Should the UN Recognize a Palestinian State?

The issue of Palestinian statehood has been debated for over sixty years between Israel and the Palestinians. After decades of impasse, the Palestinians have decided to take their case to the United Nations. A large majority of UN member states throughout the international community appear willing to recognize a Palestinian state with or without approval from Israel.

Such recognition would offer the Palestinians negotiating and voting power within the United Nations, and perhaps pressure the Israelis to agree to a final agreement. But, it would not necessarily change the reality on the ground, where Israel would still control Palestinian land in the West Bank and elsewhere. The Obama Administration pledged to veto a push to recognize Palestine in the Security Council, where approval is required to enter the UN as a full member. If that effort fails, Abbas has pledged to pursue recognition within the General Assembly, where they could achieve a lesser form of recognition akin to what the Vatican has received. There are a number of questions in this debate: Would a vote, and possibly passage of a resolution in support of Palestinian statehood, undermine or accelerate peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians? Is it encouraging that the Palestinians are pursuing a non-violent means of diplomacy through the UN, versus previous violent campaigns? Do the Palestinians have a moral case for self-determination? What are the practical gains of UN membership and voting powers?

Critical to understanding this debate is to realize that in order for UN Recognition to occur, the United States must at the very least abstain on a Security Council vote. While such a course of action would be contrary to stated policy, if it were to occur it would be a momentous even in and of itself, and that is something that should be taken into consideration by teams in the course of the debate.

Independence Matters – there are real legal and diplomatic consequences to such a move

Going to the UN would transform the legal status of Palestine. While this would not immediate change the physical contours of the conflict – Israeli incursions, the occupation, the existence of settlements, it would transform the context in which they take place.

For one thing, there would no longer be ambiguity about the status of the West Bank and the settlements on it.[1] The UN would be making clear that in the eyes of international law they would be illegal.

This might not force an immediate withdrawal from the settlements, but it would incentivise the settlers themselves to crave the legal legitimacy of a settlement that could confirm them in possession of their property. After all, who would want to invest as much in land that might have to be abandoned? This in turn might make Israel more likely to make concessions elsewhere, because the Palestinian signatures on an agreement recognizing the legality of settlements would have real value in the future.

Furthermore, while no new physical force would be preventing the Israeli army from engaging in military operations in Gaza or the West Bank, the legal optics of marching in and out of a recognized state would present difficulties.

In addition, one of the great banes of Palestinian existence is that they are stateless. For all practical purposes Palestinians need Israeli permission to travel abroad. A recognized passport would allow them alternative means to travel and work in countries which do recognize Palestine even if those are a minority.

Finally it would put pressure on governments that voted for a Palestinian state to put their money where their mouth is and actually respond to the fact that a legal state is being occupied. Otherwise they might well face popular pressure at home.

[1] MacIntyre, Donald, ‘The Big Question: What are Israeli settlements, and why are they coming under pressure?’, The Independent, 29 May 2009,



The UN proclaiming Palestine an independent state would do no more to advance the cause of peace than the UN proclaiming a Palestinian and a Jewish State in 1948 did. The day after the declaration the Israeli Army would remain, the settlements would still be there, and the Israelis would be determined to prove exactly how little the UN’s actions means to them. As a result it’s likely that military incursions rather than declining would increase. Israel already has a bad reputation, and has long since given up any ambition to be loved by its neighbours in the short-run. On the contrary in some cases it has deliberately fostered a sense of fear, perhaps best illustrated by its non-denial policy regarding its officially non-existent nuclear program,[1] and the Mossad’s efforts to build up a reputation for invincibility as well as the motive for fear of Iranian nuclear weapons.[2]

Bowing to the world community would badly damage Israeli’s deterrence in this respect. The best way of maintaining that fear would be to launch a new series of incursions and settlement expansions in the face of UN protests to demonstrate Israel’s willingness to ignore the UN.

Israel furthermore is unlikely to be threatened by international support for Palestinians. If countries are hostile enough to cut off aid in event of UN recognition, they probably have minimal relations with Israel in the status quo. If anything, the main consequence legally is likely to be for Israel to expel UN agencies and observers which might very well worsen the human rights situation.

[1] Baliga, Sandeep, and Sjöström, Tomas, ‘Strategic Ambiguity and Arms Proliferation’, NorthWestern University,

[2] Roth, Ariel Ilan, ‘The Root of All Fears Why Is Israel So Afraid of Iranian Nukes?’, Foreign Affairs, 24 November 2009,

Such a move is historically and morally justified

There is significant justification, both for recognition of a Palestinian state and for the UN recognition in particular to carry more weight than it otherwise might.

For one thing, Israel was created by a resolution of the UN General Assembly, and to the extent Israel denies the legitimacy of the UN’s actions and its right to engage in them, it is implicitly questioning the legitimately of its own creation and continued existence, leaving them both a product of “blood and iron.”

Secondly, the UN has a responsibility to help resolve a situation its own failures helped create. By passing a partition plan, and then doing nothing to prevent first its collapse into wholesale war, and then the Jordanian occupation of the Palestinian territories in the West Bank, the UN has a an obligation to the Palestinians.[1]

[1] Palestine Facts, ‘Jordan Renounced Claims to West Bank, 1988’,


The UN’s own failures in the past should be a warning, not a motivation, regarding involvement in a conflict where it has limited power to implement an outcome.

The UN’s goal needs to be the creation of a stable Palestinian state living in peace with Israel. This policy would in reality encourage the exact opposite.  While it would do little to help the Palestinians, delegitimizing Israel’s creation would be a tool in the hands of figures in the Arab world and elsewhere whose interests in the region are not in peace with Israel but in its destruction. It seems likely Iran at the very minimum would seize on a claim that Israel’s license to exist has been withdrawn.

In turn, if Israel interpreted the UN’s move as a an attack on its legitimacy as a state, it would be likely to interpret the move as having anti-Semitic overtones, strengthening the hands of those in Israel who see the UN as a stalking horse for anti-Semitism, and thereby reducing the UN’s ability to play a future role in resolving the conflict.

The will make that a two-state solution will be the final settlement even if its contours are unclear

The recognition of a Palestinian state by the UN would have de facto effect of freezing out alternative plans for a settlement – i.e. a one state solution, or some sort of autonomy – and making clear that the end result, if not necessarily two states on boundaries approximating those of 1967, will none the less be two states in some form.

This is because the Palestinians, once they have gained recognition as a state, are unlikely to ever bargain it away. This in turn removes a number of the fantasies about “autonomy” floating around in Israel, as well as fears about Jews being swamped in a bi-national state.

The issues of dispute will therefore be reduced to those of settling boundaries, setting up trade and customs policies, and deciding on sovereignty over holy places.[1]

[1] Rosenberg, M.J., ‘Obama Should Support Palestinian Statehood at the United Nations’, HuffPost World, 22 July 2011,


In the long-run UN action may freeze the negotiations into a discussion of a two-state solution, but UN action is not required to reach this eventuality. Even Avigdor Lieberman on the Far Right accepts that there will be two states, and that has been the basic premise of the Peace Process since 1994.

On the issues which have actually prevented a two state solution from coming to fruition- disputes about borders, armaments, security, and settlements, the UN would accomplish nothing. Furthermore, it might well make both sides intransigent, the Israelis due to perceiving themselves as being backed into a corner internationally, the Palestinians due to the belief they no longer need to make concessions.

A UN move would internationalize the problem, and pave the way for broader for international solutions

One of the major problems with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict up to now is that it has been localized between the Israelis and Palestinians, with outside involvement limited to putting pressure on one side or the other at various times.

The result is that negotiations have become a zero-sum game where concessions from one side have to be extracted from the other. Allowing the Israelis to keep settlements means that the Palestinians must give up land. Allowing a “Right of return” to Palestinians is seen is something Israel alone must carry the burden of, when the vast majority live in other Arab states that perhaps should play a part in any sort of compensation scheme.

Consequently, negotiations have been far more brutal than they otherwise might have been. UN Recognition or at least a debate about it would move the forum of the discussion away from bilateral talks, and into the international sphere. The UN, by acknowledging responsibility for mishandling things on the Palestinian side in 1948, would in effect pave the way to help solve issues like the right of return and the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab states that cannot be resolved satisfactorily on a bilateral basis.


While issues like the “Right of Return” might benefit from an international approach, it’s hard to see why international recognition would make neighbouring states more likely to pay for or allow the settlement of, Palestinian refugees. Furthermore, a “sovereign” state may feel less inclined to compromise on its rights, especially if the International Community seems to have just conceded the legitimacy of those claims.

Such a move will make Palestinian expectations much higher and their position more intransigent

One of the major obstacles to peace has consistently been the unrealistic expectations which have existed on the Palestinian side. From 1994 onwards, the Palestinians have confused the Peace Process with a process by which “wrongs will be righted” and their “rightful demands” met, rather than a compromise process of give and take. This has been fed by leaders like Yasser Arafat who have told Palestinians for so long that they will have a state with a capital in Jerusalem, with a right of return, etc. that it has become impossible for them to then go back to their constituents and sell concessions.

The fact is that no viable Peace Deal with satisfy everyone, and Israel has minimum demands of its own – some settlements will be maintained, millions of Palestinians will not be allowed to settle in Israel proper, and Israel will not allow an armed Palestinian state.

The problem with UN recognition is that while at best marginally improving the Palestinian negotiating position it will dramatically increase popular expectations, making it next to impossible for the Palestinian leadership to take advantage of any gains they achieve vis-à-vis Israel through recognition. In this sense you may well have a much greater gap between the Palestinian minimum and Israeli maximum than before recognition.


The problem of expectations exists on both sides. The Israelis also have an expectation that they can continue the status quo indefinitely, that the Palestinian “problem” is a containable security issue, especially after the success of the “wall”, and that the international community is all bark.

UN action, especially if the US were to allow it through an abstention rather than a positive vote would indicate that both international and American patience are not infinite and probably have as great an impact on Israel as the recognition would have on the Palestinians.

Israel remembers past failures of the international community when it came to Jews and doubts the UN’s Impartiality

Regardless of whether some degree of outside impetus might be of benefit, the UN is a particularly bad actor for pressuring Israel.

For one thing, the UN is not viewed as an impartial entity. Israeli government officials have repeatedly claimed it is biased against them, and the UN has not tried particularly hard to dispel these impressions with its recent conferences at on racism, most prominently at Durban in South Africa, dissolving into denunciations of Zionism and holocaust comparisons.[1]

Reinforcing this is the persistent feeling that the world did nothing for the Jews when they were facing annihilation, which feeds into the narrative that while the international community may talk endlessly about Palestinian rights, they would do little for Israelis if the balance of power ever shifted. When Israeli politicians can state that they know exactly what would happen (a second Holocaust) if Arabs were to ever defeat them they are likely to see this action on the part of the UN reinforcing all of their negative impressions.

This in turn may well produce a siege mentality in which they view themselves as on their own and become unwilling to make any concessions. This would be especially true if the United States were to seem to abandon them by at least abstaining on UN recognition.

[1] Braun, Elihai, ‘The UN World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, Durban, South Africa’, Jewish Virtual Library,


Israelis have a low opinion of some UN organs, and with a good degree of justification. But they are also remarkably pragmatic. They understand that while they need to protect their own interests, they also need friends, and Israeli voters will turn on their own leaders with a vengeance if they ever think they are jeopardizing the relationship with the United States.

This can be seen in the reaction to the decision of the Bush Administration to freeze loan guarantees to Israel in 1991 due to the repeated refusal of the government of Yitzhak Shamir to halt settlement construction. The result, despite outrage on the American Right and in sectors of Israeli opinion, was the crushing defeat of the Shamir in the 1992 elections by Yitzhak Rabin.[1]

If the US abstains on UN recognition of Palestine, which would be necessary for such recognition to pass, it will send a message to the Israeli public and likely severely impact the next election.

[1] Rosner, Shmuel, ‘When US doesn’t meddle in Israeli politics, it strengthens the right’,, 9 December 2011,

An attempt to build up international support reinforces Israeli fears of a Palestinian state being used as a platform for attacks against them

Among Israel’s prime security concerns about a prospective Palestinian state is that it might become a base for Israel’s other enemies to attack it.

Israel is particularly vulnerable strategically from the West Bank, and the distance between East Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is barely 15 miles.[1]

The great fear therefore is that a legitimately independent Palestinian state might well allow the basing of Iranian weapons on its territory, or provides a base for Israeli Arab dissidents to launch an attack. While there would be little practical change in the ability of Israel to stop foreign forces being allowed into Palestine the Palestinians would be able to claim that they are within their sovereign rights to allow foreign basing rights just as many other countries around the world do.

Repeated efforts to bring in International support, and a focus on legal sovereignty to the exclusion of actual concrete steps to reassure Israel such as disarming Hamas, will only reinforce these concerns on the part of Israel.

[1] Gold, Dore, ‘Military-Strategic Aspects of West Bank Topography for Israel's Defense’, Defensible Borders for a Lasting Peace, 2005,


Israel’s concerns are not with sovereignty per se, but with the willingness of Palestinians to behave in a legally responsible manner becoming of an international state.

Adopting a policy of seeking legitimacy at the UN and then asserting their rights legally is probably the best Palestinian strategy in this respect, as it makes clear that they wish to move the conflict from one of either violent or nonviolent resistance to one of legal arguments under international law.

Rather than denying Palestine sovereignty Israel instead should be seeking to gain guarantees within treaties that Palestine will not allow any foreign bases on its soil. Russia does not want NATO bases in the former Soviet Union but this does not mean it denies these states sovereignty.

Even a successful move for statehood would place the United States in a challenging position, and alienate American opinion which the Palestinians are dependent on

Any UN Recognition of Palestinian statehood would require at the very least US abstention. Even if this were to be achieved, it would only come after the request had placed the United States in a very awkward position.

Vetoing Palestinian statehood at the UN would force the US to alienate world opinion, while abstaining or supporting the Palestinian demand would mean a clash with Israel with all the US domestic costs that entails for any American politician.[1] Barack Obama’s less than stringent support of Israel was seen as contributing to the defeat of his Democratic party in a 2011 special election in a heavily Democratic and heavily Jewish seat in NYC.  It is likely a future US President would face worse.

Furthermore, allowing the UN to recognize Palestinian statehood explicitly brings the UN into the Peace Process, undermine the United States’ role as the preeminent outside actor. Even if the United States were to acquiesce in such, it’s hard to see it appreciating the consequences.

Therefore it can be assumed that the Palestinians, in exchange for cosmetic benefits, would likely alienate the United States, which at the end of the day is the only outside actor whose opinions Israel values, and therefore the only outside actor that can genuinely make the creation of a Palestinian state a reality.

[1] Staff, ‘Did the First President Bush Lose His Job to the Israel Lobby?’, The New York Observer, 17 July 2006,


One reason why the United States would find a push for UN Recognition of a Palestinian state so awkward is because it has so many other concerns it has to value against the conflict.

Whereas relations with Israel are the dominant issue in Palestinian foreign policy, and a leading one in Israel’s, the US has to maintain its position and interests else ware in the world. This means that the United States has to balance domestic considerations with the need to appeal to world opinion.

It also means that the United States has an interest in a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even if the US were inclined to allow the Palestinians to suffer in punishment for bringing up the issue, the dynamics of UN Recognition would raise the price of the continuation of the conflict for the United States.

That is because it would be increase the interest of every other country in the world in the conflict, if for no other reason than rather than an internal affair, there would now be a principle of national sovereignty involved.




·  "Palestinians Request U.N. Status; Powers Press for Talks." The New York Times. September 23, 2011


Tim Mak. "Carter backs Palestinian statehood at U.N." Politico. September 14th, 2011

Michael J. Weil. "Op-Ed: Israel should support the Palestinian statehood push." JTA. September 12th, 2011

Turki Al-Faisal. "Veto a state, lose an ally." The New York Times. September 11th, 2011

MJ Rosenberg. "Obama Should Support Palestinian Statehood at the United Nations." Huffington Post. July 22nd, 2011

Isaac Herzog. "Why Israel should vote for Palestinian independence." Foreign Affairs. September 16th, 2011:

Jonathan Freedland. "Britain should say yes to Palestinian statehood – and so should Israel." September 13th, 2011

James Lindsay. "Obama's muted UN message." September 21st, 2011

Mitchell G. Bard. "Settlements. Myths & Facts Online" Jewish Virtual Library

David Meir-Levi. "Occupation and settlement: the myth and reality". Front Line Magazine. June 24, 2005

Dore Gold. "From 'occupied territories' to 'disputed terrotories'". Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. 16 January 2002

"It's not that simple". National Post. May 27, 2009


Explanation of Vote by Ambassador Susan E. Rice, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, on Palestinian UN Vote. February 18th, 2011

Ali Abunimah. How Palestinian Authority’s UN "statehood" bid endangers Palestinian rights." The Electronic Intifada. August 8th, 2011

Victor Kattan. "The case for UN recognition of Palestine." The Electronic Intifada. June 13th, 2011

"Palestinian Statehood." New York Times Editorial. September 11th, 2011

Ben Feller. "Obama, Europeans press Palestinians to drop UN bid." September 22nd, 2011

"Ambassador Rice: Palestinian Bid Is 'Unwise And Counterproductive'" September 22nd, 2011


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