Why Did the United States Oppose the U.N. Resolution To Make Palestine a “Nonmember Observer State”?

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Nov. 30 2012 3:49 PM

Why Do So Few Countries Agree with the United States’ Position on Palestine?

A mini-Explainer on the United Nations’ vote to make it a “nonmember observer state.”

Palestinians in Ramallah, the West Bank celebrate the UN General Assembly's decision.
Palestinians in Ramallah, the West Bank, celebrate the U.N. General Assembly's vote to upgrade the Palestinian Authority's status.

Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images.

The U.N. General Assembly voted to accept Palestine as a “nonmember observer state” on Thursday, by a vote of 138- 9. Only Canada, the Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Panama, and Palau joined the United States and Israel in opposing the measure. (Australia, Germany, and the United Kingdom, among others, chose to abstain.) Why was the United States so far outside the global mainstream on this issue?

Because the U.S. cast a vote about process, not principle. The Obama administration considers the Palestinian push for U.N. recognition an attempt to internationalize the Middle East peace process and isolate Israel. The United States has long argued that direct talks are the only solution, and fears that internationalization of the process will signal to Israel that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas isn’t committed to bilateral negotiations. (Abbas has insisted that U.N. recognition is consistent with direct negotiations, and some influential Israelis concur.)

As for the 138 countries that voted “yes” on Thursday, their motivations are varied. Some argued that U.N. recognition of Palestine would pressure the Israelis to make concessions. Others share U.S. concerns that the resolution will hamper direct negotiations but still chose to make a symbolic vote in favor of Palestinian statehood. Voting against recognition of Palestine would have been a problem domestically for many leaders—especially if their rationale was based on a nuanced view of diplomatic process.

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U.N. recognition of Palestine also has important legal ramifications. Palestine’s new status will improve its chances of joining the International Criminal Court, where it could attempt to prosecute Israeli military and political officials for alleged war crimes committed in Gaza and the West Bank, including the construction of settlements in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. As it is, Israeli officials have refused to deplane in England after receiving reports that they could be arrested for war crimes. The United States, United Kingdom, and other countries pressed Abbas before Thursday’s vote for assurances that Palestine wouldn’t attempt to join the ICC, or at least wouldn’t prosecute Israeli officials. Many took Abbas’ refusal to provide such guarantees as an indication that Palestine intends to haul Israelis before the criminal court, ratcheting up international pressure against them.

The United States also objected to the timing of the U.N. resolution. President Obama reportedly asked Abbas to delay the General Assembly vote, giving the United States time to reinvigorate direct negotiations between Israel and Palestine. When Abbas refused to honor President Obama’s request, he severely diminished the chances that the U.S. would vote “yes” on the resolution, or at least abstain. Concerns about timing are minor to most of the 138 countries that voted in favor of U.N. recognition of Palestine, because they aren’t involved in negotiations.

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Explainer thanks Robert M. Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.