Jewish Journal


September 7, 2011

Q & A: Can Palestine become a U.N. member state?


Palestinians hold placards during a protest in the West Bank city of Ramallah Sept. 7.  REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

Palestinians hold placards during a protest in the West Bank city of Ramallah Sept. 7. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

The Palestinians have vowed to upgrade their U.N. status, either by seeking full United Nations membership for a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and West Bank or recognition as a “non-member state.”

If the Palestinians ignore opposition from the United States and Israel and pursue full membership of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, the bid would likely fail because Washington would veto it in the U.N. Security Council.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on August 16 in Sarajevo that he would deliver the application to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at some point during the upcoming gathering of world leaders for the U.N. General Assembly session, which begins the week of September 19.

But it remains unclear whether the Palestinians will seek full membership, upgraded observer status or both.

Here are some questions and answers about the issue.


The Palestinians are U.N. observers without voting rights. The European Union is also an observer, while the Vatican is what is known as a non-member observer state. Neither the EU nor the Vatican has voting rights.


Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said he wants the world to recognize a Palestinian state at the General Assembly in September and support its admission to the United Nations.

U.S. President Barack Obama said last year he hoped a Palestinian state could be admitted to the United Nations by the time world leaders gather for the 2011 General Assembly.

That statement, U.S. officials say, was an expression of hope, not a call for a vote this year on Palestinian U.N. membership.

Israel is lobbying against the Palestinians’ U.N. bid. It sees the plan as an attempt to isolate and delegitimize Israel.

A number of European Union states, U.N. diplomats say, are looking increasingly favorably on the idea, largely due to frustration with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and what they see as its recalcitrance over settlements and other issues holding up peace talks.


In addition to applying to become a full U.N. member state, which requires approval by the U.N. Security Council, the Palestinians could also seek upgraded observer status as a non-member state.

That is what the Vatican has and what Switzerland had before it joined the United Nations in 2002. Such status, U.N. envoys say, could be interpreted as implicit U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood because the assembly would be acknowledging that the Palestinians control an actual state.

The advantage of this option is that it would require only a simple majority of the General Assembly, U.N. diplomats say. Since around 120 countries have already recognized the state of Palestine to date, it would most likely win such a vote.

Although the United States, Israel and a handful of other states would likely vote against any Palestinian U.N. move, there are no vetoes in General Assembly votes. Dozens of nations, including many EU members, would likely abstain.

Upgraded observer status could bring benefits. If the Palestinians were to be recognized as a non-member state, they would be able to sign certain international treaties, such as the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which they cannot currently sign, some U.N. diplomats say. The possibility that the Palestinians could join the ICC is something the United States, Israel and others worry about.


Technically the United Nations does not recognize states. Individual U.N. members do that on a bilateral basis. In reality, however, membership in the United Nations is generally considered to be confirmation that a country is an internationally recognized sovereign state.


Countries seeking to join the United Nations usually present an application to the secretary-general, who passes it to the Security Council to assess and vote on. If the 15-nation council approves the membership request, it is passed to the General Assembly for approval. A membership request needs a two-thirds majority, or 129 votes, for approval.

A country cannot join the United Nations unless the Security Council and General Assembly approve its application.


In theory, yes. But as long as the United States is ready to use its veto to block a Palestinian request for U.N. membership, there is no chance of success.

Even if the Palestinians secured a two-thirds majority of votes in the General Assembly, there is no getting around the need for prior approval of the Security Council. According to the U.N. charter, membership in the United Nations “will be effected by a decision of the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.”

If Washington changed its position and agreed to back a Palestinian U.N. membership bid, or to abstain during a Security Council vote, it would probably succeed.

Editing by Will Dunham and Cynthia Osterman

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