The Significance of International Recognition of the State of Palestine

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United Nations recognition of Palestine as a state would confront Israel with complex challenges, but would also have some hidden benefits. In this article, written in advance of the Palestinian Authority's planned appeal for U.N. recognition as an independent state, IDI Senior Fellow Prof. Yuval Shany describes the risks and potential opportunities contained in such international recognition. A Hebrew version of the article was originally published in the financial daily Globes on September 14, 2011.

All signs indicate that the Palestinian Authority's decision to ask the international community to recognize a Palestinian state based on the borders of June 5, 1967, is a strategic decision intended to lead to the internationalization of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It appears that the Palestinian leadership believes that the bilateral negotiations with Israel have been exhausted and that the Palestinians can achieve more significant political gains at the present time by using multilateral channels. In this regard, whether the ultimate outcome of the current Palestinian move is that Palestine is admitted as a state by the United Nations or is granted an enhanced observer status in the U.N. is not particularly significant: even if the United States ultimately prevents the admission of Palestine to the UN, strong support for Palestinian recognition within the General Assembly will most probably enable the Palestinians to join a long list of international conventions and organizations. The Palestinians will be able to utilize these multilateral frameworks to condemn Israel and to exert legal and political pressure on it. Thus, for example, widespread international recognition of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders would enable the Palestinians to accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court in The Hague and to authorize the Court's Prosecutor to investigate allegations about international crimes committed by Israel in the Occupied Territories. Similarly, the Palestinian state may attempt to invite international peacekeeping forces to protect its people against attacks by Israeli soldiers and civilians. Accordingly, it is expected that there will be an increase in the intensity of the Palestinian struggle against Israel in international, legal, and political arenas following the developments in the United Nations.

From Israel's perspective, however, there are also some real advantages to having the international community relate to Palestine as a state. First, in the current situation, there is widespread international support for the rights of the Palestinians, but it is not at all clear which set of legal obligations is binding on the Palestinian Authority in its relations with Israel. For example, with regard to the separation barrier, the International Court of Justice in The Hague opined that Israel has a right to defend itself against attacks originating in foreign countries, but not against attacks coming from the Palestinian territories, since the Palestinian Authority is not bound by the provisions of the U.N. Charter regarding the prohibition of the use of force. Recognition of Palestine, thus, would crystallize the legal obligations of the Palestinians and end the legal asymmetry that currently exists between the two sides of the conflict.

Secondly, recognition of a Palestinian state as the body that represents the interests of the Palestinians is likely to reduce the weight of the arguments raised in the international arena that favor the right of return of Palestinian refugees. It is highly doubtful that a Palestinian state could represent the Palestinian refugees—millions of people who do not reside in its territory and do not hold its citizenship—on an international level. This is because international law usually does not grant states the right to represent minority groups living in the territory of foreign countries. It is possible that the PLO would continue to represent the interests of the refugees, but there is reason to assume that the formation of a Palestinian state and its transformation into a significant international player will continue the trend of weakening the PLO's international status. This is similar to the weakening of the power of the Zionist institutions—which represent the entire Jewish people—as a political factor in the international realm, which took place after the establishment of the State of Israel.

Finally, international recognition of a Palestinian state may be understood by the world as fulfilling the right of Palestinians to self-determination. This process may thus "frame" the Israeli-Palestinian conflict differently than it has been framed until now. In the past, the Israeli presence in the territories has been seen by many members of the international community as an illegitimate act that is denying freedom to an oppressed people. If a Palestinian state is recognized, however, the Israeli presence in the territories may be seen as a reflection of a border dispute. In other words, it could lead to transformation from a situation that seems to have elements of colonialism, in which a veteran, established state controls a people that is fighting for its independence, to a more "normal" conflict between two independent states that are subject to the same system of international law. It would therefore appear that the current developments at the United Nations not only contain risks to Israel (especially in the short term) but also potential opportunities (especially in the long run). 

Prof. Yuval Shany is a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and a lecturer on international law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

A Hebrew version of this article was first published in Globes on September 14, 2011.