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State of play: why Palestine’s bid for UN recognition might be counter-productive

Palestinian civilians outside a United Nations installation in the West Bank city of Hebron. AAP

Some hypothetical situations just aren’t worth investing too much thought in. What would I serve the Queen if she turned up for dinner? What sort of private jet would I buy if I inherited a billion dollars? What things would I take from Earth if I moved to a colony on Mars?

In a similar vein is the question of “What will happen if Palestine becomes a full member of the United Nations?”

Pushing forward a claim of sovereign statehood at the UN is a nice publicity stunt on the part of the Palestinians but a futile one.

Worse still, it is considered vexatious by some parties and will lead to further rifts within the Palestinian factions themselves, with the “Death to Israel” gang being able to say that peaceful diplomacy is pointless.

If it were a simple matter of counting votes, the Palestinians would have had their own state years ago. Around 120 nations currently recognise Palestinian sovereignty, which is more than half of all UN members.

But it’s not quite two thirds of all members, and that is what is required for admission to the club.

If this were Australian politics, you might think that a few late night phone calls and factional number crunching might see things over the line for the Palestinians. But UN recognition is more complex than requiring a majority.

And the fact is that members of the General Assembly will never even get to cast their votes anyway.

The Security Council roadblock

To be placed on the voting agenda in the General Assembly, a would-be state’s bid for full membership must first be approved by the Security Council.

If any of the permanent five members vetos the motion it is dead in the water and will never be put to the vote. Given that America, Britain and France are all opposed to formalising a separate Palestinian state, the bid for full recognition will be quickly killed off.

The General Assembly does have its own authority to grant Palestine “Permanent Observer” status. It’s hard though to see what this symbolic vote will achieve beyond formalising what is already well established: many states support an independent Palestine, but some very powerful ones do not.

Who would run independent Palestine?

Palestinian police patrol in front of a West Bank painting by British artist Banksy. AAP

The objections that the West has to full Palestinian sovereignty are many, but the primary one is that it jumps the gun on the two-state solution that most see as the road map for an Arab-Israeli peace.

The key issue here is the territorial boundaries that would need to be defined. The Palestinian bid for recognition is predicated on formalising the 1967 borders of Israel as the demarcation between the two states.

This is unacceptable to Israel due to security concerns and the presence of hundreds of thousands of their settlers who would be displaced.

On top of this territorial issue is the diplomatic obstacle of identifying who would actually be running the new Palestinian state.

Given that the Palestinians themselves still can’t agree on how to share power, Israel and the West are able to cite the very real possibility that Hamas members would be partially in control.

It would be completely illogical for the United States to allow into being a new state that espouses death and destruction to Israel, not only America’s closest ally but also the most democratic nation in the region.

The connection between Hamas and the recent terror attacks in southern Israel just offers further evidence for this argument.

The Arab paradox

For some Arab states, one interesting conundrum with supporting the Palestinian bid is that it negates their decades of calling for the complete liberation of Israeli territory.

By signing up to the idea of a two states defined along 1967 lines, countries such as Syria effectively admit Israel’s right to occupy other parts of the historical region of Palestine.

President Obama may have raised hopes with his allusion to the 1967 borders as a starting point for negotiations, but the question arises as to what a failed bid might mean for Palestinian morale.

Additionally, impotent diplomatic efforts also provide fuel to the hotheads about the necessity for violent struggle, and that inevitably gives Israel the pretext for further foot-dragging.

Applying for statehood is nothing more than a ploy on the part of the Palestinians, but it seems an ill-judged one. If the idea was to force the Israelis into making some major compromises, it is difficult to see how an impossible attempt at full UN membership could have done this.

It’s one thing to threaten, but you need to be holding a stick of your own.

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