On Thursday, the United Nations General Assembly voted 138-9 to recognize the Palestinian territories as a “non-member observer state.” What does this actually mean?
- The vote is a sorely needed political victory for Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president who has advocated a diplomatic path to statehood and who is competing for influence with Hamas in Palestine. Abbas had been losing ground to Hamas in recent days since their recent conflict with Israel was seen as a success by many Palestinians and led to concessions from Israel that are improving life in Gaza.
- It shows that world opinion is on the side of Palestinian statehood, but isn’t likely to lead to full UN membership in the near future. Recognizing Palestine as a “non-member observer state” required only a vote of the General Assembly and cannot be blocked by a Security Council veto. However, full UN membership requires a Security Council vote. Such a vote would be vetoed by the United States, so Palestine will have to remain a non-member of the UN for the foreseeable future.
- While Palestine will not become a full voting member of the United Nations, it is now eligible to join UN institutions like the International Criminal Court (ICC). Many observers expect Palestine to soon do so and begin proceedings against Israel for alleged war crimes against the Palestinian people. Palestine will likely start with proceedings related to Israeli settlements being built in occupied Palestinian territories in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
- Israeli soldiers and leaders could individually be charged for war crimes by the ICC. ICC indictments would limit the ability of Israelis to travel internationally without fear of arrest and be very bad for Israel’s image in the world.
- Palestine can seek redress at the International Court of Justice against the state of Israel. However, Israel would have to consent to the ICJ jurisdiction for this to happen, which would be unlikely. Thus this possibility is only important for shaping perceptions of world politics, not for its actual legal effect.
Overall then, it is clear that this United Nations General Assembly vote to recognize Palestine as a non-member observer state has symbolic importance but will not substantively change the situation on the ground. Palestine cannot achieve de facto independence without negotiating with Israel, just as before this vote.
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