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The future of Palestine statehood: the UN vote

By Jo Coghlan - posted Tuesday, 20 September 2011

At the United Nations Security Council meeting in February 2011, the Security Council failed to adopt a text that would have described as "illegal" Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory occupied since 1967. It would have also reiterated demands that all settlement activity cease immediately. Even though the measure was sponsored by nearly two thirds of the United Nations (U.N.) membership, the draft resolution was rejected in the Security Council 14-1 with U.S. voting against. This resulted in a veto because the U.S. is a permanent of the Security Council. It was the first time the Security Council veto was used by the Obama administration. The February resolution was however one is a string of U.N. resolutions that have failed to address, in any meaningful way, the Israel-Palestine issue.

In November 1967, Security Council Resolution 242 affirmed that in order to establish a just and lasting peace in the Middle East, following the Six Day War, Israel should withdraw is armed forces from the occupied territories and terminate all claims of sovereignty on Palestine. In 1972, Resolution 338 called for a ceasefire in response to increased military activity between Israel and Palestine.

Meeting over the issue again in March 1979, the Security Council passed Resolution 446 (which the U.K. and U.S. abstained). In this instance, the Security Council again affirmed that the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (1949) was applicable to the Arab territories occupied by Israel including Jerusalem. It again affirmed that the policy and practices of Israel in establishing settlements in the Palestinian and other Arab territories had no legal validity and constituted a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.


The Security Council called on Israel to abide by previous Security Council resolutions including Resolution 237 (1967), Resolutions 252 (1968) and Resolution 298 (1971). Resolution 476 (1980) also affirmed previous resolutions that the acquisition of Arab territory by Israeli force was inadmissible and reaffirmed the need for Israel to end its prolonged occupation of the Arab territories.

More recently Resolution 1397 (2002) called on Israeli and Palestinian leaders to cooperate in the implementation of the Tenet work plan and Mitchell Report recommendations to settle their dispute. The Tenet work plan was advanced by former U.S. Director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet in 2001. The objective was to get Israel and Palestine to reaffirm their commitment to the security agreements forged at Sharm al-Sheikh in 2002, which were the core of the 2001 Mitchell report.

Resolution 1515 (2003) introduced by Russia, adopted the Quartet Roadmap for Peace between Palestinians and Israel as U.N policy. It explicitly endorsed a permanent two-state solution. On 20 December 2002, the quartet of the Russian Federation, the U.S., the E.U., and the U.N. reached agreement on the text of the Road Map with the goal of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ending the occupation that began in 1967. The Quartet however was relatively dormant and ultimately ineffective.

In 2008, Resolution 1850 (approved by 14 votes with only Libya, a non-permanent member of the Security Council, abstained citing ambiguity) reaffirmed support for the 2007 Maryland (U.S) Middle East Summit and its aim to "reach their goal of concluding a peace treaty resolving all outstanding issues…"

Returning to the 2011 decisions, had Resolution 10178 passed both Palestine and Israel would have had to comply with previous agreements in order to "improve the situation on the ground, build confidence and create the conditions necessary for advancing the peace process."

Following the failed February vote, the U.S Ambassador to the U.N Susan E. Rice said that while the U.S. was "deeply committed to pursuing a comprehensive and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians" the "only way to reach that common goal is through direct negotiations between the parties, with the active and sustained support of the United States and the international community."


This September the U.N. will again vote on Palestine. This time it will consider the path to Palestinian statehood. In this case, the Palestinians are likely to ask the U.N. General Assembly to upgrade their U.N. status from 'observer' to 'non-member state'. The U.S has however already signaled its opposition. Regardless of American opposition Efraim Karsh well argues in the Middle East Forum that the Palestinians can "hardly ask the U.N. to dismantle one of its longest standing member states and to expel its citizens."

The issue of Palestinian statehood is not new to the U.N. In 1988 there was a declaration that a limited territory of Palestine was already affirmed in Resolutions 242 (1967) and Resolution 338 (1973). Palestine recognised the state of Israel in the lead up to the Oslo Accords in September 1993. Ten years later the U.N. General Assembly adopted Resolution 52/250 that elevated Palestine to observer status (less than a state but higher than a non-state observer). The upcoming vote will see Palestine test its claim to be accepted as a non-state member.

Only a states can formally recognise the sovereignty of another state. The U.N is not a state but an international organisation that may admit a new state to its membership or accept the credentials of the representatives of a new Government. Membership is in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations. To be accepted as a member of the U.N., the state must submit an application to the U.N. Secretary-General and a letter formally stating that it accepts the obligations under the Charter. The Security Council can approve state membership with an affirmative vote of nine of the 15 members of the Security Council provided the permanent five (China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America) have not voted against the application. The U.N General Assembly must also pass a resolution concurring. A two-thirds majority is required.

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About the Author

Jo Coghlan is a lecturer in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University.

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