By Rashid Khalidi, Al-Jadaliyya – 29 June 2011
There is much interest in what will happen regarding Palestine at the United Nations in September. Contrary to much of what has been written on this subject, this is not a matter of “declaring” Palestinian statehood. The PLO already declared the independence of Palestine in 1988. Like many things in life, this is something you can only do once. Moreover, this already proclaimed state of Palestine did not and does not enjoy sovereignty, jurisdiction or control over the territory it claims. Nor do either the PLO, which proclaimed this state, or the Palestinian Authority. The latter is an interim self-governing authority (whose legal existence technically lapsed in 1999 in accordance with the terms of the Oslo Accords) that in practice is fully under the authority of Israel.
Israel is the only entity with any of the attributes of sovereignty in any part of the territory of former Mandatory Palestine, although it has no internationally recognized sovereign rights in the occupied territories or in any part of Jerusalem, East or West. Israel has de facto military jurisdiction and control over the occupied territories, subject to the 4th Geneva Convention (which it constantly flouts). This jurisdiction and control is subject only to the provisions of accords with the PLO, which Israel has routinely violated, such that in practice they do not constitute serious constraints on its freedom of action. It is vital to stress these points, because they mean that irrespective of what happens at the UN in September, the state of Palestine is not now and will not soon become a real state in any meaningful sense of that word.
If this is true, what then are actually the possible outcomes of the diplomatic maneuvers the PLO/PA are currently engaged in? Palestine would presumably be applying for UN membership as a state under occupation within certain boundaries, specifically the 1949 armistice lines that were in force until June 5, 1967. Although it is still denied sovereignty by the occupying power, in the intervening years since 1988 the putative state of Palestine has come to fulfill more of the requirements of statehood under international law as set down in the 1933 Montevideo Convention. Specifically, it has a permanent population; a defined territory within the 1967 lines; a government in the form of the PA; and the capacity to enter into relations with other states, notably the 120 states that already recognize the state of Palestine, and fifteen others that have diplomatic relations with the PLO.
However, before an application for full membership of a state in the United Nations can be voted on by the General Assembly, where it must obtain a 2/3 majority vote by member states (there are currently 192), it has to pass through the Security Council. That avenue seems blocked, with the Obama administration guaranteed to veto such an application less than fourteen months from a presidential election, irrespective of the merits of the case (where Palestine is concerned, the merits of the case have mattered little to US policy-makers since 1947). There has been mention of using the “Uniting for Peace” mechanism developed around the time of the Korean War, whereby a resolution can be sent to the General Assembly to get around an obstruction that threatens world peace in the Security Council. Another idea has been to treat the membership of Palestine as a procedural matter (on which there is no veto). Neither of these seems to be a serious alternative. No state has ever been admitted to the UN in these ways, and there may not be a Security Council majority (9 votes are required irrespective of the veto) in any case.
So presumably even if the PLO follows this course, it will fail to obtain full UN membership because of the obstruction in the Security Council of the United States, and perhaps of its British and French allies. The PLO will thereafter have to do something else, once the application of the state of Palestine for full UN membership has been vetoed, if it ever comes to a vote. This brings us to the question of what the objective of this exercise is in the first place. If it is simply intended to produce another inoperative and unenforceable General Assembly resolution on the desirability of the independence of a Palestinian state, and of its membership in the United Nations, that can certainly be achieved. It might even be possible for a Palestinian state to be accepted as an “observer state” in the United Nations, which only requires a simple majority in the General Assembly.
However, at least equally urgent issues for consideration as General Assembly resolutions are the unceasing expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories and the dangerous and deteriorating situation in Jerusalem. The Holy City is the scene of menacing and accelerating settlement activity in the Arab neighborhoods of Shaykh Jarrah, Silwan, and Abu Dis; disturbing underground excavations and new construction in the Old City in the vicinity of the Haram al-Sharif, including at the Bab al-Maghariba gate to the Haram; and further encroachments on the oldest Muslim burial-ground in the city, the Mamilla Cemetery, where permission has just been granted for the building of a massive “Center for Human Dignity/Museum of Tolerance” on the site of graves going back at least to the 11th century, and where Jerusalem Municipality bulldozers were destroying yet more ancient gravestones on June 25-26, 2011.
Obtaining General Assembly resolutions on all of these issues with large majorities, including European and other countries that normally back Israel, would certainly be a worthy objective. However, if the objective is to do more than that, then membership of Palestine in the United Nations and the other two issues should be suggested for consideration not just by the General Assembly but also by the Security Council, notwithstanding the fact that they will face an inevitable US veto. This should be the case, if the aim is to finally declare independence of a bankrupt American-Israeli dominated “peace process” that is grotesquely misnamed. Far from bringing about peace, it has brought about a twenty-year process of deepening occupation and colonization and postponing resolution of the core issues of Jerusalem and refugees, while enabling Israel to do everything possible to establish a status quo that obviates their just resolution.
If this kind of declaration of independence is the basic objective, then winning a Security Council majority on carefully worded resolutions, and forcing US vetoes on them makes a great deal of sense. It is certain that such vetoes will do the US considerable harm in the Arab world, even with some close American allies (in this regard it is worth noting the recent opinion editorial by Saudi prince Turki al-Faisal that was highly critical of US policy over Palestine). The United States is sure to bring all its considerable influence to bear to avoid such resolutions being brought before the Council for just this reason. But the fact that such a course would clarify the situation, and finally extract a small price for the United States’ shameless pandering to Israel, is precisely the reason why this is a course to be seriously considered.
There will certainly be disadvantages to such a strategy. The Obama administration is sure to retaliate against both Palestinians and Arabs for having the temerity to follow an independent course. Congress will undoubtedly outbid the administration in its expression of outrage and demands for retribution. Israel will extract its usual vengeance for any measure not to its liking with more “facts on the ground” and the imposition of penalties on the Palestinian Authority. Instead of this punishment giving rise to lamentation and despair, it could be the occasion for greater Palestinian and Arab solidarity and further sacrifice in response to the material sanctions sure to be imposed.
This might even constitute the occasion for the beginning of the first serious attempt since the Balfour Declaration to explain the Palestinian cause fully and properly to the entire world. This must take place not in terms of the arcane and incomprehensible legal minutiae of the so-called “peace process,” but via laying out the basic components of the Palestine cause, buttressed by international law, that this process was ingeniously designed to obscure. These are the need to seek justice for the victims of ethnic cleansing 63 years ago through guaranteeing inalienable refugee rights; the need for Jerusalem to be free of the discriminatory, exclusive control of a domineering Israeli state and for the city to belong to all those who live and worship there and see it as their capital; the need for a definitive end to occupation and colonization in the occupied territories that have now entered their 45th year; and achieving long-delayed self-determination for the Palestinian people.
Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, is the author, most recently, of The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood; he is also a member of the IOA Advisory Board.