Reading Time: 10 minutes


The Palestinian bid for full United Nations (UN) membership for a Palestinian state presented to the UN Security Council has come to a dead end, after it hit the obstacle of failing to obtain the nine required votes. Thus, the American administration was not compelled to use its veto power, as it had threatened; while the Palestinian leadership had not yet decided to press for a vote in the UN Security Council, to take the vote to the UN General Assembly UNGA to win the lesser position of enhanced observer status, or to take it to UN agencies to obtain full membership. The leadership is still studying the possibility of putting statehood bid to a vote, along with what this implies of facing possible defeat by not mustering the required votes, or facing an American veto in case it did; the matter which, in both cases, will have repercussions on American-Palestinian relations, especially in the second case.

Historical Background

Palestinian Attitudes

The Israeli stance

The Repercussions

Possible Scenarios


Historical Background

Particularly after the defeat of 1967, and following the Arab and international recognition, in 1974, of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, the Palestinians and the Arabs tried to use this international legitimacy in favor of the Palestinian issue, through international law and UN resolutions. In spite of the historical injustice present in these resolutions regarding the Palestinian national historical and natural rights, they contain the minimum of these rights represented by: the right of the Palestinian people to self- determination, including their right to establish a Palestinian state within the 1967 lines, and the refugees’ right of return and compensation, based on UN Resolution 194.

Many resolutions were passed that reaffirmed past international resolutions that preserve the rights of Palestinians. New resolutions were passed that confirmed these rights, while tens of draft resolutions that came to the UN Security Council faced a US veto.

First there was the signing of the Oslo Accords and all the big concessions therein, among them bilateral negotiations independent of the UN and other international institutions, and until the end of the transitional period stipulated in the accords, without reaching a final agreement. Then came the failure of the Camp David Summit in which the American former President Bill Clinton tried to save the “peace process,” before its total collapse. There followed Israeli aggression against the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its late president Yasir ‘Arafat. After all of the above, the PLO returned to international institutions, and obtained a legal advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, which constituted an enormous political and legal treasure that can be used not only against the Wall but also against the occupation, being considered illegitimate and illegal. Consequently, this ruling can be applied against everything the occupation did, the settlements, walls and fences, confiscation and annexation, cutting up the land, in addition to other policies and measures that are illegitimate and illegal.

The advisory opinion of ICJ was not activated, in spite of its being an important weapon; because betting on negotiations has returned with force, particularly after the death of Yasir ‘Arafat on 11/11/2004. Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians resumed in 2008, and were conducted throughout that year, but failed to reach an agreement.  Then negotiations were resumed on 9/9/2010, but they too collapsed and ended in failure.

After a series of negotiations ended in failure and the peace process collapsed, the Palestinian leadership was convinced of the necessity to go to the UN to obtain membership for Palestinian statehood, and for the following reasons:

First: there was something “like an American promise” uttered by the American President Barack Obama in his annual speech during the opening of the annual UNGA Session in September 2010, in which he held out hope that “when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations — an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.”

Second: a statement was issued by the Quartet in which it expressed its strong support for the resumption of the bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which should lead within a year to an agreement that includes the establishment of a Palestinian state by September 2010.

Third: The plan approved by the PA, Ending the Occupation, Establishing the State, aimed at ending the occupation and fulfilling the requirements for a Palestinian state, is a two-year plan that ends in September 2011.

Following the repercussions of the Goldstone report, the features of a Palestinian policy began to take shape. This became evident in the speech delivered by the Palestinian President Mahmud ‘Abbas in the 2010 Arab Summit in Sirte. There he spoke about seven options; among them, resorting to the UN for help and not as an alternative to negotiations, which are, as he continuously repeats, his first, second and third options.

The new policy became more pronounced after the Arab Spring began, and after the American administration and the Quartet reneged on their promises, and with the start of a pressing Palestinian youth movement to end the split.

The Palestinian leadership left the details of its trip to the UN vague, especially regarding whether it will continue in that direction, or agree to resume negotiations. Or what will it do? Will it submit the request to the UN Security Council first or to the UNGA? This ambiguity reached the point that sometimes it would insist on obtaining full membership, and other times it would imply that this is a mere maneuver aimed at improving the American and European stances, in order to put pressure on Israel to go along with the Palestinians’ demands, for the sake of resuming negotiations. That its real intent is to submit a request to the UNGA seeking enhanced observer status. Finally it resolved the matter by submitting a bid for Palestinian statehood to the UN Security Council.

Palestinian Attitudes

There were mixed Palestinian reactions to heading to the UN:

-The PLO, along with broad public circles, considered it a change in the traditional policy adopted since the signing of the Oslo Accords that deserves support. 

– Other political and public sectors warned of the danger of such a step lest the UN bid to recognize the Palestinian state prejudice the right of self-determination for all the Palestinian people, their right of return and the standing of the PLO. This is based on the assumption that if the Palestinian request is accepted, the Palestine seat, currently occupied by the PLO, will be occupied by the Palestinian state.

– Furthermore, a third Palestinian political and public sectors rejected this step in principle, because it consecrates ceding 78% of Palestine and recognizes Israel as a Jewish state, as referred to in UN Resolution 181, and prejudices the refugees’ right of return. Furthermore, it is a unilateral step, done without the participation of other factions and sectors that are not part of the PLO, in particular Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) movements. Also it comes in the light of the continued schism that will hurt the Palestinian bid’s chances of success.

This is indeed what happened; for a report by a UN Security Council subcommittee looking into the Palestinian bid said that the Palestinian state does not exercise its sovereignty over part of the population and over 40% of the land where the Palestinian state is to be established. This rationalization was used by the states that threatened to reject the bid or abstain if it came to a vote.

A look at the Palestinian map in light of the UN Palestinian bid, in particular after the important historical speech delivered by Mahmud ‘Abbas in the UNGA, we find that the bid has enjoyed broad support. However, in all factions without exception, even in Fatah and the PLO, there were voices that supported, rejected, or were reserved with regard to it, for principled or tactical reasons. For there are those who wish to return to bases and principles; others give priority to unity; and yet others have reservations, being convinced that going to the UN is useless (whether to the UN Security Council or UNGA, to either or both), because it leads to a sharp confrontation with the US and Israel, and lessen the chances of resuming negotiations.

The bid was submitted to the UN Security Council in spite of Arab calls and the European initiative, specifically France, which asked that the bid be submitted to the UNGA in exchange for European support; provided not to resort to the Security Council, resume negotiations, and not submit requests to join UN agencies. All of the above proves that the Palestinian leadership is keen on gaining full membership, while simultaneously, it does not wish to enter into a confrontation with the American administration that opposes going to the UN Security Council and UNGA, even if the latter option is less embarrassing to it as it lets it avoid using its veto.
It also proves that the Palestinian leadership is committed to negotiations, and going to the UN is not a substitute for them, rather it enhances the prospects of their resumption. This makes going to the UN a mere tactic to improve the chances of resuming the negotiations and not a new integrated strategy.
It is not hard to obtain the lesser position of enhanced observer status from the UNGA, even without meeting the conditions of the European initiative. This is because the needed majority for a decision by the UNGA is guaranteed. For in tallying the votes, those states for and against are counted, while those absent or had abstained are not counted.

Changing the Palestine seat at the UN from that of an observer entity to an observer state may allow it to accede to international agreements and obtain full membership in UN agencies. This will also enhance Palestine’s political and legal standing and help the Palestinian position which calls the territories, of the state about to be recognized, occupied and not disputed. There is nothing that prevents submitting the bid to the Security Council over and over again, until it is approved. However, attention should be paid to legal repercussions, of which Palestinian, Arab and international parties had warned.

The Israeli stance

Israel is absolutely opposed to referring the Arab-Israeli conflict to the UN, because it realizes that UN participation will bring in international law and UN resolutions, putting their weight in the service of the Palestinian issue. This will satisfy the Palestinian demand to base the negotiations on an international authority that enforces implementation and not merely negotiating. For this is the policy that successive Israeli governments had followed and led to the erosion of the Palestinian negotiating position, ranging from the declaration of independence and the national plan approved by the Palestinian National Council in Algiers in 1988, approval of the principles of land swap, dividing Jerusalem, annexing settlement blocs, and finding a fair solution “agreed upon” to the refugee problem according to the Clinton parameters, which fail to include the refugees’ right of return to their homes and properties, without putting the blame on Israel and let it bear the legal, historical, and political responsibility for what have been happening to them since the Nakbah and until now.
Israel has always preferred bilateral negotiations, away from international law and UN resolutions; and without the participation of any other party, even the US. That is because it wants to face the Palestinians alone, so that the Palestinian negotiator will find himself weak and helpless in the face of the gross imbalance in the balance of power, the accelerating pace of expansion and settlement plans that threaten whatever hope there remains in reaching a balanced solution.

The Repercussions

It is noticed that going to the UN and becoming a full member of UNESCO led to a temporary freeze of US aid to Palestinians and to withholding the transfer of tax revenues owed to the PA and collected by Israel, totaling $100 million a month, and representing two thirds of Palestinian revenues. These Israeli and American measures may lead to undermining the PA and prejudicing the role of the Palestinian security forces that have security coordination and cooperation with the Israeli forces. These measures may also lead the Palestinians to look for other options and alternatives far from bilateral negotiations, such as returning to the option of resistance, even if popular resistance, and to the campaigns to boycott Israel. Other alternatives could be threatening to dissolve the PA or reconsider its form, functions and commitments, or achieving national reconciliation and recovering the Arab dimension of the Palestinian issue.

The PA has taken several measures that reflected frustration over the impasse in the peace process. It organized a campaign to boycott products made in Israeli WB settlements. It also called for intensifying popular resistance and expanding the boycott campaigns, and on 4/5/2011, it signed a national reconciliation agreement in Cairo. On 22/12/2011, a provisional PLO leadership was established, which includes Hamas, the PIJ and other factions. Today, there are increasing calls for the complete implementation of the national reconciliation agreement. If this was done democratically, and on the basis of real partnership and common grounds, it would strengthen the Palestinians and add to their inviolability in the face of American and Israeli threats and pressures.

On the other hand, the PA made a commitment to not take any unilateral step in the UN, in particular, not to present any new requests to the UN General Assembly and its agencies, and to postpone the formation of a Palestinian consensus government until after 26/1/2012 (the deadline set by the Quartet for Israel and the Palestinians to submit their views on borders and security). This means that the PA wants to keep its options to return to the negotiations open. As for Israel, it will not submit its vision of the peace settlement unless the direct bilateral negotiations are resumed. The American administration supports this position, for it called once again for resuming negotiations first.

Possible Scenarios

The first scenario: continuing to submit the bid to the UN Security Council, but not call for a vote on it until the required votes are obtained, which is impossible now and could become harder with the coming of the new year. In 2012, five countries will no longer be members of the UN Security Council, four of which were likely to vote in favor of the Palestinian bid. Five new countries will replace them, three of which will vote in its favor.

This scenario has the possibility of putting statehood bid to a vote, even if it failed to obtain the nine required votes. Then submitting the request to the Security Council a second, and a third time, and so on, until it gets approved and Palestine acquires full membership.

This scenario embarrasses the US, but it does not lead to any American-Palestinian confrontation; thus it is likely in light of the facts currently on the table.

The second scenario: putting Palestinian statehood bid to a vote and obtaining the required votes or more. This leads to a US veto and results in a Palestinian confrontation with the American administration that does not want to appear to the world, especially after the Arab spring, as a party that stands against the right of the Palestinian people to determine their destiny and establish their state. This is especially so, as the US, years ago, had supported its establishment, and considered that to be an American strategic and security interest. This scenario is unlikely unless some of the countries that are planning to abstain changed their position.

The third scenario: submitting a request for an enhanced observer status in the UNGA, with or without submitting requests for full membership in UN agencies. This scenario leads to a less acute Palestinian confrontation with the US and Israel. However, it could lead to suspension of aid, freezing relations, and withholding the transfer of tax revenues to the PA.


1. The need to adhere to the Palestinian position of a complete moratorium on settlement activity, and to approve the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 lines as a prerequisite for resuming negotiations; and to consider the above the Palestinian national position’s minimum requirements.

2. To submit requests for an enhanced observer status in the UNGA and its agencies, and not succumb to American and Israeli threats and sanctions. To put the Palestinian request to a vote, and repeating the process, no matter whether this request faces America’s veto or does not get the required nine votes.

3. To adopt an effective policy in the UN, based on the implementation and activation of all the resolutions and recommendations relative to the Palestinian issue, including the legal advisory opinion from the ICJ and the Goldstone report.

4. Give precedence to ending the schism, implementing the reconciliation agreement and restoring national unity.

5. To Stress that resorting to the UN in no way means waiving any of the inalienable and legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, including liberation of their land, the refugees’ right of return, the right of self-determination and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Al-Zaytouna Center thanks Mr. Hani al-Masri for authoring the original text on which this Strategic Assessment is based.

The Arabic version of this Assessment was published on 22/12/2011.