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George Baumgarten

Eclipse: Has The World’s Obsession With Syria Caused the Palestinian’s U.N. Application to Fizzle?

George Baumgarten, U.N. Correspondent, May 17, 2012

With the growing concern—and alarm—over the rebellion in Syria, one issue seems to have “fallen by the wayside”: the Palestinian’s application for membership in the U.N. General Assembly. Once the hottest issue in the halls of Turtle Bay, their search for recognition by U.N. membership seems to have disappeared in to the nebulous fog of diplomatic oblivion.
The Palestinians, were once thought  likely be given the near-unique, upgraded status of an “Observer State” in the General Assembly. Since the Council could not agree to recommend the application to the General Assembly, it was never even put to a vote, as it could not get the necessary nine votes required by the U.N. Charter. Ironically, this is the very outcome predicted by this correspondent’s sources, some 10-11 months ago, before last Fall’s “General Debate”. And it is by no means certain now when—or even if-- any such vote will take place.
The story begins last summer, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced that he would ask the U.N. to “recognize” his state by granting it full membership in the U.N. General Assembly. This was ostensibly because Abbas refused to negotiate with Israel, while the Israelis engaged in any “settlement activity” ( This position, of course, ignored the fact that Israel had voluntarily instituted a “settlement freeze” for some ten months in 2009-’10.).
There is some doubt that the Palestinians had fully and properly organized their “membership bid”. They seem not to have been entirely familiar with the exact procedure (Submit a request letter to the Secretary General, who refers it to the Security Council for “recommendation” to the General Assembly.). And sources in the General Assembly told this correspondent that they may not even have known that the process involved going to the Security Council.
 From various sources in the U.N., and particularly in the General Assembly, this correspondent was informed that Palestine was not likely to be granted full membership. Rather, they would get some upgrade from their current status as “Observers”. Asked if this meant some sort of “Observer Plus” status, the source then described it as a “Member State Minus”. Further discussions suggested that the Palestinians would go from being an “observer” to the new , unique status of an “Observer State”., similar to the status currently accorded the Holy See (i.e., the Vatican).
The procedure to apply for U.N. membership is actually perfectly clear in Article 4.2 of the U.N. Charter, which specifies that
The admission of any state to membership in the United Nations will be effected by a decision of the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council”
In practice, this means that any state wishing to become a member applies by letter to the Secretary-General, who forwards the letter on to the [monthly] President of the Security Council. The Council then holds hearings or “consultations” on the application, and eventually comes to a vote on it. The vote requires nine affirmative votes from Council members, but may have no negative votes (vetoes) from any of the “P5”, or five permanent members .
In the case of Palestine, it was very clearly known that the United States would veto the application if necessary. However, if at least seven of the non-permanent members voted against (i.e., if the application failed to get the requisite nine “yes” votes), the U.S. was thought likely to abstain. This came to pass when it was revealed that a government deadlock in Sarajevo prevented the Bosnians from either supporting or opposing the Palestinians’ application. Bosnia & Herzegovina has one of the world’s truly unique executive arrangements. It has not one but three Presidents: one “Bosniac” (i.e., Bosnian Muslim), one “Serbiac” (i.e., Bosnian Serb) and one Croat. These three executives are elected together for a term of three years, and then serve in rotation, for a period of eight months each. Somehow, these three Presidents “agreed to disagree” on the U.N. membership of Palestine (Just what part in this was played by the country’s Jewish Foreign Minister, Sven Alkalaj, is not known.). Thus, there were only eight votes likely, in favor of the Palestinian application.
 It was at this point that the Palestinians decided to take the whole matter to the General Assembly. There, resolutions can be passed by a two-thirds majority of those members present and voting. With 193 members (including the latest, South Sudan), that would require some 129 affirmative votes. It was felt that the Palestinians would be sure to get this number, and their Ambassador, Dr. Riyad Mansour, had spoken of “at least 124 votes” already many months ago.
 Then, gradually but with growing urgency, events in Syria intervened. With some 8,000 dead (including quite a few prominent journalists, and ghastly high numbers of children), the U.N. and the League of Arab States (popularly the “Arab League”) appointed Immediate Past Secretary-General Kofi Annan as “Joint Special Envoy”. Annan has made several trips to Damascus, and has brokered a truce, which held for only a very short time. And a small force of U.N. observers is now on the ground. But so far, all the countries involved seem unwilling (or, at least, uninclined) to get involved militarily, or even provide any material aid to the Syrian rebels. The net result, though is…that hardly a word has been said, for quite a few months, about the Palestinian membership effort. There has been a Quartet-brokered exchange of letters. And the Palestinians have just recently rejected the Israeli letter, out of hand. President Mahmoud Abbas has indicated that if there is no progress, he may well go back to the U.N. Or some unforeseen development in Syria…may force his hand one way or the other, and rescue the Palestinian membership application, from the depths of the diplomatic fog. And then the world will watch the drama unfold once more. Will the Palestinians get their seat in the General Assembly (Highly unlikely)? Will they get upgraded status as an “Observer State”, as opposed to just an “Observer” (Possible, just to save face)? Only time, and the vagaries of international politics and diplomacy, will tell.
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