While many questions relating to the State of Palestine’s imminent application for UN membership are being raised and vigorously debated, one relevant question has not been. That question is how American national interests would be harmed if Palestine were to be admitted as the 194th member of the United Nations, as it clearly would be in the absence of an American veto.
Perhaps the question is not being raised and debated because no potential adverse consequences — at least for the United States and the American people — can be envisioned and cited to justify a veto.
While legal considerations have never weighed heavily on the American approach to Israel and Palestine, it is worth noting that, since November 1988, when the State of Palestine was formally proclaimed, the Palestinian claim to sovereignty (the state-level equivalent of title or ownership) over the remaining 22% of mandatory Palestine which Israel conquered and occupied in 1967 (aside from expanded East Jerusalem, as to which Israel’s sovereignty claim is universally rejected) has been both literally and legally uncontested.
Jordan renounced its claim to sovereignty over the West Bank in July 1988. While Egypt administered the Gaza Strip for 19 years, it never asserted sovereignty over it. While Israel has formally annexed East Jerusalem and an arc of surrounding territory (an annexation recognized by no other state), it has for 44 years refrained from asserting sovereignty over any other portion of the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, an act that would raise awkward questions about the rights (or lack of them) of those who live there.
It is also worth noting that the four criteria codified in the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States for a state to exist under international law — a permanent population, a defined territory, government and a capacity to enter into relations with other states — are clearly met by the State of Palestine, that the Montevideo Convention, as a ratified treaty that has not been renounced, has the status of domestic law in the United States and that both domestic and international law require the U.S. government to respect and observe its provisions.
More than 120 UN member states (including 15 of the 20 most populous states, encompassing the vast majority of mankind) have already extended diplomatic recognition to the State of Palestine, and more are expected to do so as the Security Council vote on its membership draws nearer.
Since there can be no credible legal argument that the State of Palestine does not yet meet the conventional and customary international law criteria for sovereign statehood, any decision to oppose its UN membership application would necessarily be based on purely political considerations.
Since few people alive can remember the last time that the United States disobeyed Israel, it is widely assumed that it will inevitably veto the State of Palestine’s membership application. Indeed, many commentators assert that it has publicly pledged to do so. While the U.S. government is desperately striving to prevent a Security Council vote on Palestinian membership, it is far from certain that it has pledged to impose its veto — or, even if it had, that it would actually do so.
When addressing a special Security Council session on the Middle East on July 26, the American representative stated with respect to Palestine’s UN membership initiative: “The United States will not support unilateral campaigns at the United Nations in September or any other time.” Setting aside the Israeli-initiated absurdity of characterizing an appeal for support to the entire international community as a “unilateral” action, what is important in this formulation is what it did not say. It did not say that the United States will oppose the Palestinian membership application and cast its veto to defeat it. If the United States had reached a firm decision to veto, this would have been the logical occasion to say so.
Furthermore, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, when asked in an interview published on September 7 in the Los Angeles Times whether the Americans had told the Palestinians that they will veto, replied: “The U.S. told us that the UN is not an option they will support. I hope they will not veto. How will they explain a veto?”
Indeed, while any potential harm to American national interests as a result of Palestinian membership in the United Nations would be difficult to imagine, the adverse consequences for the United States of blocking Palestine’s membership are dazzlingly obvious. An American veto would constitute a shotgun blast in both of its own feet, further isolating the United States from the rest of mankind and outraging the already agitated and unstable Arab and Muslim worlds (notably including Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey).
In considering whether to veto or abstain, Barack Obama might wish to re-read an article by Prince Turki Al-Faisal, the long-serving Saudi Arabian intelligence chief and former ambassador to the United States, which was published on June 10 in the Washington Post and in which he warned: “There will be disastrous consequences for U.S.-Saudi relations if the United States vetoes UN recognition of a Palestinian state. It would mark a nadir in the decades-long relationship as well as irrevocably damage the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and America’s reputation among Arab nations. The ideological distance between the Muslim world and the West in general would widen — and opportunities for friendship and cooperation between the two could vanish.”
Unless the president’s sole concern is his personal re-election prospects, it should not be ruled out that the U.S. government just might, exceptionally, put American national interests ahead of the desires of the Israeli government and abstain when the time comes.
If the the U.S. government did decide to defy most of mankind by casting its veto, this would hurt the United States and Israel far more than it would hurt Palestine, definitively disqualifying the United States from maintaining its monopoly stranglehold on any “peace process” — which, since U.S. objectives are indistinguishable from Israeli objectives, could only be to Palestine’s advantage. This month’s UN initiative is a win-win proposition for Palestine.
The question at the UN this month is not, as is still frequently misreported, whether Palestine will declare independence. (It did so 23 years ago.) The question at the UN this month is whether the United States of America will declare independence.
John V. Whitbeck is an international lawyer who has advised the Palestinian negotiating team in negotiations with Israel.