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Questioning the Wisdom of Palestine’s Statehood Bid

By Tanner Huggins, Transatlantic Security Analyst


The prospect of Palestinian statehood has caused a furor of diplomatic activity recently as the UN Security Council’s voting date on the issue approaches. Since Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Monday that he would not be deterred from seeking UN recognition of Palestine as a state, arguments for and against the possibility have been bandied about from all sides. Two disparate conclusions have arisen: one, argued for by proponents, says that the peace process can move forward only by changing the nature of the negotiations to put Palestine on equal footing with Israel. The other, argued by opponents of the bid in Israel and the United States, claims that negotiations can only be effective if they are done bilaterally, through direct negotiations between Jerusalem and Ramallah. The situation may well be lose-lose, no matter how it is resolved: as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted, “No matter what does or doesn’t happen this week, it will not produce the kind of result that everyone is hoping for.” From a purely pragmatic perspective, the search for recognition alone may be what is most damaging to the peace process.

The recent controversy about the bid has its origins in part in November of 2010, when President Obama “alluded to the prospect of a Palestinian state joining [the UN].” Though many interpreted the remarks as hopeful support of the proposal, the US has been doing all in its power to block any bid for full UN membership. The impasse is due in large part to the contention that the bid was not the product of any negotiations with Israel, but rather, in the words of Palestinian Ambassador to Lebanon Abdullah Abdullah, an attempt by Palestine to “change the rules of the game” instead of finding solutions to its problems.

However, it is not ultimately clear, as Georgetown Adjunct Professor of international human rights law in the Middle East Nourah Erakat notes, “what the objective of the statehood bid” by the Palestinians actually is. Part of the argument is that, by approaching the table as state with equal status within the community of nations, Palestinian bargaining power will be increased. The recognition of statehood, though still largely symbolic, would call attention to the Israeli settlement process and place the PA, at least internationally, on a more equal footing with Israel. Without a change in strategy, though, international recognition will change little ‘on the ground,’ and with staunch resistance from the United States and Israel it will certainly not introduce any momentum into the peace process.

Given that the possibility of Abbas backing down on the proposal seems slim, what would it mean if the bid were passed? One question that arises from the possibility of Palestinian statehood is the issue of legitimacy, as posited by Guy Goodwin-Gill, Professor of public international law at Oxford University. His argument is that, given the “imposed, top-down” nature of the Palestinian Authority, a transition of that organization into the “State of Palestine” would not account for the will of the Palestinian people as a whole. Where, he asks, is the legitimacy of the state, given the lack of meaningful elections? In light of the ‘Arab Spring,’ this question is increasingly relevant – even pro-Palestinian groups note that there is no such thing as a “collective Palestinian entity,” and popular support for the UN statehood proposal isn’t necessarily forthcoming. Would these same Palestinians, gifted with statehood, stand in solidarity with a government that doesn’t necessarily represent their interests?

Of course, that question may well be academic, as President Obama has thus far done nothing to indicate that the US will reconsider its veto; in fact, he has done quite the opposite. Even though the bid has support from China, Russia, Brazil, and more, the lack of US and Israeli support — and the apparently successful attempts by the US to woo the UK around to its position — means that, at least in regards to the Security Council, the bid is already dead in the water. The European Union has remained noncommittal throughout the process, but seems unlikely to favor a General Assembly bid. The EU’s Foreign Affairs representative Catherine Ashton has said that since “there is no resolution on the table yet…there is no [EU] position.” UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, speaking on behalf of his government  and “all the other 26 countries of the European Union,” has said that the “only real way forward” is for the two states to return to the negotiating table.

Given a zero-percent chance of success in the Security Council, then, does it make sense for Abbas and the Palestinian Authority to go forward with the plan? Abbas and the PA appear to have much more to lose than to gain. Though recognition through the General Assembly may well be a symbolic victory for the PA, the price of that victory — an incensed Israel, a United States forced to exert its veto despite being loath to the possibility, and no meaningful change in resolving long-term issues like resources, settlement, and the state of East Jerusalem — would make any recognition Pyrrhic at best.

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