The Coming UN Crisis


President Obama has spoken in recent weeks of his aim to encourage Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation.  That aim will be hindered and perhaps permanently derailed in September 2011, if the United Nations General Assembly passes the Palestinian Authority's unilateral declaration of independence and establishment of a Palestinian state.    

The Palestinian Authority is using legal methods for political advantage in seeking international approval to establish a state on the principle of self-determination. Looking at history shows that this action is not as straightforward as it may seem.  If the UN passes the resolution, it will then be complicit in the continuing Palestinian policy of refusing to acknowledge the existence and legitimacy of Israel. A unilateral declaration will not only challenge Israel but also would present problems for the United States and the Western democratic world.

The resolution would call for a Palestinian state along the 1949 cease-fire, armistice lines. This is both a questionable proposition and an act of bad faith.   The resolution would be based on the UN General Assembly Resolution 181 (II), the Partition Resolution, of November 29, 1947, which called for the creation of independent Arab and Jewish states, and a special international regime for the city of Jerusalem.  The boundaries of all those entities were laid down in the Resolution.  On this basis the state of Israel was established. However, the Arabs rejected that resolution. They, not the international community, prevented the creation of a Palestinian state. The Arab argument was that by accepting the Resolution it would recognize the right of the state of Israel to exist. 

This refusal to accept the state of Israel alongside a Palestinian state was reinforced at the Arab Summit Conference in Khartoum on September 1, 1967 which upheld the rights of the Palestinian people to their land but stated that the basic Arab commitment entailed non-recognition of Israel, no conciliation or negotiation with it.  A Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence would be based on this principle. By approving the unilateral declaration the United Nations might be abrogating the right of the state of Israel to exist

The General Assembly will certainly endorse a Palestinian declaration by a large majority. It would send it to the Security Council for ratification and action.  The United States should at that point exercise its veto for three reasons.

First, if the US does not veto the resolution it would be an indication to the world that it may be abandoning full support for the existence of Israel.  That could have dire consequences.  Second, it would mean that the US condones and accepts the bad faith of the Palestinian Authority in not abiding by all UN agreements which state that the conflict with Israel should be resolved by peaceful negotiations, not by unilateral declarations (The Declaration of Principles of September 13, 1993 between the two parties reiterated the requirement that all disputes between Israel and the Palestinians should be resolved by negotiations).  Third, the passage of the resolution would mean that all issues, borders, refugees, Jerusalem, remain unresolved.  There will be no mechanism for resolving these issues, and with Hamas  now integral to the Palestinian government, any peaceful resolution of the conflict with Israel is unlikely.

A further disturbing problem might then arise.  After a US veto, the Palestinians would resort to UN General Assembly Resolution 377, the "Uniting for Peace Resolution, introduced by the United States and adopted by a vote of 52 to 5 on November 3, 1950.  This resolution stated that where the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the five permanent members, failed to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, the General Assembly could then consider the matter immediately and make recommendations to members for collective measures, including the use of armed force when necessary.

At best, this would lead to a dispute between the respective power of the UN Security Council and the General Assembly.  It is improbable that the United States would call for revoking a resolution it had introduced 60 years earlier.

At worst, it might allow hostile countries to engage in military activities against Israel, as well as allow Palestinians to act on their own.

The wisest policy for the United States (and the international community as well) is to avoid this scenario by persuading the Palestinian authorities to abandon their push for a unilateral declaration at this time.  To do so in the absence of an unequivocal statement accepting the state of Israel, would be harmful both to the peace process and to themselves.

Michael Curtis is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Rutgers University.