The UN’s Declaration of a Palestinian State Is a Bad Idea. Here’s Why
The word is that the Palestinian Authority with the help of the UN General Assembly will unilaterally declare a Palestinian state next September. Such a declaration is not new. A statement of Palestinian independence has been endorsed by the majority of the General Assembly and received the support of many countries throughout the world. The Palestinians will do this through a United Nations legislative procedure called “uniting for peace.” Briefly, uniting for peace is a procedural rule that allows the General Assembly to maintain peace when the Security Council fails to do so. A single vote on the Security Council can prevent the passage of legislation or recommendations and this is often frustrating to the General Assembly. Hence, in the 1950s the General Assembly approved a procedure that allowed them to consider a matter when there was a threat to peace. Consequently, they can “unite for peace” and take necessary action. A brief video explanation helps explain the issue.
This procedure has been used a number of times (Korean War, 1950; Suez crisis, 1956; Afghanistan, 1980) just to name a few and has been used before with respect to Middle East issues. The circumstances of each case are of course different with some more justified than others, but the Palestinian attempt to use the procedure to declare a state is certainly a unique application. If the resolution passes the General Assembly, and it will quite easily, it will have only recommendatory powers, and would not be binding. It would not have the power to alter the legal status of the relationship between Israel and Palestine.
Then why is this a bad idea?
First, UN resolution 242 and 338 require the parties themselves to reach agreement and recognize boundaries. This is a key issue in successful negotiations. A durable and stable peace will only emerge as a result of genuine negotiations and conclusions which are authentically satisfying to each party. The basis of the entire peace process is in jeopardy by voiding resolution 242 and forcing a state declaration from the outside. Twenty years of discussions and agreements between the parties will be undermined. One might suggest that 20 years of failure is just the reason for the declaration but that would be too simplistic of a conclusion. Many of the documents, agreements, studies, and memoranda developed between the Israelis and the Palestinians are necessary for continuing negotiations.
Second, if resolutions 242 and 338 become so easy to bypass than this has consequences for future negotiations between Israel and other states in the region such as Syria and Lebanon. The Security Council will lose credibility and their resolutions will be considered voidable. Every country that has been involved in negotiations – Egypt, Jordan, the US, Russia – will be undermined. Why would any state commit time and resources when a UN resolution could render them unreliable?
Highly contested areas like Jerusalem will remain in legal and national limbo. Israel has been prevented from establishing Jerusalem, for example, as its capital. They have been thwarted at every turn in preventing embassies and diplomatic missions from locating in Jerusalem. Now, just like that, the Palestinians can declare Jerusalem as their capital? All sorts of territory, including Jerusalem, has been the subject of commitments and agreements. How is it that all of these discussions can now simply dissipate and assume that a United Nations declaration has solved the problem.
Third, how does such a resolution from the General Assembly do anything but inflame problems with respect to the status of refugees and the right of return? It is well known that resolution 242 requires a “just” solution to the refugee problem. A solution can only be just if it is accepted by the competing parties, not imposed on them. The refugee problem has implications for Jordan as well as Israel and Palestine and it seems as though they are being ignored here.
Fourth, the Oslo Accords were some of the most specific to manage temporary arrangements between Israel and Palestine. These accords call for a negotiated solution to problems relating to refugees, settlements, security, borders, and holy sites. The key term here is negotiated. The peace process is highly dependent on negotiated agreements; in other words, agreements whose outcomes are based on mutual consent and joint agreement. A General Assembly resolution, of which there are dozens of them condemning Israel, is of very limited credibility to the Israelis and will carry little weight.
Finally, it isn’t even clear what will be included in the declaration. Does the declaration of the Palestinian state include Gaza and Hamas? This is troublesome and not even acceptable to the Palestinian Authority let alone to Israel. It seems increasingly apparent that the UN move is designed to garner sympathy and increase international recognition of the Palestinian Authority.
We should keep in mind, however, that under certain conditions the declaration of a Palestinian state will be welcome. Many feel as if the Palestinians truly want to delegitimize and destroy Israel, but if they are willing to declare a state on what is about 20% of what might be considered original Palestinian territory (depending on whose maps you are using) then shouldn’t we consider this good news. The establishment and development of a Palestinian state as currently defined by its relationship with Israel in fact recognizes and legitimizes Israel. But still, many in the foreign-policy business hold firm in their demands that the parties settle their differences, not the United Nations. Palestinian leaders should think carefully about how to proceed on this matter. They have little to gain from symbolic international stunts, but much to gain from the outcome of thorough negotiations.