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How Palestinians will use the GA to advance statehood
By DAVID HOROVITZ
03/25/2011
Editor's Notes: Israel’s complacent assumption has been that even an overwhelming vote to establish ‘Palestine’ at the GA in September would have merely ‘declaratory’ impact. Wrong. Jerusalem had forgotten about UNGA Resolution 377.
 
Early in the Korean War, frustrated that the Soviet Union’s repeated use of its UN Security Council veto was thwarting council action to protect South Korea, the United States initiated what became known as the UN General Assembly’s “Uniting for Peace” resolution.

Adopted in November 1950, UNGA Resolution 377 provides that, should the five permanent members of the Security Council find themselves at odds, rendering the council incapable of exercising its “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security,” the General Assembly can step into the breach. If the Security Council’s permanent members cannot reach unanimity, it elaborates, and “there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression,” the General Assembly can fill the vacuum by issuing its own “appropriate recommendations” for “collective measures” to be taken by individual states – right up to and including “the use of armed force when necessary, to maintain or restore international peace and security.”

The “Uniting for Peace” Resolution is no dead letter. It was employed, most notably, in 1981, to outflank the Security Council and recommend both sanctions against South Africa for preventing Namibian independence, and assistance, including military assistance, for those seeking Namibian independence.

It should be stressed: The GA’s authority under the resolution is not binding, but it can certainly press supportive countries to take action, and in 1981 it did just that. It called upon member states “to render increased and sustained support and material, financial, military and other assistance to the South West Africa People’s Organization to enable it to intensify its struggle for the liberation of Namibia.” And it urged member states to immediately cease “all dealings with South Africa in order totally to isolate it politically, economically, militarily and culturally.”

The passage of that resolution, says Richard Schifter, a former US assistant secretary of state for human rights who spent years representing the US in various UN forums, “was a significant step in the process of imposing sanctions on apartheid South Africa and delegitimizing the country.”

Which is where, as you’ve doubtless figured out by now, Israel and the Palestinians come in.

AS ISRAEL’S most recent ambassador to the United Nations, Gabriela Shalev, explained to me this week, the existence of UNGA Resolution 377, and the precedents for its use, mean that “those who believe that the UN General Assembly’s deliberations are of a solely declarative importance are mistaken.”

The GA, under “Uniting for Peace,” has teeth.

Furthermore, Shalev acknowledged, Israel only “just found out about this” – thanks, she said, to research done by Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi’s The Israel Project.

But the Palestinians have plainly been reading the UN’s small print rather better for rather longer. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat even referred to the possible use of the “Uniting for Peace” resolution in comments to the Ma’an news agency late last year.

In Shalev’s estimation, and in that of several other experts with whom I spoke this week, including veteran American diplomat Schifter, the Palestinian leadership is moving serenely toward invoking precisely this resolution in September.

The Palestinian leadership, that is, anticipating that the US will veto its unilateral bid for statehood at the Security Council, will take the matter to the General Assembly. There it will push for the necessary two-thirds GA support for recognizing “Palestine,” presumably along the pre-1967 lines and with a “right of return” for refugees, under a “Uniting for Peace” resolution to ensure global action.

And in the unanimous assessment of those with whom I spoke, the consequences for Israel should this approach succeed – international pressure to accept the GA resolution, backed by potential sanctions and boycott action, and who knows what else – could be profoundly damaging.

MAHMOUD ABBAS’S Palestinian Authority has made no secret of its intention to secure UN support for the establishment of Palestine by September.

Veteran negotiator Erekat reiterated only this week – in comments that were noticed and circulated to all Israeli legations by the Foreign Ministry on Tuesday – that “the Palestinian leadership institutions (the PLO and Fatah) have decided to submit a request to the UN for recognition of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, with its capital in East Jerusalem.” The matter was now in the hands of Abbas, Erekat said, but added that “Palestine” needed to submit its request for full membership to the Security Council “as soon as possible.” Then the council, in turn, would “ask the member states of the UN General Assembly to recognize the State of Palestine.”

Such recognition, according to Erekat, would mean that “Palestine” would no longer be a matter of “disputed lands,” but rather a state under occupation. Since “Palestine” had “a permanent population, defined territory (even if that does not involve permanent borders), an effective government and the ability to establish international relations,” in Erekat’s assessment, it would meet the standards defined for a state under the terms of the Montevideo Convention of 1933 on the rights and duties of states.

“The current peace process as it has been conducted so far is over,” the PA’s Foreign Minister Riad Malki elaborated candidly on Tuesday, in a talk at Tel Aviv University sponsored by the Peres Center for Peace. And Malki proceeded to set out a strategy that all but specified Resolution 377.

If the kind of state the Palestinians seek were not attained through negotiation by September, he stated, “then the international community will take this issue to the United Nations… What I’m trying to say is, it won’t be us, it will be the international community that will say it is overdue that we come to recognize a Palestinian state.”

THE PALESTINIANS’ unilateral push for statehood is set to begin with a resolution at the Security Council – possibly toward the fall, possibly much earlier.

Israel was anticipating that the resolution would fail there, that a similar resolution would gain widespread but non-binding support at the GA in September, that Israel’s international legitimacy would be knocked down another notch or two, but that the unilateral approach would then reach a dead end, with the US and the rest of the key international players pressing the sides to come back to the negotiating table to resolve their differences. The possibility of the “Uniting for Peace” resolution providing practical backing for UNGA recognition of Palestine is now, extremely belatedly, starting to shock some of the relevant players in Israel, though not all, out of their complacency.

Prof. Shalev, now back at Ono Academic College, where she is president of the Higher Academic Council, told me she has no ongoing connection with her former employers at the Foreign Ministry. But she assured me they were now well aware of the diplomatic danger, and was confident that incoming UN ambassador Ron Prosor – “a wonderful appointment,” she sensibly observed – would move to grapple with the challenge.

Other insiders with whom I spoke this week were rather less confident that Jerusalem had got the message, with one of them anonymously urging Israel to “get its head out of the sand,” and another suggesting dryly that, for all the traditional derision, “I’d be happy if Israel started to engage in the ‘Umm Shmum’ aspect.”

Some Israeli diplomatic sources with whom I spoke this week asserted, indeed, that it was “debatable” whether the Palestinians would even go the GA route, since “their gains might be far less significant than the problems it would cause them… because it would free us [to take unilateral action].”

ALL IS far from lost, but it could be if Israel does not muster an effective response to the Palestinian strategy. And the first key forum is the Security Council.

Would-be nations gain their membership in the General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council, pointed out Schifter, who now chairs the board of directors of the American Jewish International Relations Institute. And it is a safe bet that the Palestinian strategists, in drafting their resolution calling for the Security Council to recognize Palestine, will do their linguistic best to make it hard for the 15 Security Council members to say no.

It is assumed they will invoke relevant UN resolutions. They will employ comments and statements made by world leaders in support of Palestine. Says Shalev: “They’ll use words that [US Ambassador to the UN Susan] Rice, [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton, [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel and others have used in support of the Palestinians.”

The Palestinians will have taken great pleasure in witnessing the difficulty the United States had in bringing itself to use its veto to block last month’s anti-settlement resolution – which was essentially a trial run for the statehood bid.

And they will feel that they are heading toward a win-win situation. Either the necessary nine or more of the 15 Security Council members will vote for “Palestine,” in which case their diplomatic operation will have been a spectacular success. Or the US will be forced to utilize its veto, and they will then move on to the General Assembly, with that “Uniting for Peace” resolution in their armory.

The best way for Israel to prevent any of that happening would be to achieve what is currently viewed as almost a mission impossible: to persuade at least seven of the 15 Security Council members to vote no, to abstain, or to absent themselves. That way, the statehood resolution would fail, the US would not have to employ its veto, and there would be no possibility for the Palestinians to claim Security Council deadlock and thus invoke “Uniting for Peace” in the General Assembly.

Why almost mission impossible? Because Israel has very few solid friends in the international diplomatic community these days, and even fewer among the 15 current Security Council nations.

Most Israelis may well believe that the failure to make progress in negotiations with the Palestinians stems from the other side’s refusal to take positions that would guarantee Israel’s physical and demographic security alongside the proposed Palestine. Most Israelis may well believe that the Palestinian leadership has neither encouraged its people to accept the Jewish right to statehood, nor accepted this right itself, and has maintained an environment in which terrorists who target Israelis are regarded as role models.

But the sad fact is that most of the international diplomatic community simply doesn’t accept this narrative, and tends increasingly to blame strong, sovereign Israel for failing to grant independence to the weak, stateless Palestinians. Rocket attacks from Gaza, bombings at bus stops in Jerusalem, even horrific murders of fathers, mothers, children and babies in their homes, are evaluated in that context.

So there is certainly no automatic, or even readily attainable, blocking vote in the Security Council for the Palestinians’ demand for statehood, even if the establishment of that “state” is being sought while the core issues of dispute with neighboring Israel remain unresolved.

ISRAEL MAY be troubled by aspects of our relationship with the Obama administration, but as far as I can ascertain, of the 15 countries that will be asked to vote on the issue of “Palestine” sometime in the very near future, the only country that Jerusalem is confident will take our side is America. Says Shalev frankly, “We’ve never stopped trying, but I’m not sure we can get the votes we need to oppose a Security Council resolution on Palestinian statehood.” Without wishing to be quoted, current Israeli diplomatic sources sound still more pessimistic.

Who else might, nonetheless, deprive the Palestinians of the nine “yes” votes they need? Based on voting records and other impressions, China, Brazil, India, Lebanon and South Africa are evidently considered beyond all hope.

Colombia is deemed a possible ally. But the vital countries with the capacity to sway others, say Schifter and others, are Germany, France and the UK. Might Germany be prepared to say “no” to unilateral UN establishment of Palestine? Maybe, say some, if Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu can persuade Merkel that he is truly prepared to put flesh on his skeletal talk of a two-state solution.

If Germany joins the US, say several people with whom I spoke, the UK and France might reasonably do the same. Bosnia might then conceivably follow. Schifter speculates that if the French really want to help, they might bring over
Gabon. Then there’s Portugal, which has privately been sounding noncommittal but might be wooable, or, just perhaps, the Russians. Either of those two, and the job would be done. The final member of the 15, Nigeria, some suggest, may not be beyond reach either.

Lots of ifs.

One key to the success of this diplomatic battle, chorus all those with whom I’ve talked, is how hard the US works to bring others on board. It has several interests in doing so. Foremost among them, its own longstanding, oft-stated conviction that the path to Palestine runs via bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, not international diplomatic dictate. And second, its deep reluctance to have to resort to a veto again; last month marked the first time in four years that a veto had been used at the Security Council, and the Obama administration plainly loathed finding itself in a 1-14 mismatch. In fact, I’ve been told that Washington came “very, very close” to not vetoing the anti-settlement resolution.

A minority of those with whom I spoke speculated that the US might not now veto a Palestine-statehood resolution. Shalev, for one, said “We might lose in the Security Council. I’m not sure the US will use its veto.”

But most insiders were adamant that Washington certainly would use its veto if necessary. Equally, though, Washington would much rather not have to veto, and that means depriving the Palestinians of the nine “yes” votes they need.

Often, in recent months, administration sources have complained to me that Israel underestimates the amount of work it does away from the headlines to prevent Israel getting more heavily trashed in diplomatic forums. Those activities were relevant, for instance, in keeping the Goldstone Commission report away from the Security Council, although central, too, in this regard, was the work of members of a House Task Force on Israel at the UN.

Is the administration working hard today?

One source, who has been in frequent recent contact with the State Department, was adamant that the answer is no. American diplomats, according to this source, can be heard complaining that Israel is relying too heavily on them to do the background work, and suggesting, instead, that Israel should be making its own energetic case to the Western Europeans, the Russians, the Chinese.

Another source, however, referred to all kinds of contacts between various prominent senators and congressmen and the leaders of some of the countries whose positions will determine the Security Council vote. “Countries can be swayed,” this source said, “and the US Congress will certainly be making an effort.”

But Israel needs to do a lot more itself, too, this source added, “and that starts with Netanyahu trying hard to win over Merkel.”

A third source added that if the Americans went to work on this, there was a chance of stopping the push for unilateral statehood in the Security Council. The US administration is crucial, this source said. Broadly speaking, the source added, if the US pulls back, others move to fill the vacuum. If the US is persuaded of the imperative to step forward, other countries may well take their cue from Washington.

HOWEVER, IF Israel, with whatever US support, fails to muster seven “no” votes, abstentions or absences, and the US is forced to veto a UN Security Council resolution on Palestinian statehood, the battle will shift to the General Assembly.

There, too, a two-thirds majority is needed for a resolution to pass. But unlike the Security Council, it’s a case of a two-thirds majority not among the entire 192-strong membership, but among those of the 192 members that are “present and voting.” So there, too, Israel is in deep trouble.

According to The Israel Project’s Senior Research Director Alan Elsner, pro-Palestinian resolutions routinely muster the support of more than 110 member nations. Getting a two-thirds majority among members who are present will thus likely be well within the Palestinians’ reach. Shalev shares the assessment. And she warns that if the Palestinians can gain General Assembly recognition for statehood under a “Uniting for Peace” resolution, “it would be a real obstacle… not just a public relations setback. This would seek to impose on us some kind of Palestinian state.”

The degree of momentum would depend, however, at least to some extent, on just how many General Assembly votes the Palestinians get for statehood. “If a resolution passes, as it likely would,” says Schifter, “there is a difference in the impact between one adopted by 150 votes, which is the goal the Palestinians have set themselves, or, say, 110.”

Scope there, too, therefore, for energetic Israeli diplomacy.

Some of the sources with whom I spoke predicted a post- UNGA-vote rush by many countries to open embassies in “Palestine.” They predicted a significant upsurge in boycott and sanctions efforts. “I don’t want to sound apocalyptic,” said one, “but there could be demands on Israel to withdraw to the pre-1967 lines, backed up by all kinds of attempts to pressure Israel to advance those demands, even though none of the core issues had been resolved.”

Elsner said he, too, envisaged heightened sanctions and boycotts. He thought the Palestinian strategy was designed to ratchet up economic pressure on Israel, “demonstrate Israel’s isolation, and get Israel back to the negotiating table on better terms for the Palestinians. Their aim is for a deal based on the 1949 armistice lines, including the ‘right of return,’ and preventing [Israeli demands such as] the ongoing deployment of Israeli forces on the Jordan River.”

Laszlo Mizrahi said that Abbas’s current bid to achieve a semblance of unity with Hamas was designed to offset objections from countries which might argue that the Palestinians could hardly be granted statehood when they were led by two conflicting governments. The “push for unity,” she said, “is all connected with the GA in September.”

So, too, said Elsner, the successful PA effort to win endorsement of Palestinian statehood from Latin America and the ongoing effort to do the same in Europe. “They worked below the radar for six months on Latin America without the Israeli Foreign Ministry picking up on the degree of inroads made; then they reeled off country after country.”

The Palestinians have a strong delegation at the UN, Elsner added. “They are very wellversed in its intricacies.”

And Israel? Well, Israel hasn’t had a permanent ambassador to the UN for the six months since Shalev stepped down last fall, as she had announced long ahead that she would be doing. Prosor is still on ambassadorial duty in the UK – a highly important post which he can hardly up and leave overnight – and is not set to take over for another two months or so.

SOME IN Israel, it is plain, are acutely aware of the danger. Indeed, several sources suggested to me, one of the motivations for the purportedly imminent new Netanyahu diplomatic initiative is to take the wind out of the Palestinian sails – to underline Israeli willingness to make real progress, and thus undercut Palestinian claims that they have no option, given ostensible Israeli intransigence and given ongoing Israeli settlement building, but to take the unilateral route.

The idea is to win over both international players, and the Palestinians themselves – to convince them that the bilateral route is the better route.

Noting that over 110 nations have already announced their support for a Palestinian state, Defense Minister Ehud Barak last week told the Institute for National Security Studies that Israel was facing “a diplomatic tsunami that the majority of the public is unaware of.”

He urged Netanyahu to “put the core issues on the table. Israel must say it is willing to discuss security borders, refugees and Jerusalem.” As things stood, he warned, Israel was being pushed “into a corner from which the old South Africa’s deterioration began.”

Added Barak: “Israel’s delegitimization is in sight.”

Presumably, he has internalized the finer details of the Palestinians’ UN strategy.

“The way things are now,” Schifter summed up, “I have no doubt that a resolution will be brought to the GA in September, bypassing the Security Council, using the 1950 ‘Uniting for Peace’ resolution to recommend a state of Palestine within the 1949 armistice lines and presumably upholding UNGA Resolution 194 on the ‘right of return’ for refugees.”

Let no one say we’ve not been warned.
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