The Palestinians, the UN, and Statehood

UN General Assembly

The meeting hall of the United Nations General Assembly. This is the room in New York City where decisions about statehood are made. Photo credit: Rob Young (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

On November 29th, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelming voted to admit Palestine as a permanent observer. Despite strong opposition from the United States and Israel, the General Assembly voted 138 to 9 (with 41 member states abstaining) to grant this diplomatic recognition. Though the UN is an inefficient and much-maligned world body, the United Nations General Assembly is the body that weighs questions of statehood in the contemporary era.

The Palestine vote has understandably attracted the most attention in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority had long been trying to gain observer status in New York, and the Israelis and the Americans had opposed this decision over a multi-year period. The General Assembly vote is another crucial milestone in the growing diplomatic isolation of Israel. In response to the UN vote, the Israeli government announced plans to fast-track a huge expansion of Jewish settlement building in the West Bank.

Beyond this particularly important Middle East conflict, though, the Palestine vote underscores the continuing relevance of the United Nations to world politics. Prior to the UN era (1945 – ) – and the short-lived League of Nations era – international recognition of statehood was relatively chaotic and lacked a systematic character.

On the surface, the phrase “international recognition” sounds rather ordinary and unimportant. In reality, lack of international recognition is the key sticking point for most unsuccessful bids for sovereignty. Just ask the separatists from Somaliland, or Tibet (Xizang Province, China). In the current geopolitical era, unless the club of existing states (i.e. the UN General Assembly) grants you membership, your territory does not warrant the label “sovereign state.” And, importantly, Palestine has not achieved this designation. At least not yet.

Interestingly, the “Permanent Observer” status is one that has no founding basis in the United Nations Charter. Following is a brief excerpt from the General Assembly’s public pages:

The status of a Permanent Observer is based purely on practice, and there are no provisions for it in the United Nations Charter. The practice dates from 1946, when the Secretary-General accepted the designation of the Swiss Government as a Permanent Observer to the United Nations. Observers were subsequently put forward by certain States that later became United Nations Members, including Austria, Finland, Italy, and Japan. Switzerland became a UN Member on 10 September 2002.

Will the Palestine vote open the door for additional permanent observers at the UN General Assembly? The answer is likely no. The only other current observer is the Vatican. In the case of Palestine, both the longstanding nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict  and the symbolic and substantive importance of the conflict in the wider world point to an anomalous situation.

Even so, the world would do well to start re-thinking the status quo with regard to statehood recognition. In particular, state failure represents a huge challenge to the current system. My new book, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses, explores these issues in much greater depth.


The Geopolitical Vulnerabilities of Israel

War has returned to Israel and Palestine. At least every few years, Israel is involved in active, intense warfare on its northern or southern borders. And since Hamas gained control over the Gaza Strip in 2006, Israel’s southern flank has been particularly active. Now that anti-Israel elements in Gaza have acquired more sophisticated weaponry, and given wider political changes in the region, Israel’s precarious geopolitical situation has become even more perilous.

Wall Separating Israel from the West Bank

This is a section of the wall (“security barrier”) separating Israel and the West Bank (of the Jordan River). Photo credit: Ian Burt (Creative Commons license).

Given its out-sized importance in the Middle East, Israel is often perceived to be much larger than it is. Admittedly, the size of Israel depends on the definition of its boundaries, which are disputed. Any “fact” about Israel’s size is therefore dependent upon what boundaries are assumed (see, for example, this pro-Israel site). If the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank (roughly along the lines of the 1967 ceasefire) are excluded, Israel’s physical area is about 21,000 square kilometers (or 8,000 square miles). (The estimated population for this area is about 8 million.) That area is about one-third less than that of Belgium. Or, to use an American reference point, Israel is about the size of a smaller New England state (such as Vermont or New Hampshire).

So what does Israel’s size have to do with the current war raging in and around the dense urban cluster that is Gaza? Simply put, Israel’s small size makes it exceedingly vulnerable to attack. That is nothing new. What is new is Gaza militants’ acquisition of longer-ranged rockets, which are capable of targeting Israel’s core population and economic centers, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Iran seems to be a key link in Hamas’ acquisition of these rockets.

Old City Jerusalem

Photo credit: acroll (Creative Commons license).

One need not be pro-Israeli to recognize the increasingly precarious geopolitical context for the majority Jewish state. Whatever Israel’s past collective sins against the Arabs, the country now exists in a much more difficult regional situation, not least due to political upheaval in Egypt. Israelis persist in a heightened state of war readiness because they must. The United Nations cannot ensure Israel’s survival. Only hard-nosed realism can.

Obama, Romney, and Schieffer Missed Much of the World

On Monday, October 22, 2012, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama squared off in the last of three presidential election debates. The single theme of the last debate was foreign policy. Moderator Bob Schieffer (and the candidates) mostly debated U.S. foreign policy toward North Africa, the Middle East, and Af-Pak, or the core of the Islamic world. There was almost no discussion of Latin America, Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, India, Southeast Asia, or Oceania. What a pity. The graphic below is suggestive of the places discussed in the debate. The size of the labels indicates the prominence of these countries and regions in the debate.