Diplomatic Maneuvering Palestinians Plan Application for UN Membership

The Palestinians want to apply for membership in the United Nations. They know they will fail, but they hope the international effort will generate more support for their cause, and set new ground rules for negotiations.
Ready for independence: Palestinians and foreigners enjoy beer at the annual 'Oktoberfest' in the Christian village of Taybeh, near Ramallah.

Ready for independence: Palestinians and foreigners enjoy beer at the annual 'Oktoberfest' in the Christian village of Taybeh, near Ramallah.

Foto: Getty Images

Everything about Riyad al-Maliki is gray -- his suit, his hair, his moustache and even his skin. "You can tell how tired I am by looking at my face," says Maliki. The 56-year-old has been the foreign minister of the Palestinian Autonomous Authority for the last four years, during which he has traveled almost constantly to advocate for Palestine. He has circled the globe many times, covering hundreds of thousands or perhaps even millions of miles. He gave up counting the miles long ago. Most recently, he was in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, the 193rd member of the United Nations. The trip was intended as a reminder to the world that there is still another territory that deserves independence.

"It took six days from the time they submitted their application to the UN until they were granted membership," he says. "Six days! And how much longer are we supposed to wait?" South Sudan, East Timor and Macedonia -- the youngest states in the international community -- are currently Maliki's points of reference. "What about us?" he asks. "We have fulfilled all the requirements. We have institutions, government agencies and a civil society. It's all there ."

What they don't have is a state. The Palestinians have been negotiating with Israel for 20 years now, but the mutual blockade seems insurmountable. The last attempt to achieve a peace agreement failed in October 2010. But before that US President Barack Obama said: "When we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations - an independent sovereign state of Palestine." A year has passed, and now the Palestinians want to see that promise kept.

In the absence of negotiations with Israel, they have decided to take their conflict to the international stage and apply for UN membership. The Palestinians themselves declared their independence back in 1988, and dozens of countries recognized the State of Palestine. But it would only become a fully recognized nation as a member of the UN, which would entitle it to UN support if its rights were violated -- by the Israeli occupation, for example.

Developing Relationships Worldwide

It is 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and Maliki is sitting in the lobby of an Istanbul hotel, where he has invited all 95 Palestinian ambassadors to attend a strategy meeting. The minister is distracted, but he manages to smile and explain the initiative, which began four years ago and, as he hopes, will end in an independent Palestinian state in September.

In the last four years, Maliki has traveled to Brazil nine times and met with the Brazilian foreign minister 15 times. "We have developed personal relationships worldwide," says Maliki. Brazil recognized the state of Palestine last December, and eight other Latin American countries followed suit. "For a long time, the Israelis didn't realize what we were doing," says Maliki. "Then they suddenly woke up."

He is proud of each victory, even the small ones, such as when Malawi and Lesotho recently recognized his homeland as an independent nation. The idea behind his strategy is that if more countries recognize the state of Palestine, the harder it will be for Israel to maintain the occupation. The Palestinians intend to continue applying this principle at two levels within the UN: in the Security Council and in the General Assembly.

Full UN membership is an unrealistic expectation at this point. A single veto in the Security Council can prevent it from happening, and the Americans have already made it clear that this is precisely what they will do. Nevertheless, the foreign minister is sticking to the plan for now, at least officially. "We will definitely go to the Security Council," he says. "And in our petition, we will use the language of the United States and Europe, including quotes from Obama's Middle East speech. If the Americans vote against the petition, they will be voting against their own position." Internally, however, growing numbers of Palestinians say they would rather forego submitting a petition for membership to the Security Council to avoid a likely confrontation.

The second option is an appeal to the General Assembly of 193 countries, where a simple majority is enough to achieve the status of an "observing non-member state." The Palestinians can already count on this majority. So far 122 countries have bilaterally recognized the state of Palestine, and according to Maliki there will ultimately be 140. More votes also signify more pressure on Israel to agree to peace talks, more pressure on the world to work toward a solution, and new ground rules for negotiations. In the end, nothing will happen without negotiations. Even Maliki knows that. "We still prefer negotiations," he says. "If Israel makes a good offer, we will stop our campaign."

Israel Reacts

A diplomatic race has begun since the Palestinians announced their intention to petition for their independence. The Israeli Foreign Ministry told its ambassadors to cancel their summer vacations and sent secret cables to all of its embassies and consulates. One of the cables, which were published by the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, reads: "The goal we have set is to have the maximum number of countries oppose the process of having the UN recognize a Palestinian state. The Palestinian effort must be referred to as a process that erodes the legitimacy of the State of Israel ..."

Israel's nervous reaction is understandable. "The upgraded observer status could provide the Palestinians with access to UN institutions. That could cause problems," says a man who is involved in the diplomatic counteroffensive but prefers not to be named. Then he says: "We have to react to it."

He paints the grim scenario that most Israelis are now using as an argument to warn against the UN initiative: That the government in Jerusalem could see itself forced to take countermeasures that would upset the current calm. Israel has cleared out many checkpoints in the West Bank, but it could quickly man them once again. And if Israel and the United States stop making payments to the Palestinian Authority, as threatened, it would soon collapse. The Palestinian leadership is calling for peaceful mass protests, but they could quickly escalate. The Israeli security forces, at any rate, are already beefing up their supplies of tear gas, water canons and taser guns.

Because the Palestinians have already secured support for their cause from more countries at the UN than Israel will be able to achieve, Jerusalem's new goal is to win over what Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon calls the "moral majority." Above all, Israel wants to win the support of Europe, Japan, South Korea and North America. According to Ayalon's logic, if the large democracies are on Israel's side, this will deprive the vote in the General Assembly of its "moral significance." He is traveling to Portugal, Spain and Hungary soon to win those countries over, as well. The foreign minister has already been to Croatia, Albania, Austria and Macedonia for the same reason.

EU Divided on Initiative

So far only one European country, Germany, has spoken out publicly against the UN initiative. "Under no circumstances" do "unilateral recognitions" contribute to bringing about a two-state solution, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in April. Other European countries, like France, have signaled their approval.

Once again, the European Union appears to be divided on a key foreign policy issue -- now, of all times, when the Europeans are playing a more important role than ever before. The United States is practically out of the picture as a middleman. With a presidential election looming, Obama will be unwilling to hazard a confrontation with Israel. "The Americans can't do it alone. We also need the Europeans," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Catherine Ashton, the EU's high representative for foreign affairs.

Ashton is now working on two arbitration efforts aimed at avoiding a conflict in the UN. The first is a joint statement by the Middle East quartet, consisting of the EU, the United States, Russia and the UN, which could serve as a starting point for negotiations. She cleverly cites UN Resolution 181 from 1947, which calls for the creation of a Jewish and an Arab state. If the Palestinians agreed, this could be portrayed as the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, thereby eliminating an important obstacle on the path to negotiations.

But if the linguistic acrobatics are ineffective, an EU resolution could stop the Palestinian petition at the last minute. Instead of explicit recognition, this resolution would certify that the Palestinians had fulfilled all the requirements to form an independent state. This is the sort of language to which Riyad Mansour pays very close attention.

PR Coup or Diplomatic Victory?

Mansour is one of the heads of the UN initiative. No one is as comfortable with the complicated rules of the UN as he is. At 64, he has represented the Palestinians in the UN for almost two decades. He is familiar with all precedents, and he likes to refer to them, for example a 1972 General Assembly resolution confirming that Bangladesh had all the characteristics of a state. Two years later, the Security Council accepted Bangladesh as a member. Why shouldn't the same approach work for the Palestinians? "Naturally, it's only an example," Mansour says with a smile. He finds it amusing that, for the first time, the Palestinians are a step ahead. "We're playing our cards close to the chest," he says.

Recognition by the General Assembly would have its advantages. The Palestinians would then be members of all UN organizations. This would mean more power to take alleged Israeli war crimes before the International Criminal Court. In the worst case, the vote would be merely a PR coup, and in the best case it would be a diplomatic victory, the consequences of which would only become evident much later. Of 17 countries that had observer status, all but the Vatican eventually became UN members.

The historic example Mansour has studied the most intensively is Israel. "When the General Assembly adopted Resolution 181 in 1947, nothing happened on the next day. And nothing happened in the next week, either. But half a year later, Israel declared its independence. Would Israel have been able to do so without this resolution? The answer is no." He smiles, takes a deep breath and says: "It will be exactly the same way with Palestine."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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