The U.N. General Assembly is expected to vote today on a proposal to elevate the status of the Palestinian Authority. The PA is currently a permanent-observer “entity.” It is seeking to become a permanent-observer “non-member state.” Last year, the Obama administration blocked the PA’s bid for full U.N. membership by threatening to use the U.S.’s Security Council veto, asserting that “efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state.”
A unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood would undermine all internationally accepted frameworks for peace, including U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 and the U.N.-sponsored Road Map for Peace, as well as other U.N. statements that call for a Palestinian state and delineation of borders through a negotiated mutual agreement with Israel. Diplomatically and rhetorically, the Palestinians would portray elevated status in the U.N. as validation of their unilateral declaration of statehood and use it to circumvent bilateral negotiations with Israel. This effort threatens both U.S. and Israeli interests, and the administration is right to oppose it.
Moreover, if successful, the Palestinians could exploit their status as a non-member state to demand participation in international organizations in a manner consistent with that of other non-member states. The Palestinian Authority could then use the recognition of it by these organizations to launch diplomatic, political, and legal challenges to Israel. For instance, in 2009 the Palestinians asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) to extend its jurisdiction to the Palestinian territories and to investigate crimes allegedly committed by Israel. Earlier this year, the ICC prosecutor concluded that he does not have authority to initiate an investigation because the issue of Palestinian statehood is in question. The Palestinians would likely use their new status in the General Assembly to apply for membership in the ICC, which would obviate the organization’s previous determination. Even without ICC membership, GA recognition of statehood would influence the organization.
Unfortunately, the Palestinian Authority has strong support in the General Assembly, with well over 100 countries publicly recognizing “Palestine” as a state. And its support could be much higher even than that, as countries such as France, which does not currently recognize “Palestine,” have stated that they will also vote in favor.
Even the United Kingdom, one of America’s closest allies, has offered to vote in favor if the Palestinian Authority agrees to resume peace negotiations with Israel without preconditions, immediately, and agrees not to seek membership in the ICC or the International Court of Justice or to pursue war-crimes charges against Israel.
The British tactic is Pollyannaish. Even if the PA agrees to these conditions, there is no way to enforce their compliance once they are granted elevated status. Indeed, history is replete with examples of the Palestinians’ having pocketed a concession while failing to honor their pledges.
The Palestinian effort to use the U.N. to bolster its unilateral statehood claim is a serious threat to U.S. interests and undermines all internationally accepted frameworks for peace. If the vote on elevating the status of the Palestinian Authority in the General Assembly is held today, it is almost certain to succeed.
Over the past few months, the U.S. threatened to cut assistance to the PA in an effort to convince it to pull back. Undaunted, the Palestinians seem determined to proceed. Considering the administration’s efforts to restore funding to UNESCO even after UNESCO granted membership to the PA, the Palestinians likely doubt that the U.S. will follow through.
If the Obama administration proves them right by failing to act, it will encourage the Palestinians to undertake even rasher actions, both in diplomacy and in military affairs .
And so, if the Palestinian Authority proceeds, the Obama administration and Congress should respond immediately, in a direct and targeted fashion. Specifically, the U.S. should cut economic assistance to the Palestinian Authority and all funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
Moreover, the U.S. must maintain and enforce current law prohibiting funding to organizations that grant recognition of the Palestinians in the absence of a peace treaty between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.
Weakening or eliminating current law, as the Obama administration has sought to do, would effectively encourage these organizations to recognize the Palestinians as a state. Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.) and Brad Sherman (D., Calif.) authored a bipartisan letter of opposition to the administration’s effort to waive or amend the law, arguing that “weakening U.S. law . . . would undermine our interests and our ally Israel by providing a green light for other U.N. bodies to admit ‘Palestine’ as a member.”
The Palestinians’ effort to use the U.N. and its affiliated organizations to bolster its unilateral statehood claims is a deliberate attempt to isolate Israel and avoid concessions that would be necessary in negotiating a peace agreement with it. If the U.S. fails to act, it would send an unmistakable signal of weakness that would undermine its credibility for the remainder of President Obama’s term.
— Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at the Heritage Foundation. James Phillips is senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation.