The United Nations, Israel and Palestine – Palestine at the United Nations, September 2011

Presbyterian Policy

Since 1948 General Assemblies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and its predecessor denominations have repeatedly addressed the Middle East and particularly Israel and Palestine. The Presbyterian position has consistently been to affirm the right of Israel to exist as a sovereign state within secure, internationally recognized borders and the right of the Palestinians to self-determination, including the right to the establishment of a neighboring independent, sovereign state toward the end of establishing a just and durable peace. Read actions of Assemblies from 1997 to 2010. The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy provides a summary of PC(USA) policy related to questions likely to be discussed at the United Nations later this fall.

Looking toward September

Palestinian officials have announced their decision to request membership in the United Nations for Palestine in September 2011. Palestinian statehood was unilaterally declared by the Palestine National Council in 1988 and has been recognized by over 120 countries to date. United Nations General Assembly Resolution 43/177 acknowledged the proclamation of the State of Palestine by the Palestine National Council.

This initiative follows efforts to strengthen diplomatic relations, support the Palestinian private sector and implement institutional reforms. In April 2011, the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process issued a report, Palestinian State-Building: A Decisive Period, that notes in the six areas where the UN is most engaged, governmental functions of the Palestinian Authority are now sufficient for a functioning government of a state. The IMF and the World Bank issued related reports.

The Process for Membership

Being admitted as a UN member state begins when a State submits an application to the UN Secretary-General along with a letter stating that it accepts the obligations of the UN Charter. The Security Council considers the application. A recommendation for admission must receive affirmative votes from 9 of the 15 members of the Council, provided that none of the five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) veto the application. The Security Council then submits its recommendation to the UN General Assembly. The General Assembly votes on membership with a two-thirds majority (129 of 193 member states) required to approve admission.

In March 1950, the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion (the file is in both French and English) stating that a Security Council majority vote with no veto is required on issues of state membership in the UN.

Should the Security Council vote not to recommend membership or should one of the permanent members of the council exercise its veto, the Security Council reports that action to the General Assembly. The General Assembly may ask the Security Council to reconsider its decision.

The United States administration has indicated they would likely use their veto in the Security Council.

Alternative Scenarios

A number of alternatives to UN membership for Palestine are being publicly discussed. These could be pursued in response to a veto or unfavorable vote in the UN Security Council. They could also be pursued independently of an application for UN membership.

The General Assembly could upgrade the status for Palestine from a ‘non-member entity’ to ‘permanent observer’.

The General Assembly could pass a resolution recognizing a Palestinian State. Such a resolution would not be binding but would have political and symbolic implications.

The General Assembly could reaffirm the 1947 General Assembly Partition Plan Resolution 181, which called for the partition of British Mandate Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab one. 

It has been suggested that Resolution 377, Uniting for Peace could be used by the General Assembly to admit Palestine to membership. This resolution provides that “if the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression, the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately with a view to making appropriate recommendations to Members for collective measures, including in the case of a breach of the peace or act of aggression the use of armed force when necessary, to maintain or restore international peace and security.”

Some observers argue that because there is an open session under Uniting for Peace on Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory, it could be used to admit Palestine for membership.

This would require the General Assembly to agree that admitting Palestine to membership would help maintain international peace and security.

Other observers argue that Uniting for Peace cannot be used in instances of membership.

Uniting for Peace has never been used to admit a state to membership.  A March 1950 International Court of Justice advisory opinion (the file is in both French and English) stated that a Security Council majority vote with no veto is required on issues of state membership in the UN. Note: this opinion pre-dates the Uniting for Peace resolution that was adopted in November 1950.

The General Assembly could refer aspects of the issue to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The ICJ has been involved in membership issues in the past, (most recently in Kosovo, 2010). Some scholars (see the article by Adam Yoffie below) suggest that UN member states and specialized agencies could make a series of referrals to the ICJ that could help to move along the case for Palestinian sovereignty. ICJ involvement increases the internationalization of the conflict as a legal matter and would help enable the Palestinian leadership to pursue claims against Israel in human rights treaty bodies. 


These resources are offered to provide a variety of points of view on the admission of Palestine to membership in the UN and related issues. They represent the opinions of the respective authors. They do not represent the positions of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). We are grateful to our colleagues in the Quaker Office at the United Nations for identifying many of these resources and providing the annotations.

Al-Haq’s Questions & Answers on Palestine’s September Initiatives at the United Nations
Al-Haq, 20 July 2011
This paper, written by a Palestinian human rights group in a question-and-answer format, discusses “four main issues: (i) Palestine’s September initiatives; (ii) Palestine’s statehood status in international law; (iii) the procedure for admission as a Member State of the UN; and (iv) the potential implications of these initiatives.”

Behind the Headlines: The Dangers of Premature Recognition of a Palestinian State
Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 30 June 2011
This piece voices concern for any unilateral declaration of statehood, arguing it undermines all internationally accepted frameworks for peace and will intensify the conflict. The MFA considers the initiative as implicitly recognizing a terrorist entity (Hamas) and as a way for the Palestinian leadership to continue to avoid recognizing Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

Israel / Palestine
Security Council Report, Update Report, 25 July 2011
This report covers the options, expected actions and dynamics of the Security Council on Israeli and Palestinian issues in general, and specifically on UN statehood. It also describes the parameters affecting this initiative that are already established by past Security Council decisions.

Law, Politics, and the Conception of the State Recognition Theory
William Thomas Worster, Boston University International Law Journal, Vol: 27:115, 2009
The process of recognizing a political entity (state or government) is characterized by competing theories. In practice, the decision appears to be at the discretion of other entities.

The Palestine Problem: The Search for Statehood and the Benefits of International Law
Adam G. Yoffie, The Yale Journal of International Law, Spring 2011
This paper argues that an unconventional avenue in which the power of the ICJ and the ICC are used to promote Palestinian sovereignty exists and should be explored further. Yoffie contends that international law can be used a ‘step ladder’ rather than a stumbling block to achieve Palestinian sovereignty.

Road for Palestine Statehood – Recognitions and Admission
Negotiations Affairs Department of the PLO
Released by the Negotiations Affairs Department of the Palestine Liberation Organization, this document outlines the perceived necessity of a Palestinian state separate from Israel. It asserts statehood as fulfilling international and UN regulations, and as the only option for sustainable peace. The document identifies the UN member states that recognize Palestinian independence, attesting that Palestinian self-determination is an inalienable right and thus an international responsibility to uphold.

UN General Assembly “Uniting for Palestine”
Robbie Sabel, INSS Insight No. 251, April 2011
The National Institute for Security Studies (INSS) offers an Israeli perspective on issues related to Palestine and the UN. Included in these are the Uniting for Peace resolution, and its feasibility; the General Assembly calling for a UN trusteeship to replace Israel in the West Bank and Gaza; and the International Court of Justice giving an advisory opinion confirming that the 1949 armistice lines are the boundaries of the Palestinian state. 

The UN: Problem or Solution
Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center
Sabeel is  an grassroots ecumenical liberation theology movement among Palestinians that works for a just, comprehensive and enduring peace in Palestine and Israel. In this article Sabeel asks for prayer for the Palestinian people so that the Palestinian leaders would be guided into the best possible course of action for peace in the region and the world. The article also reflects on why the Palestinians are going to the UN at this time.

Background from UN-related Sources

The United Nations Information System on the Question of Palestine offers a collection of current and historical United Nations material concerning the question of Palestine and Israel as well as other issues related to the Middle East situation and the search for peace.

IMF: Macroeconomic and Fiscal Framework for the West Bank and Gaza Seventh Review of Progress: Staff Report for the Meeting of the AHLC, Brussels, April 13, 2011

Palestinian State-building: A Decisive Period

Office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Ad Hoc Liaison Committee Meeting, Brussels, 13 April 2011

World Bank: Building the Palestinian State: Sustaining Growth, Institutions, and Service Delivery, Economic Monitoring Report to the AHLC, Brussels, April 13, 2011

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