Palestinians seeking statehood: What's at stake
September 16th, 2011
10:00 AM ET

Palestinians seeking statehood: What's at stake

By CNN National Security Producer Jamie Crawford

With Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over a future Palestinian state going nowhere, the Palestinians are expected to submit a formal request for statehood to the United Nations next week. The move is likely to set up a collision course with the United States and Israel and unleash a new reality with an uncertain outcome.

While the United States and others continue to seek a last minute compromise to head off any vote next week, analysts say the Palestinian government has come too far at this point to turn back.

"The Palestinian leadership understands very well the limitations of the U.N. statehood strategy," Haim Malka with the Center for Strategic and International Studies told CNN in an interview this week. "But they have put their political credibility to some degree on this strategy, and to backtrack at this point would be a blow to the Palestinian leadership's domestic credibility."

The Palestinians hold "observer" status in the United Nations, which allows their representative to speak in the General Assembly but not vote. Essentially, the Palestinians have a choice of taking their membership bid either to the Security Council or to the General Assembly. Both routes come with their own challenges and limitations.

A successful vote for the Palestinians in either forum will not lead to the establishment of a "state" with defined borders, but it would grant them an upgraded status within the United Nations, allowing them to take actions they are currently prevented from doing, such as pursuing legal action against Israel.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki said Thursday that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would present the Palestinian bid for full membership to the Security Council on September 23. Al-Malki said Abbas will personally submit the request to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon after he addresses the General Assembly, where he is likely to discuss the issue.

The Security Council is the only body at the U.N. that can extend "full member" status to a state, and thus formally recognize a state of Palestine as a member of the body. With the United States vowing to veto a formal Palestinian request at the Security Council, a membership drive through this route would be unlikely to go very far.

It would also present a difficult position for an Obama administration already on record for supporting the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Earlier this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said a Palestinian bid at the U.N. "will create more distractions toward achieving that goal" of statehood and urged both sides to return to direct negotiations. It is only through direct negotiations, the U.S. says, where outstanding issues such as final border demarcation, the status of Jerusalem, and the status of Palestinian refugees can be agreed to and allow for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The Palestinians would seem to have an easier path through the General Assembly, where they would likely have enough support for a vote upgrading their status to that of a "non-member state." This would put the Palestinians at the same level as the Vatican, which also sits as a non-member state in the General Assembly.

While an elevation to this status does not carry the same weight as an affirmative vote through the Security Council, it would give the Palestinians the right to observe and submit resolutions, and join other bodies and conventions at the United Nations. Furthermore, it could also strengthen their ability to pursue legal action against Israel in the International Criminal Court. While the Palestinians have not explicitly threatened to take this course of action, it is still a concerning prospect for both Israel and the United States.

There are several reasons the Palestinians are seeking a vote at the U.N., but Marwan Muasher with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says a main reason is over the issue of land in a future state. With the current Israeli government position of keeping all of Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley under a two-state solution, Palestinians would be left with a much smaller state than originally envisioned that would not be viable or contiguous. Seeking recognition along the 1967 lines that form the basis of current international discussions, Palestinians feel they might in legal and international terms keep Israel from taking more land. "They feel like this is one of the only ways, at least according to international law, to preserve the possibility of two-state solution," Muasher said.

Many analysts say the American political calendar also plays into the current Palestinian calculus. With peace talks at a standstill and with any major American involvement likely on hold until after next year's presidential election, the Palestinians feel they must continue on this path while Israeli settlement activity persists on land Palestinians see as part of a future state.

Questions remain as to what might happen after a vote goes through the Security Council or the General Assembly. Some have warned of the possibility of an outbreak in violence in the Palestinian territories if they are not successful at the U.N. Israel may also seek punitive measures such as tightening restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank or freezing tax revenue the Israeli government collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.

The Palestinian government faces domestic political liabilities of its own through increased opposition and resentment if Palestinians feel the strategy has failed to change their daily lives.

Regardless of the outcome, Malka says the future prospects of negotiations, along with recent expansion in security cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians, could face a serious setback. "That cooperation, which has really stabilized the West Bank and brought security to Israel, is in jeopardy if the Palestinian statehood bid moves forward through the United Nations."

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