What Will The U.N. Vote On Palestine Mean?

September 15, 2011 4:35 pm ET — MJ Rosenberg

Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation, does the best job I've seen of explaining what the upcoming vote at the U.N. is likely to mean. Writing in Foreign Policy, Levy describes the two options the Palestinians have. They can take their case to the Security Council, which can actually confer statehood but where the U.S. will exercise its veto. Or they can go to the General Assembly, where no country has veto power but which, at best, can only grant the Palestinians status as a "non-member state." Levy explains both options.

First the Security Council option:

Despite some suggestions to the contrary, the only viable Palestinian path to full U.N. membership is via the Security Council, and that route is blocked by the certainty of a U.S. veto. Failure at the Security Council may itself be a drawn-out process. Any application would almost certainly have to be considered by a technical committee of the whole and that could take time. The Palestinians would then deny themselves the option of going from defeat at the Security Council to an immediate win at the General Assembly during this window of heightened U.N. attention. They might even find their entire U.N. moment sidestepped by extended committee deliberation.

So, not only would the Palestinians lose at the Security Council, they would lose in a drawn out process, momentum for statehood leaking like air out of a balloon.

Then there is the General Assembly route:

There is a consensus that one element of a General Assembly resolution will be for the Palestinians to upgrade their status to non-member state. This is often described as the "Vatican option," but it should be remembered that more "real" countries have often spent time in the non-member state antechamber: Switzerland, South Korea, the former West Germany, and others. This upgrading would enhance the Palestinian capacity to join several international organizations and accede to certain human rights treaties, which could then be appealed to were Israel in violation of provisions covered by those treaties. The most powerful example of this is the International Criminal Court (ICC) (the minutiae of that issue are well-covered in ICG's report). Expect other components of wording in a resolution to be discussed right until the last moment, including possible parameters for a two-state deal that would include acknowledgement of Israel and language making it easier for Europe to clarify that the resolution does not prejudge bilateral recognition of Palestine at this time.

Given all of the above, perhaps the most piercing questions that need to be answered in the coming days are for the Palestinians themselves. It is fairly clear that a resolution passed by the General Assembly will create certain new Palestinian leverage with Israel and some enhanced deterrent effect when it comes to possible Israeli operations, such as a repeat of Cast Lead (the flip side also holds true -- a defeat at the Security Council further weakens deterrence and enhances Israel's sense of impunity).

Levy clearly believes that the General Assembly is the better route, and the one most discomfiting to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Israel could much more easily brush off a Palestinian Security Council failure than a General Assembly success. One can imagine Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu berating Palestinian President Abbas but asserting that he is still ready for negotiations without conditions at any time -- a tri-fecta of domestic political win, great PR message, and an easier path for continuing to work with the PA as if nothing had happened (remembering that the continued functioning of the PA and security cooperation are above all an Israeli interest). Israeli messaging might even encourage Congress to maintain its PA and especially PA security funding.

There are certainly more ingredients in play if the Palestinians go to the General Assembly and secure, albeit by increment, an improvement in their leverage vis Israel.

As for the United States, it has marginalized itself out of the picture:

Whatever the outcome, the United States is guaranteed to be the real loser in all of this. For domestic political reasons the Obama administration is committed to oppose any U.N. initiative not authorized by Israel and to cajole and convince other countries to do likewise. The United States will find itself isolated, blamed for its own vote and the "no's" of others, weakening its Palestinian friends while frittering away further diplomatic capital, and all at such a delicate time in the Middle East. Having previously been aligned with Arab autocracies, the U.S. could have opened a new chapter post-Arab awakening. Instead, with Arab public opinion now a driving force, the United States will further alienate itself from popular sentiment by (again) trampling Palestinian rights. Making matters worse for President Obama, the relationship with Netanyahu is wholly unidirectional. According to ex- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Netanyahu is "ungrateful" and U.S. interests (let alone Obama's own needs) do not figure in his calculations.