One year after its failed bid at membership, the Palestinian National Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas will speak before the UNGA.  With attention in the region focused on the Arab Spring and Syria, Abbas’s speech will attempt to draw the international community’s attention back to the Palestinian question. It has not been confirmed, but it is likely that the PNA will petition the UNGA to upgrade its status from “observer entity” to “observer state,” a goal less lofty than the full membership they sought last year, but controversial nonetheless.  Whereas full membership requires the approval of the Security Council where the Permanent 5 can veto the proposal, this upgrade only requires a GA resolution, which under the “one state, one vote” system is a much easier task.

However, supposing that the PNA could successfully petition the GA, the situation is more complicated than a simple vote. Both the US and Israel have said that such a move would be a unilateral move and would ignore past promises for negotiation on this issue. This is an intriguing question concerning the nature of states: can states be declared by international authorities (see Israel, 1948), or are states determined by popular sovereignty and neighbor recognition? I think it is not inflammatory, though it may be controversial, to compare Palestine’s desire for statehood today with that of Israel to that of Israel post-WWII. The situations are by no means identical; the desire for a Jewish state involved more than cultural heritage and religious right, but the fear of mass persecution. The logic of that argument may be debated, but that is not what I seek to do here. Israel’s desire for a state was supported by the West, specifically the United States, and it was successful despite the regional controversies it created. Conversely, the PNA’s desires could be seen as coming out of Wilsonian self-determination, and yet it lacks US support and therefore it has been unable to achieve its goals. It would seem that the structure of the UN (specifically the Security Council) has prevented its actions from living up to its founding principles.

(Note: The article mentions that an upgrade in the PNA’s status would allow it to join “UN agencies such as the International Criminal Court, where Palestinian officials have claimed they could bring cases against Israel.”  Whatever one may think of international arbitrage, this statement needs clarification. The ICC is a distinct organization from the UN. Many states, such as the US as Israel, are UN members but not signatories to the ICC’s Rome Statute. The PNA has attempted to be under ICC juridiction, but the chief prosecutor declared that its status as as state was too ambiguous for the purposes of the court. Perhaps the UN status upgrade would legitimate the PNA’s claims to statehood and therefore allow them to join the ICC, but this would not be a direct cause of UN recognition, as the article suggests.)