A limited achievement

The Palestinians may have gone some of the way toward recognition as a state, but to be able to actually govern they will have to negotiate with Israel.

un palestine 521 (photo credit: Chip East/Reuters)
un palestine 521
(photo credit: Chip East/Reuters)
Like all UN General Assembly resolutions, the resolution that granted Palestine “non-member observer state status” is not binding on member states, but serves rather as a political statement; in this case a statement of support for the Palestinians and their aspiration to form a state.
It is no different in substance from scores of earlier General Assembly resolutions expressing support for the Palestinians and castigating Israel. The rights granted to the Palestinians at the UN are identical to the rights they already possessed there.
However, although such resolutions do not bind states, other UN bodies normally take their cue on political issues from the General Assembly.
Therefore, it would seem on the face of it that if Palestine were to apply for membership in other UN bodies, such as the World Health Organization, it would now be granted membership.
However, accepting Palestine would mean an automatic cutoff of US funding to such organizations. This has already happened to UNESCO, which lost some $60 million in US contributions when it agreed to accept Palestine as a full member last year. It is reasonable to assume, therefore, that other UN organizations will not be enthusiastic about accepting Palestine as a full member state.
One UN organization where the threat of cutting off US aid does not hold is the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, to which the US makes no financial contribution. However, if Palestine were to accept the court’s jurisdiction, it would mean that all Palestinians, including presumably those in Gaza, who commit a war crime in the future, could find themselves subject to the jurisdiction of the ICC. The Palestinian leadership may well hesitate before undertaking such a step. It is noteworthy that no neighboring Arab state, other than Jordan, has accepted the jurisdiction of the court.
The other key aspect of the UN Resolution is whether the General Assembly has the power to transform a non-state entity into a state. It does not. In order for it to be a state, an entity must possess a government that effectively controls a given territory and is capable of maintaining full foreign relations with other states. It is debatable whether Palestine fulfills these conditions and it is this doubt, which presumably caused some 50 states to vote against the resolution or to abstain.
On the other hand, it could ostensibly be argued that the states that voted in favor of the resolution implicitly recognized that Palestine fulfills the conditions necessary to be recognized as a state. This argument, however, is not necessarily valid. States vote at the UN as a political act and not as an expression of legal belief.
The actual language of the resolution accords Palestine the “status” of a state, which is not identical to recognizing Palestine as a state. In this context it is interesting to note that when the UN General Assembly granted observer status to the Vatican the phrase used was “acknowledges the Holy See, in its capacity as an Observer State.”
Even full membership in the UN does not necessarily imply sovereign state status. For example, the UN General Assembly in the past granted full membership to the Ukraine and Belarus, when it was universally recognized that they were not independent states, but rather part of the federal state of the USSR.
The vote in the UN may well have given the Palestinian leadership a sense of euphoria, but for them to fulfill the conditions of statehood they will need to have an effective government over a given territory, and this can only be achieved by negotiating with Israel. Such negotiations will have to include the thorny issues of borders, security, water, trade, refugees and Jerusalem.
There are no international shortcuts.
Robbie Sabel is a professor of international law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a former legal adviser to the Foreign Ministry.