Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June/July 2002, page 47

Special Report

U.N. Membership for Palestine—Now

By John V. Whitbeck

Counterintuitive though it may seem, now may be the ideal time for Palestine to apply for—and obtain—full United Nations membership. Indeed, U.N. membership for Palestine now would be the most constructive achievable response of the international community to Ariel Sharon’s efforts to extinguish any Palestinian hope for eventual liberation from perpetual occupation, to the Likud Party Central Committee’s vote against there ever being a Palestinian state “west of the Jordan River,” and to Israel’s blatant defiance of successive Security Council resolutions.

The State of Palestine was proclaimed, within all the Palestinian territories occupied during the 1967 war, on Nov. 15, 1988 at the historic Palestine National Council meeting in Algiers which formally endorsed the two-state solution and recognized Israel within the 78 percent of historic Palestine which Israel had controlled prior to the 1967 war.

Within two months, the State of Palestine was recognized diplomatically by more than 100 other sovereign states. Today, it is recognized by roughly two-thirds of U.N. member states. Notwithstanding the subsequent Oslo accords, the state has never been renounced or legally ceased to exist. Indeed, in July 1998, by a 124 to 4 vote in the General Assembly, the “permanent observer” status of “Palestine” at the U.N. was upgraded to a unique and unprecedented level, with rights and privileges of participation that had previously been exclusive to member states.

The Palestinian Authority, an anomalous creature of the Oslo accords, legally ceased to exist on May 4, 1999, the date on which the “interim period” pursuant to these accords ended. No one having an interest in insisting upon this legal point, no one did. After Ariel Sharon’s spring onslaught, however, the “Authority” has effectively ceased to exist as a practical force on the ground as well as in legal theory. The State of Palestine, which does not require a second proclaiming, is available to fill the vacuum.

After his return to Palestine in 1994, Yasser Arafat listed three titles under his signature on his Arabic correspondence—President of the State of Palestine, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization and President of the “Palestinian National Authority.” However, the state was de-emphasized and, publicly, spoken of more as an aspiration than as the legal and diplomatic fact which it actually was.

There were two good strategic reasons for this. First, the Palestinian leadership believed that discretion and peaceful negotiations were more likely to produce a warm and open peace based on the two-state solution than thrusting the Palestinian state aggressively in the face of an Israeli state which, after all, still occupied militarily all of Palestine. Second, the Palestinian leadership believed that, at each point when bringing the state out of the closet was a serious prospect (indeed, on several occasions when President Arafat had solemnly promised to do so), a U.S. veto of U.N. membership was highly likely and might make the Palestinian position worse than before.

Perhaps for the first time ever an American veto is almost inconceivable.

Neither of these concerns is valid today. A warm and open peace is no longer conceivable. It is now almost universally accepted that separation based on the two-state solution and on the pre-June 1967 borders is essential for the peace and security of both peoples. When, in late March, the Arab League dramatically reaffirmed this fundamental formula in its Beirut Declaration, inspired by the Saudi Arabian initiative, almost all governments publicly embraced it. Not even Israel or the United States dared to publicly dismiss it.

In light of the events of recent weeks, who would dare to oppose Palestine’s admission to full U.N. membership if it were to apply now? The U.S. has, very belatedly, become aware of the white-hot anti-American rage boiling throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds. Demonstrators have attacked the American Embassy in Bahrain, and other American embassies in the region have been spared attack only by vigorous police action.

At this point, particularly after President Bush has spoken repeatedly of his “vision” of a Palestinian state, would the U.S. dare to veto Palestine’s U.N. membership? Perhaps for the first time ever—but during a window of opportunity which may not be open for long—an American veto is almost inconceivable.

If Palestine, within its internationally accepted pre-June 1967 borders, were a U.N. member state, not simply “the occupied territories” and no longer even arguably “disputed,” for how much longer could Israel maintain its occupation, which even Kofi Annan now publicly brands “illegal”? The writing would clearly be on the wall for all to see. The end of the occupation, even if not imminent, instantly would become only a question of “when,” no longer of “whether.” No change currently imaginable is more likely to reverse the accelerating cycle of violence than a mutual realization of this inevitability.

A Cruel Joke?

It is now widely believed among Palestinians that the only conceivable way to end the occupation is to convince a majority of Israelis that it is in their personal self-interest to do so and that the only conceivable way to accomplish this is to kill Israelis in Israel—for as long as it takes. Western insistence that the Palestinians renounce violent resistance in return for the opportunity to negotiate with Ariel Sharon is viewed as a cruel joke.

A credible alternative to this brutal logic, capable of inspiring hope that the future may offer something better than a life worse than death, is desperately needed. U.N. membership and worldwide recognition of the State of Palestine—particularly if it were conferred in these darkest days of the occupation—could provide that alternative and that hope. It is an opportunity which can and must be seized.

John V. Whitbeck is an international lawyer who writes frequently on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.