Dominating the news over the past week has been Palestine’s bid at the 66th United Nations (UN) General Assembly Debate to become the 194th member state. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has passed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s request on to the UN Security Council, and now the 15 member countries face difficult deliberations on how to proceed. This week we speak to CIGI Distinguished Fellow Louise Fréchette and CIGI Chair of Global Security and Director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs David Welch on why this historic political situation developed now and how it might play out.

CIGI: Did Palestine’s bid for statehood come as a surprise to the UN General Assembly and Security Council? What is the next step within the organization?

Louise Fréchette: The member states that make up the General Assembly and Security Council have relations with Israel and with the Palestinians and I assume that the latter would have consulted with many countries before formally taking this step. Once the Security Council is seized with a request like this, the members begin by consulting informally, trying to figure out the position of everyone and what the way forward might be before they take formal action. The UN Secretariat can be called upon to provide members of the Security Council with information on precedents or on legal aspects. I suspect that in this particular instance, the members of the Security Council have already done significant homework themselves and that the role of the Secretariat will be quite marginal. This will be a political discussion and a political decision.

CIGI: Why is Palestine coming to the UN with this request now?

David Welch: The main motivation for the Palestinians is almost certainly respect — international respect and self-respect. After a people is occupied for a very long time and feels as though its rights are being systematically denied not only by a more powerful neighbour but by the international community, at some point patience runs out. We see this in history time and time again: people who feel as though they are operating in a loss frame will start taking risks in order to attain what they consider a satisfactory status quo. The timing is better than it has ever been. The Palestinians can count on a bigger vote than ever in their favour and opponents to the vote are weaker than they’ve ever been before. It might be better still in five or 10 years, but they’ve run out of patience.

Fréchette: It’s being brought up because the Palestinians are frustrated about the lack of movement and progress on negotiations. I think they thought about this move many times in the past, but they were always told that it would not be helpful to the pursuit of their own goals. At that time, I think neighbours like Egypt would have been reluctant to offer support, but a lot has changed in the region. The Palestinians wouldn’t have done this without the assurance of pretty broad support from a large cross-section of countries, particularly in their own region.

CIGI: Do you foresee this situation creating any broader security or political issues?

Welch: It will cause America fits, for a couple of reasons. For one, the United States is learning from this episode that it no longer has the international clout it used to have. If this situation had come up 15, 20 or 25 years ago, it would have been easy for the United States to work the back channels either to persuade enough countries to vote against this or to persuade the Palestinians to not bring it up for a vote. The Americans are no longer strong enough to prevent this, not just because they have declined relative to the rest of the world in terms of economic power, but also because they have lost a lot of soft power. Global perceptions of mismanagement of their hegemonic role — due, for example, to adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan — have really undermined other countries’ willingness to let the Americans lead the way they used to. This is compounded by the fact that the rest of the world sees Washington as a more or less unquestioning sympathizer with Israel and not objective on the issue. They are not willing to address what the rest of the world perceives to be very real and acute difficulties that the Palestinians have been facing under Israeli occupation.

CIGI: Do you foresee any decision in the UN Security Council being intentionally delayed?

Fréchette: Given the deeply divided opinions, this is going to be a difficult vote for everybody and will strain relations among members of the Security Council. I think there are a few members who have not yet declared their position and so delaying a vote is one of the options on the table. This would allow the Middle East Quartet to attempt to bring the parties together.

Welch: It’s not one of these acute situations like the Cuban Missile Crisis. There is the luxury of time. The longer you delay a formal vote, the larger the window of opportunity is to explore alternatives. But I am not optimistic about alternatives. Washington would desperately love not to use its veto and see the issue come off the agenda, but the Palestinians, who appear to have thought about this very strategically, may actually be happy to have them wield it, since a US veto would further buttress international support for the Palestinian claim.

CIGI: What happens if the Security Council doesn’t give positive favour to Palestine’s bid?

Fréchette: Palestine can go to the General Assembly and ask for the next best thing, which is to be recognized as an observer state, a status similar to that of the Holy See (Vatican). This would give it the capacity to sign on to treaties and access to legal instruments. Whether Palestine is recognized as a state or not, the fact is there will have to be negotiations and the need to reach a settlement on a number of contentious issues, starting with territory. The Security Council has adopted, decades ago, a number of very fundamental resolutions that will still be valid even if Palestine becomes a state.

Welch: I expect this will be vetoed. Observer state status, through the General Assembly, would give Palestine international acknowledgement of its right to a number of things that they feel have been systematically denied them. But this would be a psychological, not a material boost. In fact, it could come at considerable cost to Palestinians if it makes Israel more intransigent or triggers an Israeli backlash. But it’s pretty clear that this is a risk the Palestinians are willing to take; they appear to consider the situation no longer bearable.

The timing is better than it has ever been. The Palestinians can count on a bigger vote than ever in their favour and opponents to the vote are weaker than they’ve ever been before.
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