Will UN Harm Peace by Recognizing Palestine?

April 7, 2011

A UN procedure that the United States initiated during the Cold War is fast becoming the Palestinians’ favored strategy to gain General Assembly sanction for a new state of Palestine in September. It is part of the Palestinian leadership’s stepped up threat to unilaterally declare statehood while continuing to refuse resuming peace talks with Israel.


A unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood is not a new idea. In 1988, the Palestinian National Council, meeting in Algiers, adopted the Palestinian Declaration of Independence, which was later endorsed by a majority of UN members. At that time, however, the Palestinians did not control the area in which the Palestinian state was presumed to exist. Today, due to the Oslo agreements of the 1990s and Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, they control parts of the West Bank and the entire Gaza Strip.

If the Palestinian leadership decides, once again, to unilaterally declare statehood, they would probably seek international recognition for the new state in the General Assembly through a procedure known as “Uniting for Peace,” launched in 1950 during the Korean War.

UN intervention in Korea was originally authorized by the Security Council while the Soviet Union was boycotting that critical UN body. But, afterwards, the Soviets returned to the council and subsequently used their veto power to block further action. Against this backdrop, the General Assembly adopted, on November 3, 1950, the historic “Uniting for Peace” resolution, authorizing the General Assembly, when the Security Council “fails to exercise its primary responsibility,” to hold an emergency special session “with a view to making appropriate recommendations to Members for collective measures, including ... the use of armed force when necessary.”

The U.S., frustrated by the Soviet intransigence, played a leading role in the adoption of “Uniting for Peace” because it wanted to empower the General Assembly to act when the Security Council could not. Of course, in 1950, the U.S. enjoyed a numerical advantage in the General Assembly.

But with the acceleration of the decolonization process and the admission of new member states from Asia and Africa to the UN, the parliamentary constellation in the General Assembly changed in short order – against the U.S. Since the mid-fifties, the General Assembly has been a bastion of the Non-Aligned Movement and a forum where anti-American sentiments are expressed frequently and openly.

While the resolution empowered the General Assembly to act on matters relating to international peace and security, according to the UN Charter only the Security Council can adopt binding enforceable resolutions. General Assembly resolutions, including those adopted in emergency special sessions, are only recommendations. As “Uniting for Peace” clearly states, “the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately with a view to making appropriate recommendations.”

To date, the General Assembly has held ten emergency special sessions in accordance with the “Uniting for Peace” procedure. Half of these sessions were dedicated to the Israeli-Arab conflict, demonstrating UN obsession with that particular issue.

Might the Palestinians attempt to use the “Uniting for Peace” procedure to obtain UN membership? The UN Charter is clear why that’s not possible. “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,” the charter states. The General Assembly, either in a regular session or in an emergency special session, may endorse a Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence, but it cannot admit “Palestine” to the UN without a prior Security Council resolution recommending UN membership.

Furthermore, the Palestinian Authority fails to satisfy the traditional criteria for statehood. It does not have effective governmental control in the areas in which a Palestinian state is presumed to exist, or effective control over a permanent population. It is not in possession of defined territory nor does it have the capacity to freely engage in foreign relations. Finally, any unilateral Palestinian attempt to acquire the attributes of statehood outside of the negotiating process would violate existing Israeli-Palestinian agreements, which clearly state that permanent-status issues are subject to agreement between the parties.

Only through direct negotiations with Israel can the Palestinians fully realize their national aspirations. Any attempted shortcut, either at the UN or elsewhere, will only delay a solution, thus unnecessarily prolonging the suffering of both Israelis and Palestinians who desire to live in peace and security.

Aaron Jacob is AJC Associate Director of International Affairs. He served as Israel’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN from 1998-2002.