from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

The PLO and the UN

September 07, 2012

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Palestinian president and PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas has announced that he will seek to upgrade the PLO’s status at the UN when the General Assembly meets this month.

Previous efforts to attain full UN membership were blocked by the United States in the Security Council. But the General Assembly can elevate the PLO’s status from "observer" to "non-member observer state." This is the status the Vatican has, and others—such as Austria—have held this status in the past before joining the UN.

The Jerusalem Post summed up the story this way:

"I am going this month to the UN General Assembly in light of the latest decision in Doha, the Islamic summit and the Non-Aligned Movement summit," Abbas told reporters at the Arab League. He was referring to meetings in recent weeks of Arab ministers in Qatar, Islamic states in Saudi Arabia and the Non-Aligned Movement in Iran.

Is this a smart move for the Palestinians? Perhaps not. Elevation to “state” status may allow them to join other UN organizations, but when they joined UNESCO the United States defunded that organization—costing it the 22 percent of its budget we pay. Will other UN agencies be happy to pay the same price to elevate the PLO’s status? Will the Palestinians win friends in the UN system by forcing that issue?

Being called a “state” by the General Assembly may also permit the PLO, or Palestine, to bring cases in the International Criminal Court (ICC). Only states can do that, and the ICC has previously refused cases from the PLO. The Palestinians have a far stronger case to be considered a “state” for ICC purposes if the General Assembly gives them that status. But then what? Will they bring case after case against Israeli generals and other officials, with allegations of “war crimes” and the like? Those who say "no, they won’t, but the threat of doing so enhances their ability to deter Israeli behavior they don’t like" should think twice. Won’t they—if there is considerable public pressure to do so? How would PLO officials explain to the press and public, after some incident, why they were not bring an action in the Hague? The pressure may be irresistible.

And if they do bring such cases, the main effect will be to embitter Israeli-Palestinian relations. How does an Israeli official explain some gesture of accommodation or friendship at a moment when he, or his colleagues, are being accused of terrible crimes by the very Palestinian officials with whom they are supposed to be working?

So the decision to proceed in New York may not be so clever, and the “victory” of achieving “non-member state” status in the United Nations may be hollow indeed. On the ground in the West Bank, in the real world, it will not improve the life of one Palestinian.