Ballot Recognition

Palestinians Cast a U.N. Vote, Move Closer to State Recognition

The Palestinians achieved a small victory at the U.N. last week, but without the U.S. supporting their bid for statehood, Palestine will never be on equal diplomatic footing with Israel, says Matt Surrusco.

Stan Honda / AFP / Getty Images

Almost a year to the date of one historic U.N. General Assembly vote, the Palestinians took another small step toward a recognized place in the international community.

On November 18, Palestine’s U.N. delegation cast a vote for the first time as a non-member observer state. One year ago, the General Assembly voted to upgrade the Palestinians’ “entity” status, much to the chagrin of the U.S. and Israel.

“It's a symbolic [step]," the chief Palestinian U.N. observer, Ambassador Riyad Mansour told reporters after the vote last week. “But it is an important one because it reflects that the international community, particularly the General Assembly, is hungry and waiting for the state of Palestine to become a full member of the United Nations.”

Their vote—for a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia—will not make huge waves in the grand sea of international diplomacy. But for Palestine, the vote is a symbolic tsunami, with the potential to flood the General Assembly with more votes from the State of Palestine, within more U.N. bodies and with greater impact in the future.

For now, Palestine cannot vote on U.N. resolutions, but like the Vatican, the delegation can participate in some Assembly votes, including for judges on international courts, and join some international organizations, including the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to join the ICC and bring charges against Israel over settlements. But beyond that, Abbas should be re-emphasizing the need for full U.N. recognition of the State of Palestine, especially if the current round of peace talks break down without a resolution, which seems increasingly likely.

Israel and the U.S.’s insistence that international recognition for a Palestinian state can only happen through direct bilateral talks is a stalling tactic that has served the status quo well for decades.

If the U.S. really wants to broker a peace deal, President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power should support the Palestinians in their efforts to be recognized as a nation-state.

True, there are obstacles. The big one for the Palestinians is the political division between the Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But international recognition for the Palestinian Authority’s government in the West Bank would at least put Abbas’s government on the same level as Israel. Bringing the two parties to the negotiating table is great, but it’s hard to have a complex conversation about peace and security when one party is sitting at the head of the table in a high-back chair, and the other is at the far end, in the corner, on a stool.

But maybe the holiday season is giving me some false sense of hope. Sadly, I don’t see the U.S. actually allowing the U.N. to acknowledge a State of Palestine without Israel and the Palestinians coming to at least an interim agreement, but I do think the allowance would be beneficial. The State of Israel and a State of Palestine, two nations on equal diplomatic footing, would have more of a fighting chance to reach a deal.

If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, he should be able to recognize Palestine as a state.

Without U.N. recognition, the Palestinians will never really be able to negotiate among equals. A true peace broker would promote Palestine’s self-determination efforts, not veto them.

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With peace talks seemingly going nowhere fast, Palestine’s status as a voting non-member state puts Palestinians closer to being recognized on the international stage. But in this theater, they are still only second-class citizens, waiting in the aisles of history.

Today, the U.N. celebrates the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. The observance at U.N. headquarters in New York will include a performance by perhaps the most famous Gazan, Mohammed Assaf, the 2013 winner of Arab Idol. Speeches will be made; congratulations on the first non-member state vote will surely be shared.

But what if the U.S. decided to become a true peace broker and support the Palestinians’ bid for statehood now, not whenever Israel decides to allow it? Then Palestine’s U.N. delegation would really have something to celebrate.