How to Think About the Palestine UN Vote

We are entering into the home stretch of a period of frantic diplomacy surrounding the planned General Assembly vote on Palestine.

So far, there is no draft UN General Assembly in circulation. That’s because there’s no consensus yet on the pro-Palestine side over what specific thing the GA resolutions should call for.  There are basically two options on the table: 1) A resolution that calls for full UN membership for the new State of Palestine or 2) A resolution that grants Palestine “Observer Status” as a member of the General Assembly.

If the September 20 vote is over full UN Membership and nothing else, then the question will almost certainly be taken up in the Security Council where, with equal certainty, it will face a USA veto. Option 2, however, does not require Security Council approval. And while certainly a step below a full fledged UN member state, it does come with some advantages–namely, that Palestine can participate more fully in debates and the UN and other relevant international organizations. It is a stepping stone to full UN membership.

So far, it would seem that the United States is intent on blocking both options. I don’t quite understand this strategy. If nothing else, Option 2 helps the United States avoid a  discomfiting veto over Palestinian statehood (explicit support for which has been the stated policy of George W. Bush and Barack Obama).  Also, the GA vote is a fait acomplis. Why waste diplomatic energy to fight what you know is going to be a losing battle?

One reason I do see being bandied about for why the USA should still do its utmost to stop even a GA vote granting Palestine “Observer Status” is that should Palestine be admitted as an observer state to the UN, it may have an easier time convincing the International Criminal Court that it ought to investigate Israeli crimes in Palestine.

Some context: For the past few years the ICC has categorically rejected Palestine’s entreaties that it investigate alleged Israeli crimes because Palestine is not a state, and therefore not permitted to grant the ICC jurisdiction to operate in its territory.  The thinking goes that if Palestine becomes an observer state to the UN, it may have stronger legal footing on which to argue its case that it has the authority to ask the ICC for an investigation.

The thing is, even if the ICC decides that Palestine meets the requirements under its Charter (which is still far from certain) the court itself has very strict rules of procedure governing the admissibility of cases.  The court’s guiding philosophy is something called “complimentary” which basically means that local judicial authorities get first crack at prosecuting crimes. If national authorities are unwilling or unable to investigate, it’s only then that the ICC would step in.

Part of the reason that you don’t see any ICC court cases against nationals of liberal democracies is that those nationals live in places that have functioning judicial systems.  Israel has a well functioning judicial system. Palestine does not. Even if the ICC does go ahead with some sort of investigation, it is more likely that a Palestinian would end up in the Hague than an Israeli. Also, if the investigation stretches into Israeli territory, it would require the Security Council’s approval–that’s not quite likely, I’d dare say.

So if this ICC business  is the only reason that people are fearful of granting Palestine  “Observer State” status, then perhaps those fears are unfounded?