Palestine/UN – quick update: showdown at the Security Council less likely

After talking with a lot of people at the UN, and in the leader- and diplomat-packed corridors and lobbies of various mid-town hotels in a rainy New York City, the likely early outcomes of the Palestinian initiative are becoming a bit clearer.  Any observations now however must be stated with a very clear proviso that things are moving fast, and the diplomacy is hectic.  Things may change very suddenly.


It is becoming pretty clear that some of the major powers are intending to stall the Palestinian request for UN membership (not statehood!) to the UN Security Council.  This will be done through procedural manipulation.  The Secretary General is expected to pass the Palestinian application to the UNSC.  At that point, the UNSC is supposed to form a committee to consider the application.  This committee consists of all the 15 members of the Council.  Crucially, it is supposed to operate by consensus i.e. all members must agree what to do with an application.  The committee decides what to do with an application and whether the UNSC should put the application to the UN General Assembly. 


When South Sudan became a member of the UN a few weeks ago, this process was a formality and took mere hours (Independent Diplomat was heavily involved in choreographing this process).  But in this case, it appears likely that the US, with help from the UK and others, will use the committee to stall the Palestinian application and avoid the decision going to a vote in the UNSC.  There are various rules that are supposed to govern the work of the committee but in truth the Council members can do what they want – UNSC procedure is pretty malleable.  From my experience, the only iron hard-and-fast rule is that the P5 decide the rules, and everyone else abides by them (I know that this is not what is in the UN Charter says, but it is how it works – I spent 4 1/2 years on the Council with the UK delegation).


in my view, without firm and vigorous support from a couple of permanent members and a majority of the Council (9 of 15 members), it will be very difficult for the Palestinians (whose views on the Council will be represented by Lebanon, as representative of the Arab Group) to push past such a blockage.  In effect, the US and its allies can make sure that the application moulders in the committee certainly for several weeks and perhaps for much longer.  Even then, it is not clear to me that the PLO has sufficient votes to get a majority.  Counting votes is a notoriously dicey business, and promises to vote one way or another cannot always be trusted (indeed, should probably never be trusted).  


So far, only the US has declared its outright opposition to the membership application, but we can be confident that there will be others who will abstain on the vote, giving the US some political company and, perhaps, avoiding them having to veto (this will happen if the Palestinians cannot muster the 9 votes necessary to pass a resolution, thus forcing a veto if the US wants to stop it).  Germany and Colombia will abstain, and perhaps the UK too.  Russia and China will support the Palestinian initiative but without sufficient vigour to take on the Americans in the Council.  They will be not be desperately unhappy if this gets blocked.  Their objective is to look good to the Arab world, and this objective is met by merely promising their support, and not by spending any serious political energy on it.


Meanwhile, the US is putting ferocious pressure on weaker non-permanent members like Bosnia.  This is a vicious nasty business: I have seen it done.  A number of diplomats have told me about the extremely aggressive pressure being put on them by US diplomats, including here at the UN.  But the pressure will also involve high-level phone calls from Hillary Clinton and the President, and others.  This type of pressure is very, very difficult for weaker countries, who may be dependent on the US in some way or other (like Bosnia), to resist.  This is how power works.


So what this means, in my view, is that we are unlikely to see a “showdown” vote on Palestinian membership at the UNSC.  This will save the US from the embarrassment of being forced to veto a Palestinian resolution, even if in effect the procedural blockage amounts to the same thing.  In a sense, it’s a “procedural veto” and it will be exercised not only by the US, but also others who don’t want this to come to a head with a vote.  This pretty clearly will include Germany and the UK.


So this is my estimate – today – of what may happen later this week and next. But things can change fast here.  If such a blockage occurs, then the PLO is then likely to present a resolution to the GA, and a negotiation (in my suspicion, protracted) will begin there.  There, the cards are stacked more in the Palestinians’ favour.  They should easily be able to muster the simple majority necessary to push a vote through.  However, European support will be very important to them, and we can be sure that some of the EU (UK, Germany again) will already be trying to water down a GA resolution for Palestine to become an observer state (and thus in a way acknowledged if not recognised as a state), including by removing or weakening any references to the ICC etc..


All a bit depressing and familiar.  In my humble opinion, this illustrates an eternal truth of the Israel/Palestine dispute at the UN.  The UN is not the place where this will get sorted out, but there is a more subtle truth too.  Thanks to the huge mountain of UN resolutions denouncing the occupation and demanding a just resolution, from 242 and 338 onwards, the impression has been created that it is here that the Palestinians will find justice, and perhaps progress to liberation.  This is a grotesque illusion.  If I were a Palestinian in Gaza or Hebron (which I am not, and am thus ill-placed to judge), I would forget the UN, and instead start a non-violent uprising.  The lessons of the Arab Spring could not be clearer: this is the way to create political change, not pettifogging negotiation over words, commas and procedures in corridors at the UN.

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