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Palestinians Press Statehood Aspirations at UN: Q&A

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas returns to the United Nations today to seek an upgrade in status in the 193-member General Assembly to “observer state,” a move opposed by the U.S. and Israel because of the implied recognition of a Palestinian state.

Abbas is scheduled to speak at 3 p.m. in New York and a vote will take place soon after on a resolution that will give the Palestinians the same rank as the Holy See.

Q: What status do the Palestinians now have at the UN?

A: The Palestine Liberation Organization has been a permanent observer since 1974, giving it the right to speak in the General Assembly. It doesn’t have voting rights. The European Union is another entity with observer status, yet unlike the PLO, it has been given almost all the rights of a member state. The Holy See, the diplomatic name for the Vatican, is alone in being a sovereign state with observer status.

Q: What are the benefits for Abbas in a status upgrade?

A: The resolution “decides to accord to Palestine non- member observer state status,” an implicit form of statehood that puts the Palestinians on par with the Holy See. It means the Palestinians can join UN agencies and sign treaties, such as the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court.

With its new status, the PLO may pursue ICC membership and seek legal action against Israel for alleged human-rights abuses in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In April, after the Palestinian Authority sought to grant the court jurisdiction, the ICC said that could only be done by a recognized state, a requirement that the PA didn’t meet. The office said in a document that the criteria are “reflected in General Assembly resolutions, which provide indications of whether an applicant is a ‘state.’”

Passage of the “observer state” resolution doesn’t require other nations to recognize Palestinian statehood bilaterally since General Assembly actions are considered only advisory statements.

Q: What will this move cost the Palestinians?

A: At stake is continuation of a U.S. aid package that has averaged $600 million a year since 2008, according to a Nov. 21 2012 report by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, the research arm of Congress. Of that total, about $200 million has been for direct budgetary assistance and approximately $100 million for non-lethal security assistance. The rest, roughly $300 million, goes to project assistance.

Also, U.S. law requires cutting off U.S. funding to any UN agency that recognizes a Palestinian state. A day after Unesco granted Palestinians membership last year, the U.S. halted funding for the UN cultural agency best known for its designation of “world heritage” sites.

Israel plans to withhold 800 million shekels ($210 million) of tax revenue it would normally transfer to the Palestinians, and use the funds to pay their debt to Israel Electric Corp.

Q: Will the resolution pass?

A: Yes. At least 120 nations have already recognized a state of Palestine, so they exceed the simple majority needed for passage. The Palestinians are seeking a two-thirds majority to highlight the level of support for their cause. The U.S., Israel and Canada are among the countries that will vote against it. No country has a veto in the General Assembly.

Q: Can the Palestinians obtain full statehood membership?

A: Yes, but only by going through the UN Security Council, the 15-member executive body where the U.S. has veto power and has indicated it will use it.

Abbas attempted to go down this route last year but was forced to abandon it due to U.S. opposition. To become the 194th UN member state would have required approval by the Security Council, followed by a two-thirds majority (129 member states) vote in the General Assembly.

Only sovereign states can recognize other states. According to Chapter II of its 1945 Charter, the UN may only admit countries as members. Still, membership at the UN is widely recognized as confirmation of statehood.

Q: Is there no way around the Security Council?

A: Yes, but it’s a long shot. Resolution 377, known as Uniting for Peace, was passed in 1950 during the Korean War to break a deadlock. It was a U.S. initiative to circumvent the Soviet Union’s actions against UN measures to defend South Korea.

The rarely used mechanism enables a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly to override the Security Council and its veto-wielding members when the 15-member decision-making body “fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression.”

An International Court of Justice advisory opinion has said the Palestinians cannot invoke the measure to override U.S. opposition in the Security Council to its membership application. The Palestinian leadership has stopped discussing this alternative.

Q: How does Hamas, the Islamist movement that runs the Gaza Strip, fit into this?

A: Hamas is not part of the PLO, which is taking the action at the UN, so this won’t directly affect its standing. Abbas’s action is supported by Hamas, which the U.S., European Union and Israel regard as a terrorist organization.

Q: What were the most recent countries admitted as states?

A: South Sudan was admitted in July 2011. Since 2000, six nations have been admitted as members, including Switzerland and East Timor in 2002 and Montenegro in 2006.

Q: How did Israel’s bid for statehood go?

A: Israel was recognized by the UN in 1949. In its first attempt in 1948, Israel failed to win the necessary majority in the Security Council. A year later -- following armistice agreements with Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon -- Israel’s membership was cleared by the Security Council and the country was admitted by 37 votes in favor, 12 against, and nine abstentions in the General Assembly.

-- With assistance from Nicole Gaouette in Washington. Editors: Terry Atlas, Michael Shepard

To contact the reporter on this story: Flavia Krause-Jackson at the United Nations at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott in Washington at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net

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