israel sustained the status quo for nearly twenty years?” The bilateral process has led nowhere, and one of the tools to sustain the status quo was negotiations themselves. We stopped that, and we stopped that strategically. Negotiations under the previous terms were just prolonging negotiations. The terms of reference were created and accepted by Israel before we even started. We are not going back to the old days of nonsense.

Our destination is for full membership at the UN. We are going to go to the UN the fastest route – the fastest route that will take us to our final destination.  

Follow Roxanne Horesh on Twitter: @RoxanneHoresh

Source: Al Jazeera