As expected, the United Nations General Assembly voted (138–9, with 41 abstentions) to upgrade the status of the Palestinian Authority from an observer entity to a non-member state observer this afternoon.
Because individual governments are not required to comply with General Assembly resolutions, this vote is largely symbolic in terms of how governments regard Palestinian-statehood claims. The countries that already recognize “Palestine” as a state — roughly 130 — will continue to do so, and those that do not, including Israel and the U.S., will not change their position simply because a majority of the General Assembly supported the resolution.
However, the vote does damage to prospects for a negotiated peace. In the words of Ambassador Susan Rice following the vote:
The backers of today’s resolution say they seek a functioning, independent Palestinian state at peace with Israel. So do we.
But we have long been clear that the only way to establish such a Palestinian state and resolve all permanent-status issues is through the crucial, if painful, work of direct negotiations between the parties. . . .
Today’s grand pronouncements will soon fade. And the Palestinian people will wake up tomorrow and find that little about their lives has changed, save that the prospects of a durable peace have only receded. . . .
We will continue to oppose firmly any and all unilateral actions in international bodies or treaties that circumvent or prejudge the very outcomes that can only be negotiated, including Palestinian statehood. And, we will continue to stand up to every effort that seeks to delegitimize Israel or undermine its security.
Progress toward a just and lasting two-state solution cannot be made by pressing a green voting button here in this hall. Nor does passing any resolution create a state where none indeed exists or change the reality on the ground.
For this reason, today’s vote should not be misconstrued by any as constituting eligibility for U.N. membership. It does not. This resolution does not establish that Palestine is a state.
This is entirely correct. However, words are insufficient. The U.S. must send a message to the Palestinians and the U.N. that actions have consequences.
The vote will almost certainly lead the Palestinian Authority to seek membership in U.N. specialized agencies, as it did last year with UNESCO. It will be particularly hard for those specialized agencies that include the Vatican among their membership, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency and the International Telecommunication Union, to deny the Palestinians membership, because the Holy See is also a U.N. non-member state observer. The most significant impediment to Palestinian-membership efforts in other specialized agencies is the threat of losing U.S. funding, which means that the U.S. must maintain and enforce current law that prohibits funding international organizations that grant membership to the Palestinians.
The Palestinian Authority will also likely seek to either join the International Criminal Court (ICC) or ask the organization to revisit the ICC prosecutor’s conclusion earlier this year that he does not have the authority to initiate an investigation because the issue of Palestinian statehood is in question. The U.S. should communicate to the ICC that its decisions on these matters will influence future U.S. cooperation with that organization.
Finally, the Obama administration this past summer threatened the Palestinian Authority with significant reductions in assistance if they proceeded with the vote. The Palestinians ignored these warnings. The administration must now follow through or be perceived as weak and insincere, diminishing its influence for the next four years.