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Debate: UN recognition of Palestinian statehood

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Background and context

The issue of Palestinian statehood has been debated for over sixty years between Israel and the Palestinians. After decades of impasse, the Palestinians have decided to take their case to the United Nations. A large majority of UN member states throughout the international community appear willing to recognize a Palestinian state with or without approval from Israel.
Such recognition would offer the Palestinians negotiating and voting power within the United Nations, and perhaps pressure the Israelis to agree to a final agreement. But, it would not necessarily change the reality on the ground, where Israel would still control Palestinian land in the West Bank and elsewhere. The Obama Administration pledged to veto a push to recognize Palestine in the Security Council, where approval is required to enter the UN as a full member. If that effort fails, Abbas has pledged to pursue recognition within the General Assembly, where they could achieve a lesser form of recognition akin to what the Vatican has received. There are a number of questions in this debate: Would a vote, and possibly passage of a resolution in support of Palestinian statehood, undermine or accelerated peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians? Is it encouraging that the Palestinians are pursuing a non-violent means of diplomacy through the UN, versus previous violent campaigns? Do the Palestinians have a moral case for self-determination? What are the practical gains of UN membership and voting powers? Would supporting a UN vote be within Israeli's interests, both security and otherwise? And, would a US veto of the efforts in the Security Council be within US interests? The pros and cons are outlined below.
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Diplomacy: Does the bid continue or undermine peace negotiations?

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Pro

  • UN recognition would force final negotiations of two-state solution. MJ Rosenberg. "Obama Should Support Palestinian Statehood at the United Nations." Huffington Post. July 22nd, 2011: "Recognition of the State of Palestine by the United Nations would be a first step on the road toward successful negotiations which must follow UN action. After all, no UN action can force Israel to end the occupation of the West Bank. The army and the settlers will still be there, UN or no UN. That is why the Palestinian leadership says that one of the first things the new State of Palestine would do will be to ask Israel to commence negotiations over borders, security arrangements, refugees, Holy Places, etc. The only difference UN recognition would make is that it would be near impossible for Netanyahu to say 'no' after the United Nations had, in effect, declared that it was occupying not some vague entity but another people's state."
  • Push for UN recognition IS diplomacy, doesn't undermine it. MJ Rosenberg. "Obama Should Support Palestinian Statehood at the United Nations." Huffington Post. July 22nd, 2011: "The biggest contradiction of all is the assertion that the Palestinian attempt to resolve their conflict with Israel at the United Nations represents a threat to diplomacy -- rather than diplomacy itself. After all, what is the United Nations other than an arena for conflict resolution by means of diplomacy? Having abandoned the effort to end the occupation through violence, the Palestinians are turning to the UN. What could be wrong with that?"
  • Palestinian push at UN exemplifies nonviolent diplomacy. MJ Rosenberg. "Obama Should Support Palestinian Statehood at the United Nations." Huffington Post. July 22nd, 2011: "Taking their case to the United Nations is a powerful statement by the Palestinian leadership that they have rejected terrorism once and for all and are determined to live in peace alongside Israel. It is also a sign that the 'hard men' of violence who once dominated Palestinian politics are relics of the past. The future belongs to people like Salam Fayyad who, in the words of renowned New Republic writer and life-long Zionist, Leon Wieseltier, is the man who 'all Israelis and Palestinians, who are not maniacs, have dreamed' of."
  • Statehood would break from status quo and impasse. President Carter said, "the only alternative [to statehood] is a maintenance of the status quo." Securing statehood, on the other hand, could shake up the calculations by Israel in the negotiations, and help force a peaceful resolution to the crisis. “As an alternative to a deadlock and a stalemate now, we reluctantly support the Palestinian move for recognition,” Carter said at the Carter Center in Atlanta in early September 2011.[1]
  • Lack of other plan justifies UN recog of Pal statehood. President Carter says that he would not have been in favor of the U.N. recognition bid had the Obama administration, “put forward any sort of comprehensive peace proposal.”[2]
  • Over 120 countries have already recognized Palestine. Many of these states are in the developing world. This means that nearly two-thirds of the UN General Assembly already supports Palestinian statehood. A vote in the UN is a logical next step.[3]
  • Israel's refusal to halt settlements has prevented negotiations. Nabil Shaath, leader of the foreign affairs department of Fatah, the main party of the Palestinian Authority: “We want to generate pressure on Israel to make it feel isolated and help it understand that there can be no talks without a stop to settlements. Without that, our goal is membership in the United Nations General Assembly in September.”[4]


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Con

  • Palestinian UN statehood push undermines bilateral talks. John Barrasso. "Block Palestinians' end run at U.N." Politico. September 15th, 2011: "President Mahmoud Abbas plans to formally request full-member-state status in the United Nations. This move intentionally puts prospects for peace in jeopardy. I oppose the decision of the PA to circumvent the peace process and seek a change in status from the United Nations. Along with the PA’s other recent actions that undermine peace, this decision demonstrates why Congress must terminate funding to the PA. Should a status change be passed, Congress must evaluate and significantly cut funding to the U.N.The best path to a true and lasting peace is through direct negotiations between the two parties — not through manipulations at the U.N. The consequences to the peace process are grave. The ability to move forward with an agreement is greatly diminished by these tactics. Instead of embarking on a time-consuming campaign to gain support in the U.N., the Palestinian leadership should be working directly with Israel on creating a real and sustainable peace agreement. The U.N. must refrain from intervening on issues that are part of the direct negotiations by the parties. The decision about borders and statehood should be achieved through a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians."
US Ambassador to the UN said on NPR on September 22nd, 2011: "If it accelerated the negotiations, we would say yes. The reality is quite the opposite. The process that must occur will be that much more complicated in the wake of this kind of one-sided action."[5]
  • UN vote is just paper; it doesn't change anything on ground. US Ambassador to the UN said on NPR on September 22nd, 2011: "they want a state and they want a state that has defined borders, that has a capital, that has the viability to deliver goods and services and benefits to the people. That's what we want to see. But there's no way to accomplish that through a vote in the Security Council and in the General Assembly. A vote here is merely a statement on a piece of paper. It doesn't change anything on the ground for the Palestinian people the day after.[6]
  • Peace can only be achieved by Israel and Palestine, not UN President Obama said to the United Nations on September 21st, 2011: "Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the UN - if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now. Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians who must live side by side. Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians – not us – who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: on borders and security; on refugees and Jerusalem."[7]
  • History shows conflicts need resolving by parties involved. President Obama said to the United Nations on September 21st, 2011: "Ultimately, peace depends upon compromise among people who must live together long after our speeches are over, long after our votes have been tallied. That’s the lesson of Northern Ireland, where ancient antagonists bridged their differences. That’s the lesson of Sudan, where a negotiated settlement led to an independent state. And that is and will be the path to a Palestinian state -- negotiations between the parties."[8]
  • Palestinian move not just symbolism; it's counterproductive. US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said to NPR on September 22nd, 2011: "This is not just a neutral, symbolic action. In our view it is unwise and counterproductive."[9]
  • Failure of negotiations is largely the Palestinians' fault. The Palestinians have consistently refused to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state. This obvious, basic step would meet one of the Israeli's main preconditions for negotiations and would likely restart talks immediately.
  • Palestinian Authority move in UN undermines legitimate PLO. Ali Abunimah. How Palestinian Authority’s UN "statehood" bid endangers Palestinian rights." The Electronic Intifada. August 8th, 2011: "Protecting self-determination for all Palestinians. The Western-backed Palestinian Authority’s (PA) effort to seek UN recognition of 'statehood' unilaterally, without consulting the Palestinian people from which the PA has absolutely no mandate, has raised fears among Palestinians that the move could actually harm Palestinian rights. If the UN votes to admit the 'State of Palestine,' it is likely that the unelected representatives of the Palestinian Authority would be seated in the General Assembly instead of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which currently holds the Palestine observer seat at the UN. This would be a severe blow to the potential for realizing Palestinian rights in the long run through international bodies: whereas the PLO ostensibly represents all Palestinians, the PA 'state' would only represent its 'citizens' – residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. [...] A 'State of Palestine' must not be allowed to replace or usurp the right to representation and self-determination of the whole Palestinian people through a reconstituted PLO."


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Security: Would a UN vote bolster Israeli security?

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Pro

  • Palestinian statehood via the UN would undermine Syria, Iran. Turki Al-Faisal. "Veto a state, lose an ally." The New York Times. September 11th, 2011: "The only losers in this scenario would be Syria and Iran, pariah states that have worked tirelessly — through their support of Hamas and Hezbollah — to undermine the peace process. Saudi Arabia recently played a leading role in isolating Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal government by demanding an end to the killing of protesters and recalling the Saudi ambassador from Damascus. The impending fall of Mr. Assad’s barbarous regime provides a rare strategic opportunity to weaken Iran. Without this vital ally, Tehran will find it more difficult to foment discord in the Arab world. Today, there is a chance for the United States and Saudi Arabia to contain Iran and prevent it from destabilizing the region. But this opportunity will be squandered if the Obama administration’s actions at the United Nations force a deepening split between our two countries."


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Con

  • Israel's security concerns are not recognized by many at UN Remarks by President Obama in Address to the United Nations General Assembly. The White House. September 21st, 2011: "Let us be honest with ourselves: Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it. Israel’s citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on their buses. Israel’s children come of age knowing that throughout the region, other children are taught to hate them. Israel, a small country of less than eight million people, look out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map. The Jewish people carry the burden of centuries of exile and persecution, and fresh memories of knowing that six million people were killed simply because of who they are. Those are facts. They cannot be denied. The Jewish people have forged a successful state in their historic homeland. Israel deserves recognition. It deserves normal relations with its neighbors. And friends of the Palestinians do them no favors by ignoring this truth, just as friends of Israel must recognize the need to pursue a two-state solution with a secure Israel next to an independent Palestine." [Extended quote in argument page].
  • UN vote would not change reality on the ground. US Ambassador to the UN said on NPR on September 22nd, 2011: "While we are very consistent in our principled stand that we want to see freedom, democracy, respect for human rights everywhere in the world, including throughout the Arab and Muslim world — that is the goal, of course, for the people of Palestine. But they want a state and they want a state that has defined borders, that has a capital, that has the viability to deliver goods and services and benefits to the people. That's what we want to see. But there's no way to accomplish that through a vote in the Security Council and in the General Assembly. A vote here is merely a statement on a piece of paper. It doesn't change anything on the ground for the Palestinian people the day after. If it accelerated the negotiations, we would say yes. The reality is quite the opposite. The process that must occur will be that much more complicated in the wake of this kind of one-sided action."[10]


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Morality: Is UN recognition morally justified?

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Pro

  • Palestinian UN push is consistent with the Arab Spring. Mr. Abbas at the UN in late September of 2011: “The time has come also for the Palestinian spring, the time for independence.”[11]
  • Palestinians are rightly pursuing nonviolent option at UN. Ahmad Tibi. "Rejection of Palestinian statehood denies freedom." Politico. September 15th, 2011: "After 20 years of failed negotiations caused largely by Israel’s insistence on retaining parts of the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as refusing to allow Palestinians the right of return, the Palestinians of the occupied territories are taking their case to the United Nations. They are refusing to allow Washington to kick the can endlessly down the road. More than 130 nations are expected to side with the Palestinians. Only a small number are expected to stand in the way. Yet Washington is determined to place the blame for the coming confrontation on the Palestinians. This is unfair. It is unreasonable to expect Palestinians to give up this nonviolent option."


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Con


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US veto: Should US allow UN recognition of Palestine, or veto it?

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Pro

  • Pres Carter succeeded in ME peace, supports Palestine in UN. President Jimmy Carter, and the mediator of the Camp David Accords and peace deal between Israel and Egypt: "If I were president, I'd be very glad to see the Palestinians have a nation recognized by the United Nations. There's no downside to it."[12]
  • US veto of Palestinian UN vote would undermine relationship with Arabs. Turki Al-Faisal. "Veto a state, lose an ally." The New York Times. September 11th, 2011: "The United States must support the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations this month or risk losing the little credibility it has in the Arab world. If it does not, American influence will decline further, Israeli security will be undermined and Iran will be empowered, increasing the chances of another war in the region."
  • US veto would undermine strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia. Turki Al-Faisal. "Veto a state, lose an ally." The New York Times. September 11th, 2011: "Saudi Arabia would no longer be able to cooperate with America in the same way it historically has. With most of the Arab world in upheaval, the “special relationship” between Saudi Arabia and the United States would increasingly be seen as toxic by the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims, who demand justice for the Palestinian people. Saudi leaders would be forced by domestic and regional pressures to adopt a far more independent and assertive foreign policy. Like our recent military support for Bahrain’s monarchy, which America opposed, Saudi Arabia would pursue other policies at odds with those of the United States, including opposing the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Iraq and refusing to open an embassy there despite American pressure to do so. The Saudi government might part ways with Washington in Afghanistan and Yemen as well."


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Con

  • US supports two-state solution, but not via UN Remarks by President Obama in Address to the United Nations General Assembly. The White House. September 21st, 2011: "One year ago, I stood at this podium and I called for an independent Palestine. I believed then, and I believe now, that the Palestinian people deserve a state of their own. But what I also said is that a genuine peace can only be realized between the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves. One year later, despite extensive efforts by America and others, the parties have not bridged their differences. [...] the question isn’t the goal that we seek -- the question is how do we reach that goal. And I am convinced that there is no short cut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades. Peace is hard work. Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations -- if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now. Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians who must live side by side. Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians -- not us –- who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: on borders and on security, on refugees and Jerusalem."


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UN membership: Is UN membership valuable to the Palestinians?

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Pro

  • UN membership is sufficient justification; independence is extra. Abbas: "We are going to the United Nations to attain full membership ... that we are not going to bring independence. Let's not exaggerate ... We will continue to negotiate. We want a seat at the United Nations, and we don't want anything more."[13]
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Pro/con sources

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