How to block the Palestine statehood ploy

Devra Berkowitz/UN Photo

Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority, addresses a Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East.

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Now that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his recent sparring partner Barack Obama are back in their corners, the next Arab-Israeli political flash point could be this fall at the U.N. General Assembly. The Palestinian Authority is lobbying Assembly members to legitimize its claim to international status as a "state."

Recognizing "statehood" does not mean U.N. membership, but it would nonetheless be a major Palestinian success. A resolution recognizing a Palestinian "state" could also declare its boundary to be the 1967 borders (in actuality, merely the 1949 armistice lines), with or without President Obama's caveat about "agreed upon swaps" of land.

The obvious Palestinian objective is to remove the issues of statehood and boundaries from the realm of bilateral negotiations with Israel, making them fait accompli. Last fall, the Palestinians focused on obtaining a Security Council resolution for this purpose. They believed, for whatever reason, that Mr. Obama would not order an American veto, as his predecessors would have done without hesitation. Many thought the administration might even vote "yes" rather than abstain.

"Congress should legislate broadly that any U.N. action that purports to acknowledge or authorize Palestinian statehood will result in a cutoff of all U.S. contributions to the offending agency." -- John R. Bolton

When it became clear that U.S. opposition in the Security Council was likely, on statehood or on U.N. membership, Palestinian attention shifted to the General Assembly, where there is no veto. General Assembly resolutions are not legally binding, and that body has no authority to recognize states, although its actions can be politically powerful, as the 1975 "Zionism is racism" resolution demonstrated.

This is déjà vu all over again. In late 1988, Palestinians issued a "declaration of statehood," changing their U.N. observer delegation's name from "Palestine Liberation Organization" to "Palestine" to sound more like a state, which scores of countries recognized. The Palestinians then campaigned to join U.N. bodies like the World Health Organization, reasoning that since U.N. agency charters allow only states as members, the admission of "Palestine" would prove that it, too, was a state.

Ridiculous in the real world but not in the U.N., the PLO effort gained overwhelming support there. George H.W. Bush's new administration and Israel protested that "Palestine" manifestly did not meet customary international law definitions of statehood, such as having a clearly defined territory and exercising a government's legitimate domestic and international responsibilities. Third World countries rallied almost unanimously to the PLO, and Europe's response was weak. European diplomats believed Washington's opposition was merely pro forma due to the "Jewish lobby."

Faced with the near certainty of defeat, Secretary of State James Baker warned publicly: "I will recommend to the President that the United States make no further contributions, voluntary or assessed, to any international organization which makes any changes in the PLO's status as an observer organization."

No politician of Mr. Baker's skill would publicize his proposals unless he knew that the president would accept them, and this reality was rapidly understood internationally. Although defeating the PLO campaign required further maneuvering, Mr. Baker's statement was the death knell of the "statehood" push.

The lesson for today is plain. If President Obama wants to block a General Assembly Palestinian statehood resolution, he should act essentially as Messrs. Bush and Baker did. Yet Mr. Obama is highly unlikely to do anything so decisive, which is why many in America and Israel remain gravely concerned about this latest Palestinian diplomatic ploy.

Accordingly, we should turn to Congress, which has a rich history of dealing with U.N. actions it doesn't appreciate. Rather than wait for a Baker-like threat, Congress should legislate broadly that any U.N. action that purports to acknowledge or authorize Palestinian statehood will result in a cutoff of all U.S. contributions to the offending agency. If the General Assembly ignored this warning, all funds would be cut off to the bloated Secretariat in New York, but not to separate agencies like the World Health Organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and others with their own governing bodies and funding mechanisms.

The logic is the same today as it was in 1989. Moreover, our current federal budget deficits provide another attractive reason to reduce U.N. contributions. If political realities make it impossible to cut off funding completely, perhaps a partial reduction, say 50%, might be a suitable compromise.

Although the General Assembly will not convene again until September, there is no time to waste. Fatah's coalition with Hamas already provides statutory grounds (since the U.S. lists Hamas as a terrorist organization) to eliminate funding for the Palestinian Authority. Reducing U.S. funding to the U.N. is the next available, highly visible, target of opportunity. It presents the U.N. membership with a fascinating question: Would they rather recognize Palestinian statehood, or keep America's money?

John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.

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