Palestinian statehood: What is the U.N.’s role?


Hamas official Mousa Abu Marzook insists that a vote this fall in the General Assembly cannot be stopped.

The Israeli prime minister’s recent trip to the United States was a blatant effort to stop the march of history.

Increasingly, nations throughout the world community are refusing to acquiesce to the U.S.-Israel axis that has kept Palestinians voiceless in the world community for more than six decades. An international movement currently underway will probably culminate this fall in a vote by the U.N. General Assembly to recognize statehood for Palestine on the basis of the pre-1967 borders. Because this movement is beyond the control of the United States and Israel, their agenda has become one of obstruction, and the public relations battle has begun.


For the United States, this has meant a predictable effort to resurrect and promote the long moribund and discredited “peace process.” President Obama assured the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, last month that “no vote at the United Nations will ever create an independent Palestinian state,” dismissing the effort as a plot “to delegitimize the state of Israel.”

Israel, for its part, is issuing dire warnings to European capitals about violence on the ground in Palestine. Israel is also moving to consolidate its West Bank settlements, meaning more annexations and increased occupation. Both leaders, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama, insist that any U.N. declaration of statehood would be invalid.

Can someone please explain to 6 million Palestinians why a 1947 U.N. vote could lead to the establishment of Israel — but cannot do the same for us today?

For decades the U.S. has positioned itself as the “neutral” guarantor of the peace process, holding out eventual statehood for Palestinians. Yet all the while it has tolerated Israel’s illegal settlements and annexations, and ensured its rise as a world military power. The U.S. has allowed its ally to preside over an apartheid system with ruthless and often fatal consequences for Palestinians who dare to resist. Long ago the U.S. forfeited its status as a disinterested referee. Given America’s complete support for the occupation, why should Palestinians believe its president’s promise of statehood?

At his recent pep rally in Washington, Netanyahu received a hero’s welcome from AIPAC and a gushing display of congressional fealty from a roomful of people who heard what they came for but left none the wiser. He characterized the Palestinian economy as “booming,” thanks to Israel’s “help.” It is unclear if this was meant to mock the millions in the Gaza Strip who live in abject poverty with their homes and infrastructure, airport and seaport still shattered from the last Israeli onslaught. And while Netanyahu demands we accept the Jewish state as a precondition for talks, Israel accepts no preconditions itself, especially not with regard to its illegal and universally-condemned settlements. In fact, Zionism has never had any intentions of allowing a Palestinian state—not in 1948, not in 1967, not at Oslo, not at Camp David, and not now.

Palestinians alive at the time we were expelled from our land to make way for the Jewish state — the Nakba, or catastrophe, as we call it — are today elderly. Many of them have known little else since that time but the despair of refugee camps, scattered throughout the Middle East for more than 60 years. Those born when the 1967 land grab first began are today middle-aged and have lived under occupation all their lives. Our young, born against the backdrop of the flawed Oslo accords, are yet another lost generation, their essential freedoms curtailed in every way imaginable, by blockade and checkpoint, or hemmed in by armed settlers who steal ever more land with their trailer parks and hilltop towers.


The peace process has given nothing to Palestinians. All of us — no matter what our aspirations, politics or religious beliefs — share one thing: We are stateless. It is high time that the force of international law play its part in guaranteeing a future for our people. The U.N. vote would recognize a state of Palestine, which would be a crucial starting point for participation in community of nations, rebuilding our country and determining our own future without interference or control of others.

The American president is a powerful orator. But great speeches without great deeds are mere rhetoric. When I met with the foreign minister of a European country recently, my host suggested that Obama’s public endorsement of the 1967 borders as a basis for peace in Palestine was a step toward justice for our people. I suggested that we should wait before finding comfort in the president’s words, as they often change to suit the politics of the moment. By the next weekend, the predictable flip-flop had occurred. In a speech to AIPAC, the president promised “unprecedented levels” of new, additional military aid, “beyond” anything contemplated by any previous administration.

Unlike Obama, we have consistently said the same thing to whomever we address. The right of return for our refugees is not just an absolute legal right under international law but a moral issue, which we will not cede or trade away, no matter what. Nor will we permit East Jerusalem to be wrenched away from us. Yet these core national issues are relegated to mere “emotional” footnotes in the president’s speech. And no sovereignty is worthy of the name if we do not control our own borders; the requirement that we permit foreign troops to maintain “security zones” within our country is unacceptable, while the demand that our future state be demilitarized would guarantee its failure. Our reconciliation with Fatah means that we are one people speaking with one voice, and Palestine will not allow foreign powers to dictate who our leaders will be — and our leadership includes Hamas.

The president’s call for a vague period of “transition” and a “phased withdrawal” of Israeli occupation is only more stalling. We have no interest in any “peace process” designed to eat up yet another 15 years as presidents come and go, making speeches. In the meanwhile, we will take our chances with statehood now, and we reject any more subordination among the community of nations. The blockade around Gaza is today crumbling, as the international community prepares to reset the rules of the game. In this time of profound Arab change, Palestinians will chart their own course, and there is nothing that the United States or Israel can do to stop it.

Mousa Abu Marzook is one of the founders of Hamas and its deputy political bureau chief. He was born in Gaza and lived in the United States for 14 years.

John R. Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., says a vote would only diminish the world body.


An aversion to reality can be a powerfully destructive force. Its most visible manifestation in international affairs lies in trying to create political “facts on the ground” through the United Nations. Accordingly, it is no surprise that the Middle East, one of our most intractable problems, provokes so much U.N. activity, even though the real-world consequences are so limited.

The next episode of reality avoidance is the near certainty that, this fall, the General Assembly will vote to recognize a Palestinian state, possibly also declaring that state’s borders with Israel to be the 1967 lines (actually, just the Green Line marking the 1949 cease-fire positions). Absent dramatic action by Washington, perhaps 150 or more of the U.N.’s 192 members, including many nominal U.S. allies, will vote in favor.

Will such a resolution actually make any difference? Is it political theater, or something to take seriously? While a General Assembly convulsion would be largely symbolic, symbols can have consequences if you accept their underlying mythology. How will Israel respond? How should the United States respond?

First, neither the Security Council nor the General Assembly has the legal authority to declare statehood. The U.N.’s website says candidly that the world body “does not possess any authority to recognize either a state or a government.” Attempting to ram such a declaration through is not merely improper but destructive of the U.N. itself.

Some, however, argue that there is precedent, citing General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947, which endorsed a plan to partition the former British League of Nations mandate into Jewish and Arab states, and a “special international regime” for Jerusalem. They should read what the resolution actually says. Like all assembly resolutions, it is not legally binding. It simply “recommends” the partition plan in question, and “requests that the Security Council take the necessary measures” to implement it. The council never adopted the plan. Although the Jewish leadership accepted it, the Arabs did not, and a multi-front Arab assault followed. End of precedent.

While the foregoing international law arguments are complex and probably have eternal life, they will settle nothing today. Perhaps the most reality-averse idea of all is believing the League of Nations’ or the U.N.’s actions more than 50 years ago reveal a solution for today. Resolving the Arab-Israeli dispute is ultimately a matter of power and political resolve now, not ambiguous precedents and musty resolutions. If dust-gathering texts from the past could determine the outcome now, what logic requires us to go back merely a few decades? Why not go back millenniums for even more compelling authority?


Second, whatever serious political work is done at the U.N. is done by the Security Council, where the veto of the five permanent members -- the United States, France, China, Britain and Russia -- gives them predominance. For decades, this has aggravated Third World nations, the largest of which alternate between advocating the abolition of the veto or themselves becoming permanent members. If the U.N. is ever to play a constructive role in the Arab-Israeli dispute, it will be through the Security Council, not the General Assembly.

The council and the assembly jointly decide on the admission of new members to the U.N. Because the U.N. Charter provides that only “states” can be members, a decision to admit “Palestine” would obviously mean that those supporting membership considered “Palestine” to meet the charter’s statehood requirement. Last year, many believed the Obama administration might not veto a Palestinian membership application, and the original Palestinian strategy was indeed to convene the council to seek U.N. admission, or at least declare a Palestinian state. The outcry from President Obama’s political opponents, and even from otherwise supportive Democrats, punctured that balloon, thereby prompting statehood advocates’ switch to the General Assembly’s almost uniformly anti-Israel, anti-U.S. majority. This is the true indicator of reality aversion.

Finally, if the president chooses to stand by and let a resolution happen, rather than taking dramatic diplomatic action such as threatening to cut off U.S. contributions to the U.N., the proper U.S. response is to ignore whatever passes. When the General Assembly adopted the infamous “Zionism is racism” resolution in 1975, Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan responded: “The United States rises to declare ? that it does not acknowledge, that it will not abide by and that it will never acquiesce in this infamous act.” That’s a good place to start here as well. We should simply disregard the outcome, and tell the world so at every opportunity. Israel and whoever else stands tall and votes against the resolution in that very lonely General Assembly room should do the same.

The reality is that the controlling U.N. approach to this dispute is grounded in the decisions made after the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, namely Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. These “land for peace” resolutions make no mention of “the 1967 borders” or any other specific line, and for very compelling reasons. Those who drafted these texts understood full well that the 1967 lines could never meet Israel’s legitimate quest, in 242’s words, “to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.” It has been America’s consistent policy to support those Israeli aspirations, and should remain so today.

Taking assembly recommendations to heart can only cause problems. True, a massive majority supporting Palestinian statehood will constitute yet another assault on Israel’s legitimacy and its security needs. And while that vote is likely to be frustrating and bitter, it is best to treat it like the grass we tread beneath our feet.

In fact, a Palestinian statehood resolution will almost certainly wound the United Nations, perhaps gravely, just as for many Americans “Zionism is racism” delegitimized not Israel but the U.N. itself. Perhaps that risk will awaken our excessively multilateralist administration to the dangers of acquiescing in the Palestinian proposal. Does Obama believe that further discrediting the U.N. is really in our interest?


If, however, he continues to be the most anti-Israel president since 1948, then others will have to act. Congress could adopt legislation cutting off American contributions to the U.N. if the Palestinian resolution is adopted, which might persuade statehood advocates to back down. In any event, there will be fireworks this autumn over Turtle Bay, but no real harm as long as we remember that, in the end, it’s just entertainment.

John R. Bolton is a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N.