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The Stakes in Palestinians' Statehood Bid

Author: Deborah Jerome, Deputy Editor
September 20, 2011

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Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority, has affirmed plans to pursue Palestinian statehood (Politico) at the United Nations this week, addressing the General Assembly on September 23. He will follow with a formal request to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. If the fifteen-member Security Council fails to support the plan, Abbas will ask the General Assembly to upgrade Palestinian status from an "entity" to a "non-member state," conferring some of the privileges of statehood, including possible membership in UN agencies and in the International Criminal Court.

Efforts by the United States and other members of the Quartet of Middle East mediators to avert a UN showdown and coax Palestinians and Israelis back to the negotiating table have been fruitless. More than one hundred countries have pledged to support the Palestinian bid for statehood (VOA) based on 1967 borders, and a recent BBC poll in nineteen countries shows strong support for a Palestinian state.

The move heightens tensions with Israel, which is also worried about increased regional isolation (Economist) in the wake of frayed relations with Egypt and Turkey. Israel has threatened to nullify the 1993 Oslo Accords, which stipulate that neither side could unilaterally change the status of the West Bank. The bid also aggravates relations with the United States, which could threaten to withdraw roughly $500 million in annual funding to the Palestinian Authority. Finally, it puts Abbas on a collision course with the Hamas leadership in Gaza, which opposes the membership bid and fears any recognition of Israel or compromise on the right of return of Palestinian refugees. However, Abbas believes that the risk is worth it (NYT) because a vote for statehood would mean that "Palestine would be negotiating from the position of one United Nations member whose territory is militarily occupied by another."

Many experts agree that while statehood could confer some benefits to the Palestinians, it is hardly a shortcut to settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and creates its own set of problems. "Attaining some form of UN membership for Palestine could indeed enhance the Palestinian leadership's leverage in final-status negotiations with Israel," writes CFR's Robert Danin in Foreign Affairs. He argues that it also could trigger an Israeli public backlash and undermine the West Bank successes of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who has enhanced security and economic development there. In an interview with CFR.org, Ziad J. Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine, believes all sides want to avoid a showdown at the UN, and the "problem is to find something that would give the Palestinians a way out with dignity and some gains."

Khaled Elgindy of the Brookings Institution says the United States should use the looming crisis as an opportunity to reset the approach to settling the conflict. "It should seek to preempt the UN vote by working with other key international actors to develop a bold, new initiative that spells out the requirements for a comprehensive resolution to the conflict (the outlines of which are already known) and then marshaling broad international support for it," he writes. And in a video interview, CFR's Steven A. Cook believes that the statehood declaration, "perhaps for the first time, [lets us] look at territories to the east of the green line as Palestine and to the west as Israel. That is an achievement the U.S. should work with."

Another approach, put forward by former Israeli cabinet minister Isaac Herzog, is that "Israel could achieve its own desperately needed diplomatic coup" by voting for Palestinian statehood under certain conditions. Herzog worries that Israeli rejection of the statehood resolution could mean that "Israel could be forced to respond to unrest in a way that deepens its international isolation."

Still, the general consensus is that only direct talks will lead to the Israeli and Palestinian states that have long been the expressed goal of both sides. "We continue to believe and are pressing the point that the only way to a two-state solution, which is what we support and want to see happen, is through negotiations," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton while in New York for UN-related meetings September 19. Former British prime minister Tony Blair, the Quartet envoy, says (BBC), "It's only if the two sides sit down together in negotiation that we're going to get what the Palestinians really need, which is a viable Palestinian state, and what the Israelis need, which is a state that guarantees Israel's security."

Background Materials

"The Palestinian Bid for UN Membership: Rationale, Response, Repercussions," David Makovsky

"Curb Your Enthusiasm: Israel and Palestine After the UN," International Crisis Group

"Palestine and the Arab Spring," Hanan Ashrawi and Marwan Muasher

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