The recent vote in the United Nations General Assembly to give non-member
observer state status to the Palestinian Authority contains no new legal or
diplomatic information – except that claims about Israel’s subjugation and
denial of Palestinian self-determination are no longer tenable. Unwittingly, the
UN recognition negates claims of Israeli apartheid, disarms Palestinian threats
of insisting on a one-state solution, and makes clear that all that remains is a
rather standard conflict between two states over borders.
First, it bears
noting what the vote doesn’t do. The GA vote does little to increase the
recognition of the Palestinians as a state because the vast majority of nations
already recognize Palestine through full, formal diplomatic relations. Indeed,
the Palestinians’ level of recognition rivals Israel’s.
Compared to that,
changing the degree of its non-membership in the GA is fairly trivial. The
apparent diplomatic victory is itself a consolation prize for the collapse of
Abbas’s bid last year for actual UN membership for Palestine, which was rejected
at the Security Council.
The truly historic aspect of the acknowledgement
of PA statehood is that it contradicts the repeated tropes about Israeli
oppression, occupation and apartheid. Statehood is a precondition of UN
membership, not a result. There are no “peoples under occupation” with GA
Indeed, the resolution acknowledges that the Palestinians
have established all the trappings of a state. Abbas’s application to the
Security Council last year made clear that they already had an independent,
functioning state. It has a central bank and security forces, its own
(virulently anti-Semitic) media, tax system and penal system. Palestine even an
Internet suffix and international telephone exchange.
It has long been
functioning as a state, conducting foreign relations, making deals and acting
entirely independently of, indeed contrary to, the will of Israel. This is not a
Bantustan overseen by Israel, as all its recent actions prove. In the wake of
the UN vote, Palestine opened a defense ministry and began discussing issuing
passports. No people under occupation have all these trappings of
self-determination and statehood.
The Palestinians managed to create a
functioning and independent government because the Israeli military control over
most of the territories was phased out through the Oslo Accords. Today, well
over 95% of Palestinians live in territory administered by the Palestinian
SO WHAT is the UN bid about? Certainly not statehood. Israel
supports Palestinian statehood more than any other nation, having offered it in
Rather it is over borders. This is evident from
the resolution’s specifically describing the borders of the new non-member:
typically, membership determinations are entirely distinct from border
The PA does not just want statehood and self-determination
for the Palestinians. They insist that their state include what in the Oslo
Process was dubbed Area C – regions that are overwhelmingly
Roughly four percent of Palestinians live in Area C, while 100%
of Jews in the West Bank live there.
Yes, Israel still on occasion
conducts security operations in the Palestinian areas in the West Bank, and can
affect life in the Palestinian territories. But this does not negate the reality
of their self-determination, just as the fact that Hamas decides when school is
open in the South does not negates Israel’s independence.
occupation and apartheid.
Now Palestine is a state in the eyes of the UN.
It happens to have territorial dispute with its neighbors.
controversies are commonplace, and do not undermine international legitimacy.
India, China, Russia, Japan and many other nations have longstanding
controversies over frontiers.
But if Israel was what it is often made out
to be – a brutal occupier imposing its rule on others – how is it that the
Palestinians managed to establish all the institutions of a state?
Kontorovich is a professor at Northwestern University School of Law, and an
expert on international law.