Palestine: The Vatican Option

12 September 2011

Palestine: The Vatican Option

By Gwynne Dyer

“We will go to the United Nations (to request the recognition of Palestine as a state) and then we will return to talks,” said Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas early this month. But he is actually going to the UN because there are no peace talks, and there is little likelihood of them even if he doesn’t go. He has to give Palestinians some sign of progress, even if it is a purely symbolic UN recognition of a Palestinian state.

The Israelis have already lined up the United States to veto it. The US Congress has loyally threatened to cut all financial aid to the Palestinian Authority if the statehood project goes ahead. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has even warned that Israel might withdraw from the Oslo accords, the foundation of Middle Eastern peace talks for the past two decades.

The Israeli government is also warning that if Palestine is recognised as a state, then there will be a wave of violence against Jewish settlers in the occupied territories. It’s unclear why the Palestinians would be likelier to resort to violence if they were DENIED statehood than if they were granted it, but Netanyahu insists that terrible things will happen if the UN recognises a Palestinian state. Don’t worry. It won’t.

Mahmoud Abbas will address the General Assembly on the 23rd of this month, and then there will be a vote that he is certain to win. 120 UN members recognise Palestinian statehood already, and he can easily find the eight extra votes he needs. His problem is that only the Security Council can admit a state to full membership in the United Nations – and one of its five permanent, veto-wielding members is the United States.

The last time the United States openly defied Israel was in 1991, when President George H.W Bush forced Yitzak Shamir’s government to attend the Madrid conference that led to the Oslo accords and the “peace process”. But the senior Bush has always believed that he lost the 1992 election as a result, and Barack Obama has no intention of following his example.

The United States has already promised Netanyahu that it will prevent Palestinian statehood, so this whole proposition seems an exercise in futility. Palestine will not get a UN seat, the United States will become even more disliked in the Arab world because it vetoed Palestine’s request, and angry and frustrated Palestinians may turn to violence. Abbas is no fool, so he must have a better plan than that. What is it?

He knows that the “peace process” has been dead for years, and that there is nothing to lose by ignoring it. It is only kept on life support to save the United States and some European countries from having to admit that they will never try to force Israel to make territorial concessions.

Abbas also knows that there will be no domestic pressure on Netanyahu to change course. The average Israeli has stopped worrying much about security and “peace” since the Wall around the West Bank stopped most terrorist attacks. Besides, Netanyahu is politically in thrall to the Jewish settlers: his coalition government would collapse if he compromised on territorial issues.

Finally, Abbas knows that Palestinian popular support for the “two-state solution,” the essential goal of the past twenty years of peace talks, is fading rapidly. Yet he and the Palestine Liberation Organisation are indissolubly linked to that solution, so he must restore its credibility. There will be no UN seat for Palestine this year, but there’s a half-way house that could bring enough benefits to win him some time.

It’s known as the “Vatican option.” The Vatican City is an independent and universally recognised state, but it only has 800 citizens so it has never sought a seat in the General Assembly. However, it does participate in most UN special organisations as a “non-member observer state.”

Palestine could achieve that status this month. The General Assembly can upgrade its current status as a non-member “observer entity” to a non-member “observer state” with no Security Council involvement and no risk of veto. It probably will.

Becoming an “observer state” would confer real advantages on Palestine. It could then join international organisations like Unesco, the World Health Organisation, and Unicef. Most importantly, it could also bring complaints before the International Criminal Court (ICC), including allegations that Israel has committed war crimes.

Since Israel (like the United States) refuses to accept the authority of the ICC, that would have limited practical implications for Israelis, but international arrest warrants might be issued. That would greatly inconvenience Israeli diplomacy: the ICC is the toughest and most impartial international legal authority in the world, and its indictments have a real impact on global public opinion.

What about the US veto and its negative effects on America’s reputation in most parts of the world? Washington would certainly prefer Abbas not to launch this initiative, but it does have the option of handing the proposal for full Palestinian membership in the UN over to a committee of experts for examination. Properly conducted, that examination might last for years.

 Much hot air will be expended over this initiative, but it will not cause a crisis.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 13. (“The last…example”; and “Since…opinion”)