Straining Every Nerve against UN Membership for Palestine

By Josh Ruebner

The Roman philosopher and politician Cicero urged orators to ‘Strain every nerve to gain your point.’ The Obama Administration appears to have taken his advice to heart in its attempts to make the case that the United States should oppose Palestinian efforts to gain membership in the United Nations this fall.

However, its rhetoric has been so convoluted, its logic so flawed, and its reasoning so shoddy that its efforts have been desultory and unconvincing. Take, for example, the following quotes:

“No vote at the United Nations will ever create an independent Palestinian state.  And the United States will stand up against efforts to single Israel out at the United Nations or in any international forum. (Applause.)  Israel’s legitimacy is not a matter for debate.” — President Barack Obama, Remarks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference, May 22, 2011

There are so many historical inaccuracies, deliberate obfuscations of political realities, and hyperbolic assumptions that it is difficult to know where to begin to unpack these three crucial sentences.

To assert, boldly, that no action will ever achieve its goal, then at the very least the President should have the historical record on his side. Despite the President’s bluster, he is powerless to stop the UN from voting to create an independent Palestinian state because it already did so—in 1947. UN General Assembly Resolution 181, which ironically never would have passed were it not for the intensive diplomatic arm-twisting of the United States, recommended partitioning Palestine into two states: a Jewish State comprising 55 percent of historic Palestine, and an Arab State totaling 45 percent, with Jerusalem as a corpus separatum, an open, international city administered by the UN.  The UN voted to endorse this partition plan, which was never implemented, at a time when Palestinian Arabs owned approximately 93 percent of the land, and Jews owned 7 percent.

For these past 64 years, Israel’s actions to ethnically cleanse as much of historic Palestine of as many Palestinians as possible has been the primary obstacle to implementing the UN Partition Plan. Today, Israel relentlessly continues to colonize the 22 percent of historic Palestine (the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip) that has been envisioned as a Palestinian state in proposed two-state resolutions to the conflict since 1967, rendering even this bread crumb a remote likelihood.

Also, if the President is going to stake out such an unequivocal position on an issue, then at the very least he should state clearly the actual issue at hand. As the President knows, the UN may be asked to admit the State of Palestine as a member, not to vote on creating a Palestinian state. Since the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) declared independence in 1988, more than 120 countries have recognized and established some form of diplomatic relations with the State of Palestine.  As the international lawyers of the State Department must surely know, the UN does not recognize states.  Only states can recognize other states.  The UN can only determine if that state is admitted as a member. By conflating these two issues, the President intentionally ups the ante of what is at stake as a pretext to justify his opposition to this Palestinian initiative.

Given the fact that the UN voted to partition Palestinians’ homeland and establish an independent Palestinian state within it, and that more than 120 countries have recognized this State of Palestine, one has to wonder why the President would present himself as Chicken Little and try to convince us that the sky is falling when, in actuality, the UN is only being asked belatedly to admit Palestine to its rightful place in the international community of nations. For Obama, the long-overdue act of admitting Palestine to the UN is part of a sinister plan “to single Israel out” in the UN and a devious ploy to undermine its “legitimacy.”

This is an intentional misreading of this Palestinian initiative to achieve even minimal steps towards freedom and self-determination by becoming a member of the UN.  By the President declaring it being tantamount to isolating and de-legitimizing Israel, he speaks volumes about the fragility of Israel’s self-image and the nervousness about its staying power among its supporters in the United States.  If any Palestinian effort to secure their long-denied human rights means that Israel’s legitimacy is called into question, then ipso facto Israel’s “legitimacy” can only be maintained by continuing to deny all Palestinian human rights, which ironically does de-legitimize Israel as an apartheid state.


“As I’ve said many times, we believe the status quo is unsustainable. We have said that to the Israelis, we have said it to the Palestinians, and therefore a return to negotiations is the only path forward. Unilateral action at the United Nations will not create a state.” — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Remarks with French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe after Their Meeting, June 6, 2011.

For Obama Administration officials it is exceedingly difficult to break free from the tautology of Clinton’s circular rationale.  First, though, kudos goes to the Obama Administration for at least recognizing that “the status quo is unsustainable.” Admitting you have a problem is always the first step to recovery.  By this, the Secretary means that ongoing Israeli occupation and colonization of the Palestinian West Bank and East Jerusalem is eroding the prospect of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admitted as much in his rejectionist speech to a joint meeting of Congress in May 2011, during which he revealed that 650,000 Israelis now live in illegal settlements on expropriated Palestinian land beyond Israel’s armistice lines. That’s a full 30 percent more settlers than all previous estimates. Given that these colonies are strategically located atop vital water resources, occupy primary agricultural land, and sit astride crucial transportation nexuses, it is increasingly difficult for even the United States to understand how a contiguous Palestinian state can emerge from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, in which an estimated 2.5 million Palestinians live.  In Clinton’s estimation, it’s either now or never for the cherished two-state solution because the unspoken alternative if Israel continues to colonize these Palestinian territories is that an independent Palestinian state will become unworkable and—gasp—Israel will create the conditions whereby eventually Palestinians and Israeli Jews will live as equals within the same state structure.

Here, however, logic runs into a brick wall. If you recognize that the status quo is unsustainable, then you cannot continue to call for…well…the status quo.  The status quo is the U.S.-dominated “peace process,” which, for more than twenty years of direct and indirect Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, has failed for the simple reason that the United States has functioned as “Israel’s lawyer,” in the words of former “peace process” negotiator Aaron David Miller.

Under the fig leaf of these U.S.-dominated talks, Israel has nearly doubled the length of time that it has illegally occupied Palestinian territories and more than doubled the number of settlers living in illegal colonies there.  Not once has Israel made a good faith offer to uproot these illegal settlements as required by international law to pave the way for a genuine two-state solution.  Instead, Israel has, with the full weight of the United States, pressured Palestinians to accept the annexation of most of these illegal colonies, leaving Palestinians with disconnected Bantustan “states” devoid of any actual sovereignty.  For good reason, Palestinians have refused and will continue to refuse to sign on the dotted line of any agreement that relegates them to reservations.  Thus, to state that the way to challenge the unsustainable status quo is to “return to negotiations” designed to reinforce the status quo is patently absurd and demonstrates more than anything else the paucity of the Obama Administration’s Israel/Palestine policy and the reason for its failure to achieve peace.

In life as in politics, there is rarely an “only way forward.”  It is especially ridiculous to assert this when the “only way forward” has been demonstrated to reinforce the status quo that one believes to be “unsustainable.”  As things stand, with Israel preferring to maintain and expand its settlement blocs rather than evacuate them, more negotiations are the “only way” to run to stand still. In fact, with small amounts of creativity, one can imagine dozens of alternatives to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace that stand a much greater chance of success than the rigged game of the “peace process.”  Such alternative ways forward could include Palestine gaining full UN membership, the United States ending weapons transfers to Israel until it decides it wants to comply with international law, the UN slapping sanctions on Israel until it abides by UN resolutions, international civil society advancing campaigns of boycott, divestment, and sanctions to end Israeli apartheid, bringing Israeli political and military leaders to the dockets of the International Criminal Court for war crimes, and so much more.  Once free of the “peace process” straightjacket, paths toward peace and justice become apparent.

Finally, there’s this:

“My government has been clear all along. The only place where permanent status issues can be resolved, including borders and territory, is in negotiations between the parties—not in international fora such as the United Nations…The United States will not support unilateral campaigns at the United Nations in September or any other time.” — Ambassador Rosemary A. DiCarlo, Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Remarks at an Open Security Council Debate on the Situation in the Middle East, July 26, 2011.

Ah, pity the mid-level bureaucrat who is required to regurgitate the pabulum of the powers that be when she probably knows in her own conscience that it makes no sense.  All of Clinton’s non-sequiturs about negotiations being the “only way forward” also apply to DiCarlo’s assertion that they are the “only place where permanent status issues can be resolved.”  In fact, just the opposite is true.  With the United States backing Israel’s claims that it should illegally annex Palestinian territory and that it should prohibit Palestinian refugees from being able to exercise their internationally-guaranteed right of return, U.S.-dominated “peace process” negotiations are an inconceivable venue for resolving permanent status issues on anything resembling a just and equitable basis.  Instead, with its emphasis on human rights standards and international law, the UN would be a much more appropriate venue to resolve these issues.

Finally, eyebrows must be raised by the claim that the Palestinian initiative to attain UN membership is a “unilateral campaign” that the United States will not support “in September or any other time.”  True, an application for membership in the UN can only be submitted “unilaterally” in the sense that only the applicant can submit it.  An application for membership cannot by definition be submitted “multilaterally.”  NATO, the EU, or any other multilateral organization cannot multilaterally submit an application for UN membership.  Therefore, an application for membership in the UN must be a “unilateral campaign” in this narrow sense.  However, the process to attain membership cannot be defined in this fashion, requiring the positive recommendation of the Security Council and a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly, making admission to the UN a quintessentially multilateral campaign.  By arguing that the United States will not support a “unilateral campaign” for Palestinian UN membership now or in the future, the United States is committing itself never to support Palestinian membership in the UN.

Taken as a whole, Obama Administration statements justifying its position opposing Palestinian membership in the UN are so illogical that they can only be seen as pretexts for clinging to the crumbling façade of Israeli occupation and apartheid.

In 1949, former Senator John Sherman Cooper, serving as U.S. Representative to the UN General Assembly “recalled that his government had declared that it had no intention of preventing, by its vote, the admission to the United Nations of any applicant which received at least seven affirmative votes in the Security Council, which meant that the United States would not use its right of veto in the Security Council on any membership application.”

It remains to be seen whether Palestinians will force a showdown with the United States in the Security Council for full UN membership, opt to bypass it by turning to the General Assembly to have their status at the UN upgraded to a non-member state, or be co-opted or muscled into yet another round of “peace process” negotiations predestined to fail.

What is certain is that the Obama Administration, by staking out such an unprincipled and incoherent stance against Palestinian UN membership, has exposed the absurd lengths to which it will go in defense of Israeli occupation and apartheid and demonstrated how much claim to moral leadership it has ceded since Senator Cooper’s days at the UN.

– Josh Ruebner is the Grassroots Advocacy Coordinator for the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. This article was contributed to

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