Expected Council Action
In September the Council will have its regular monthly briefing on the Middle East, followed by consultations. The stalemated Israel/Palestine peace process is expected to be the focus of discussion against the backdrop of a possible Palestinian bid for UN membership in September. In addition, the recent increase in tension between Israel and Gaza will likely to be on Council members’ minds.
The report of the Panel of Inquiry into the 31 May 2010 Gaza flotilla incident, originally expected in February, is now completed. At press time it was expected to be transmitted to the Secretary-General in early September after several previous delays.
Key Recent Developments
At press time, it seemed that the Arab League would meet on the issue of a Palestinian bid for UN membership a week prior to the high-level week at the General Assembly. It seemed possible that an Arab League ministerial delegation would travel to discuss this issue in P5 capitals.
On 25 August the Council was briefed by Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, B. Lynn Pascoe, who highlighted the urgency to break the ongoing political deadlock and to reach a two-state solution. Pascoe confirmed the Palestinians’ intention to approach the UN in September to seek recognition. This briefing also reported on previous week’s attacks in Southern Israel and the subsequent Israeli response to it.
On 20 August, the Middle East Quartet (the EU, Russia, the UN and US) expressed concern about the unsustainable situation in Gaza and the risk of escalation and called for restraint from all sides. The statement was issued in response to the 18 August attacks in southern Israel in which eight Israelis and seven gunmen were killed (media reports indicate a faction in Gaza which sometimes operates separately from Hamas claimed responsibility). Five Egyptian police were killed during the Israeli pursuit of the gunmen. There was a significant increase in exchanges of rocket fire from Gaza and Israeli air strikes in July and August.
On 16 August, the Quartet expressed concern at Israel’s recent announcements regarding the authorisation of additional housing units in East Jerusalem settlements. The statement reiterated that unilateral action will not be recognised by the international community and that Jerusalem is a core issue to be resolved through negotiations.
On 26 July, the Council held its regular quarterly open debate on the Middle East following a briefing from Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Robert Serry, who noted the dramatic gap between the maturation of Palestinian state-building and the failure of the peace process to deliver on the political track.
On 11 July, the Quartet met in Washington DC but failed to agree to an American-drafted statement. It seems that the draft did not reflect US President Barack Obama’s 19 May speech as closely as the other Quartet members had hoped. Reference to 1967 borders as the basis for negotiations was weakened by omitting the notion of agreed land swaps and by the very broad reference to new demographic realities, i.e. settlements. This seems to have been a major issue but other aspects also appear to have been contentious as well.
In early July, the Panel of Inquiry into the 31 May 2010 Gaza flotilla incident concluded its work, including the examination of the national reports of Turkey and Israel. It seems Turkey and Israel did not agree to a consensus document. However, before exercising the powers to finalise conclusions and recommendations without the consent of Israel and Turkey, the Panel allowed for a final period of bilateral negotiations. At press time it seemed that the report might be transmitted by the co-chairs to the Secretary-General in early September.
Regarding the possible Palestinian strategy at the UN, at press time it seemed to be broad enough to cover both a formal application for full UN membership—which would require a Security Council resolution—or an alternate strategy in the General Assembly—perhaps a resolution elevating Palestine to a non-member observer state status—or conceivably even both, i.e. apply for formal membership first in the Security Council and if that fails pursue the General Assembly strategy. In this context, the following background is relevant. (For more detail, see our 25 July Update Report on Israel/Palestine.)
Declaration of a State of Palestine
In November 1988, there was a declaration of an independent state of Palestine, which inferred recognition of Israel and limited Palestinian territorial scope by affirming the terms of Security Council resolutions 242 of 1967 and 338 of 1973. Palestinian recognition of the state of Israel was formalised in the lead-up to the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993 giving greater specificity to the territorial scope of Palestine, with the Oslo peace process meant to define exact boundaries.
Current Status of Palestine in the UN
In July 1998, the General Assembly adopted resolution 52/250 that in effect elevated Palestine to a new sui generis observer status, still less than a state but higher than all other non-state observers. The General Assembly could change the current status of Palestine to that of a non-member state observer.
Admission to the UN as a Member State
Applications to be admitted to the UN are submitted to the Secretary-General, who is required to place the application before the Security Council and to send a copy to the General Assembly.
An application for admission has to be from an entity that meets the criteria for statehood, including a defined territory and a recognised government. Past precedents confirm, however, that this does not rule out applicants with unresolved or disputed territorial boundaries. Past precedents also confirm that applicants do not have to achieve universal recognition before they can be admitted.
The decision on admission to the UN is for the General Assembly to make “upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” Past practice has shown several cases where applicants have not been able to achieve admission due to the opposition of permanent members of the Council.
The Security Council, by a resolution subject to the veto, makes a recommendation for admission to the General Assembly. If there is no recommendation, then the Council must submit a “special report” to the General Assembly.
Admission of a new member by the General Assembly requires a two-thirds majority. (As of August, 123 states recognised Palestine and a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly stands at 129.) If the Security Council fails to recommend admission or postpones consideration, then the General Assembly may refer the application back to the Council.
Issues related to Gaza remain serious, including:
- in May, Fatah and Hamas reached a reconciliation agreement in principle, but a unity government still seems far away;
- the Israeli blockade continues to have significant negative impact on the population; and
- the issue of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held captive in Gaza since June 2006, remains unresolved.
At press time, Council options for September seem limited, as no formal application had yet been submitted by the Palestinian Authority for UN membership. (However, the recent admission of South Sudan, with only five days between application and admission, has shown the process can be quick.)
One option for the Council is to craft a resolution on parameters for peace negotiations. It is worth noting that since 1947 the Council has taken decisions which if collated could be seen to be parameters covering many of the key issues. Elements for such an approach were laid out by France, Germany and the UK on 18 February (after the vote on the draft settlements resolution) and reiterated at the 26 July open debate:
- negotiations based on 1967 borders with equivalent and agreed land swaps;
- security arrangements that respect Palestinian sovereignty and Israeli security concerns;
- a just solution to the refugee question; and
- fulfilment of both Israeli and Palestinian aspirations for Jerusalem.
Most Council members still retain a clear preference for Israel and Palestine to negotiate a solution directly. There is widespread anxiety about the implications of the continued stalemate and a possible confrontation in the Security Council over the issue of UN membership for Palestine.
The expectation of a Palestinian state by September 2011 was encouraged by Obama’s General Assembly address in 2010 and also has its origins in the Palestinian two-year state-building project launched in August 2009, which has been widely endorsed by the international community. The Palestinians have said that if the situation remains unchanged, they will proceed with their plans to achieve appropriate recognition by seeking UN membership as a key objective.
It is widely thought among Council members that the US would veto any application for full UN membership. Obama’s 19 May speech and the American intervention at the 26 July open debate discouraged any such move. The US may not be the only Council member that would find a Palestine application for UN membership premature. By contrast, there may be options with sufficient creative ambiguity to allow very wide support for a General Assembly resolution to grant Palestine non-member state observer status.
On the peace process, the US seems to be continuing to argue that the Council is not the appropriate body for establishing parameters regarding the Israel/Palestine issue. Few, if any, Council members would disagree that the fundamentals of any agreement must be reached through direct talks. But most consider that that is not inconsistent with the Council playing a role on general parameters.
Council members seem aware that even robust Council action on parameters at the eleventh hour may not be sufficient to persuade the Palestinians to defer their bid. However, many feel Council leadership would still be helpful for the peace process.
Regarding the flotilla incident, there was some concern in the Council in late 2010 that the Panel’s interim report was not public, nor was it shared with the Council. It seems that there is currently an expectation by many members that the spirit of the June 2010 presidential statement requires the final report to be transmitted to the Council. However, there is no apparent enthusiasm for taking up the report in any formal way.
Security Council Presidential Statement
Security Council Meeting Records