Analysis: Putting the UN in perspective

Misinformation characterizes discussions of what the General Assembly’s recognition of a Palestinian state would mean.

By
April 13, 2011 01:01
The Jerusalem Post

PA President Mahmoud Abbas at the UN General Assembly 311 (B. (photo credit: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)

For years, the Likud and the Right have been accused of fear-mongering, of playing upon the country’s real security concerns to turn their backs on peace.

Time and time again Binyamin Netanyahu – during his first tenure as prime minister, as leader of the opposition, as a member of Ariel Sharon’s government, and now as prime minister for the second time – has been accused of exaggerating the threats facing the country in order to avoid making concessions to the Palestinians. Many were the times he was mocked before Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza for saying that rockets would fall on Ashdod and Ashkelon if the IDF withdrew.

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Over a decade before that, Yitzhak Rabin, when he was prime minister, said in recorded comments currently making the YouTube rounds, that “the nightmare stories of the Likud are well-known. They promised us Katyushas from Gaza. For a year already the Gaza Strip is for the most part under the Palestinian Authority; there hasn’t been a Katyusha, and there won’t be one. Etc., Etc. Etc. All these words – the Likud is scared to death of peace. Fearful of peace, that is the Likud of today, it is not the Likud of Menachem Begin...” Forget for a moment that many of the nightmare scenarios, such as the rockets on Ashkelon, have transpired; the Right is not the only part of the country’s political map that can spread fear. These days it is coming from the Left (and also from some in the Center), in the form of doomsday scenarios bandied about over what will happen if the UN General Assembly passes a resolution in September that recognizes a Palestinian state.

One argument gaining currency is that if the UN General Assembly does indeed recognize a Palestinian state, then the minute it does so the 600,000 Israelis living in east Jerusalem and the West Bank will, under international law, be considered to be occupiers of another UN state, and international consequences in the form of sanctions are sure to be harsh and swift. But this is overwrought. Since the conquest of the Golan Heights in 1967, Israel has been viewed by the international community as occupying the territory of another country. Yet Israel was not ostracized, nor were sanctions leveled against it.

Furthermore, under international law there is no difference if one is occupying the territory of a sovereign country, as would be the case if the UN recognized a Palestinian state, or it is occupying non-sovereign territory, which is the case now in Judea and Samaria.

If the UN recognizes a Palestinian state in September, then the status of Israelis living there will be no different than the status of Israelis living for more than three decades on the Golan Heights. Granted, there is a cost for this over the long haul for Israel, in the region and in world opinion, but it is a stretch to say this will automatically change Israel’s legal position in the world.

But whether the General Assembly will recognize a Palestinian state in September is in itself a “big if.” And any UN move must be measured on three levels: What the declaration itself might say, what operational steps it will call for, and what are the implications of such a resolution.

First of all, it is not clear what a resolution to recognize a Palestinian state will say.

Since General Assembly resolutions are primarily political and symbolic in nature, the Palestinians historically have wanted to have as broad a majority of states on board as possible. The Palestinians in the past have not aimed for resolutions that would push away the European countries, but rather have sought the lowest common denominator that would keep countries like Britain, France and Germany on board.

What happens often is that the Palestinians bring a resolution, the Europeans propose a counter-resolution, and after a great deal of diplomatic haggling, a middle ground is hashed out.

On the recognition question, the Palestinians will have to determine how far they can go without losing Europe. As a result, the resolution that may, in the final analysis, come to the General Assembly is likely to be much milder than many people fear, simply because many in the EU are unlikely to support a Palestinian declaration recognizing a Palestinian state as-is, within the 1967 lines, with east Jerusalem as its capital, without being able to ensure Palestinian control over that territory.

While there are deep disagreements between Israel and the Europeans over issues such as settlements, many Europeans also understand that it is not reasonable to demand that Israel withdraw from areas it captured in a defensive war, without first providing for adequate security.

Another question is, what does recognition mean? Will the resolution say that the state exists today and should be recognized? Or will it say that recognition should be conferred when the state is established? If the latter, then this resolution would not be much different than scores of other UN resolutions calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state along the pre-1967 lines.

And if the former is the case, and the UN recognizes a Palestinian state in situ, then it is unlikely to get broad European support, since many in Europe understand that the situation is too complicated – given Israel’s presence in the West Bank, Hamas’s control of Gaza, and the negotiations that the EU says it wants to see renewed.

Regarding operational significance, UN General Assembly resolutions are largely political and symbolic, with ramifications solely inside the UN system. A recognitionof- statehood resolution could call for an advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice, as was done in 2004 when the GA sent the security barrier to The Hague. The ICJ ruled against Israel, but the fence still remains.

Under the UN Charter, to become a member state, a new nation needs a Security Council resolution, and a two-third majority inside the GA. It is highly unlikely the US would let such a resolution through the Security Council, so the Palestinians would be left with the General Assembly majority.

In this scenario the Palestinian hope is that this would give them full rights as a state within the UN system, including recognition of the prohibition of the use of force against it. But even the UN recognizes the right of self-defense, which means Israel would have legal rights to respond to attacks coming from Palestinian territory.

Regarding sanctions, the General Assembly can recommend sanctions, but this would not be legally binding on anyone.

In 1981, when the UN General Assembly recommended sanctions against South Africa to promote Namibian independence, these sanctions were largely adopted because the world saw South Africa as illegitimate and was interested in those types of sanctions. That is not our case regarding Israel.

Outside of settlement goods, there is no real conversation in Europe at this time about a wholesale sanctioning of Israel. While the idea has some traction on the radical Left and in college campuses, the governments of the world’s democracies – despite all the Israel Apartheid Weeks – are not there. The University of Johannesburg’s recent decision to cut ties with Ben-Gurion University is the exception, not the rule.

Furthermore, the General Assembly can’t force Israel to withdraw. It’s important to remember that the UN doesn’t create states, it recognizes them. On this note it is a bit ironic that the Arabs, who in 1947 rejected the UN vote in favor of the partition and then attacked the fledgling Jewish state, are now looking to that same body as the moral authority for the creation of a Palestinian state.

The true question revolves around the consequences of this move beyond the UN context, and this is by no means an insignificant question. Such a declaration would be an energizer for those seeking to marginalize Israel, and would illustrate the degree to which the world wants one thing, and Israel something else.

Recognition of statehood would make a return to negotiations much more difficult, empowering the false idea that an imposed solution can take the place of an agreed-upon one, and changing the whole “negotiation” trajectory of the diplomatic process of the past two decades.

And, finally, such a move could possibly prompt another popular Palestinian uprising.

But even with all that in mind, one should still keep an honest eye on what it is exactly that the UN General Assembly can and cannot do, and not exaggerate the impact of a GA resolution.


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