When Mahmoud Abbas walks to the podium of the General Assembly today to ask for United Nations acceptance of Palestine for membership, he knows his bid cannot succeed. He’s going ahead anyway.
Scheduled to speak an hour before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the address by the 76-year-old Palestinian Authority president will be the climax of a week that has seen his quest for international recognition suffer repeated setbacks. The U.S. and Israel leaned on Security Council members that back the Palestinian statehood initiative to abstain from voting, leaving Abbas fighting to retain support in the 15- member body.
Two days ago, Abbas was the picture of dejection, grabbing his head in his hands as he listened to U.S. President Barack Obama tell the same audience of global leaders that his pursuit was misguided.
“Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the UN,” Obama said, as the U.S. deployed its diplomatic might to block the Palestinian’s efforts.
Still, for Abbas, who has talked of retiring next year, this has been a rare moment when the Palestinian situation has received world attention, putting him at the center of a swirl of high-level diplomacy. Abbas has staked out a legacy as father of a Palestinian state if and when it is accepted as a UN member nation.
The Palestinian leadership has been actively preparing to seek UN-sanctioned statehood for almost two years, which has included improving the administration needed for the economy of a state under Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
The timing for this week’s bid follows the collapse of peace talks last September after Netanyahu’s decision not to extend a 10-month partial freeze on construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Abbas has been unwilling to resume talks while building continues and Netanyahu hasn’t offered to resume the freeze.
Faced with a negotiating stalemate and emboldened by a wave of popular uprisings in the Arab world that have left Israel more vulnerable, the Palestinians said the timing was right to force the issue of an independent state outside of the route of direct talks with the Israeli government.
“It never occurred to me that the Palestinian move for UN endorsement of its statehood was a sign of strength,” Robert Zelnick, a Boston University professor and Middle East analyst for the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, said in an interview. “They are misreading the political situation.”
During his 53-hours in New York, Obama met with Netanyahu and Abbas on the same day. With reporters and TV cameras briefly present, he told the Israeli leader Sept. 21 that “the bonds between the U.S. and Israel are unbreakable.” Netanyahu responded in kind, saying Obama’s support was a “badge of honor.” The Abbas meeting was shorter, less than an hour, and the White House said little about it afterwards.
While Palestinian officials were under no illusion that Obama would change his mind, they nevertheless were hoping for a speech that would forcefully repeat his May 20 call for Israel to agree to borders of a Palestinian state “based on the 1967 lines” before the Six-Day War. That didn’t happen, nor did Obama unveil a new peace initiative.
“The serious gaps in his speech have to do with what we consider the absolute minimum for continuing through the peace process and that is the people under occupation that started in 1967,” Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath said in New York Sept. 21. He was referring to Palestinian residents of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem territory that Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.
For Palestinian membership to come to a vote, a country on the Security Council has to prepare a formal draft resolution. Lebanon, which presides this month over the body and is also the only Arab country in the decision-making body, is the most likely candidate for that task. The procedures permit any member to ask for a vote any time, after giving the members 24-hour notice.
The council can delay the process. For South Sudan, it took just three days to make the African country the UN’s 193rd member, while Jordan had to wait five years before receiving membership in December 1955. After U.S. pressure, the Palestinians may not have the nine votes they need which, in any event, would lead to a promised U.S. veto.
“They will not be jerked around here,” a legal adviser to Abbas, Francis Boyle, a professor of international law at the University of Illinois College of Law, said in an interview. “This strategy has been in place for a year and it’s been carefully prepared.”
The Palestinians can seek to overrule the Security Council by taking their case directly to the General Assembly, where they can count on more than the 129 votes needed in the 193- member assembly to pass the measures, according to Boyle.
The route would involve attempting to invoke Resolution 377, known as Uniting for Peace, a U.S. initiative adopted in 1950 during the Korean War to circumvent the Soviet Union’s blocking action on South Korea.
It is a rarely used mechanism by which a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly can override the Security Council — and its veto-wielding members — when the 15-member decision-making body “fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression.”
Abbas’s prospects for success in the UN may be little better than those for successful peace negotiations.
According to an International Court of Justice advisory opinion, this resolution cannot be used to override U.S. opposition to the Palestinian membership application. The UN Charter’s rulebook also states that the General Assembly shall consider membership applications “if the Security Council recommends the applicant state for membership.”