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Why Is Palestine's Bid for UN Membership So Contentious? An Expert Explains.

Tense negotiations are continuing after Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas last week urged world leaders to support his bid for membership in the United Nations.  Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposes recognizing Palestine as a state in the UN…and the president of the United States essentially stands alone next to Israel, saying that a Palestinian state cannot be created merely within the chambers of the UN.

Currently, the Palestinian Territories are not recognized as a state:  the West Bank exists under Israeli occupation, and the Gaza Strip has some degree of autonomy. KSMU’s Jennifer Moore spoke with an expert to learn more.

Moore:   Professor Jeffrey VanDenBerg is a professor of political science and the director of Drury University’s Middle East Studies Program.  Thanks so much for being here today.

VanDenBerg:  Thank you.

Moore:   First of all, let’s peel this apart to the core:  what is Palestine’s status on the world stage right now?  When someone says, “I’m from Palestine,” what are they referring to?

VanDenBerg:  Well, when someone says, “I’m from Palestine,” they mean that in a geographical sense. That is, they’re from the area of the world that they consider to be Palestine—what others might say is the West Bank or Gaza Strip.  That’s one way they mean it.

But more importantly, they mean it in an identity sense. When they say, “I’m from Palestine,” they mean that their national identity, their sense of self, is as a Palestinian.

But what that means in the legal sense, or if you like, the international relations sense, is a little more complicated:  officially speaking, Palestine has non-state observer status in the UN General Assembly…which means it’s not internationally recognized as a state, but [rather] as an entity. It doesn’t have voting rights. It doesn’t have rights of membership in the UN, but it’s there as an observer.

Moore: So, why is the issue of a Palestinian state in the UN so contentious?

VanDenBerg:   Well, it’s contentious for many reasons. It’s contentious because the land is under dispute. The very same space is dually claimed by both Isreal and the Palestinians. So that’s at the core of it: it’s a land dispute.

But more recently, more specifically with the discussions in the United Nations, it’s under dispute because, from the Palestinian point of view, they seek international recognition of Palestine as a state. And they feel that that would help give them standing to resolve the issues of dispute, or the negotiations, on a more level standing with Israel.

From the Israeli point of view, they’re concerned about the Palestinians gaining statehood, and therefore full membership in the UN, primarily because that would give Palestinians, or the state of Palestine, standing in international bodies that they currently don’t have and, Israelis are worried, would lead to policies or adjudications that would be against their interests

For example, if you’re a member state in the UN, you have the right to take another state to the International Court of Justice, which is a body of the UN that’s empowered to settle border disputes between states.

Moore:  What are the political ramifications for President Barack Obama? He has taken a stance siding with Israel to say, Look, this is not the best way—this is not the time to declare a Palestinian state in the UN. What does he stand to risk?

VanDenBerg:   Well, President Obama, in this instance, is in a very unenviable position. 

On the one stand, he and actually presidents before him, including George W. Bush, have declared their support for the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state. They’re both on record as [being] behind a two-state solution, Palestine and Israel, side by side.

President Obama, last year, declared this year would be the one of final negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and of course, that’s nowhere near happening.  He also indicated last year that that would include full membership in the UN for a state of Palestine.

That’s on the one hand.  On the other hand, of course, the US has a very important and long relationship with Israel.  And the Israeli position is clear that the UN statehood membership is not the preferred path for negotiations.  That’s in the foreign policy sense.

In the domestic political sense, the risks are also great, because, obviously, the US and any president has this long, important history of a close relationship with Israel.  Any policies  that are, or can be portrayed  in a political sense as being against Israel make any politician vulnerable.

That’s primarily why he worked so hard, and his administration worked so hard to try to prevent this debate from happening—to keep the Palestinian application for membership in the UN from  happening. But of course, that was unsuccessful.

Moore:  Lastly, Dr. VanDenBerg, why should Americans care about this issue?

VanDenBerg:   Well, because it directly affects American interests. It directly affects the US economy. Our own intelligence agencies identified the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a major source of international instability, and a major recruiting issue for international terrorism, which of course, directly affects American interests.  

Our own interests are closely tied, at the moment, to petroleum resources—and this level of instability creates instability in oil markets.

It also is because we have such an important and long standing relationship with Israel.   And this kind of insecurity and instability, and a lack of resolution, is detrimental to a key ally.  So the US has tremendous interests, and those interests go all the way down to the local communities, because it affects pocketbooks. It affects our young soldiers who are serving overseas…it connects everywhere.