FAQs: Palestinian bid for UN membership

The Palestinian Authority has applied to the United Nations for full membership. This FAQ has the background on the current developments.

Security Council considers bid for full membership

The UN Security Council is considering a bid by the Palestinian Authority for full UN membership. Palestinians carry a chair representing their application during a rally Sept. 25 in the West Bank city of Ramallah, upon President Mahmoud Abbas' return from New York. (Darren Whiteside/Reuters)

The Palestinian Authority has asked the United Nations for full membership.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas presented the application to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Sept. 23.

In the application, Abbas writes that, "the State of Palestine affirms its commitment to the achievement of a just, lasting and comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the vision of two states living side by side in peace and security."

In his Sept. 21 address to the General Assembly, U.S. President Barack Obama backed an "independent Palestine" but not the membership bid, reminding his listeners that "peace is hard work."

After Obama's speech, Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu said the "attempt to get state membership in the UN will not succeed." 

With Obama at his side, he called on other world leaders "to oppose this effort to short-cut peace negotiations."

The Palestinian campaign has been building for months. But it was in a Sept. 16 televised speech that Abbas confirmed his government was about to apply for full UN membership as a state that includes the West Bank and Gaza, based on the 1967 boundaries, with East Jerusalem as its capital. His approach is to get global recognition for a Palestinian state and then negotiate the final details with Israel.

Israel accepts the idea of a Palestinian state, but not one based on the 1967 boundaries.

For Israel, the Palestinian Authority's actions come at a challenging time — the nation "has never been as isolated as it is today," according to Stephen Reich, a leader of the Jewish American community writing in the New York Times.

 For the Palestinians, the membership bid, if successful, would be an important — although symbolic — step on the road to an independent Palestinian state.

What is the procedure for becoming a member of the United Nations?

In this case, the Palestinian Authority formally applied for membership to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

In its application, it pledges to "accept the obligations contained in the Charter of the United Nations" and to carry out those obligations, a mandatory requirement.

At the UN General Assembly Sept. 21, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas listens as U.S. President Barack Obama speaks. (Seth Wenig/Associated Press)
The application then goes to the Security Council, where it must receive the support of nine of the 15 council members to go forward. Nine of the current members have already recognized a Palestinian state.

However, if any of the five permanent members — the U.S., the U.K., France, Russia, China — vote against it, the application is vetoed. The U.S. had said it will veto an application for Palestinian membership.

Once a membership application goes to the Security Council, there is no set timeline for when the vote will take place.

If the council recommends admission, then the support of two-thirds of the General Assembly is required. Once that vote carries, membership begins.

What is the Palestinians' current status at the UN?

In 1974, the General Assembly approved observer status for the Palestine Liberation Organization.

There are no provisions for observer status in the UN charter, so the status "is based purely on practice," according to the UN. The PLO may participate as an observer in General Assembly sessions and the work of the Assembly, and is given office space as a "Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the United Nations." PLO representatives don't vote.

Is UN membership the equivalent of statehood?

Statehood is normally something conferred by other states, not by the UN. That is why the Palestinian Authority is asking to join the UN as a full member, and is not asking the UN to confer statehood.

How does a state gain recognition?

A state gains recognition by being recognized by other states.

In international law, a state is defined as a community with a permanent population, a defined territory, a government and sovereignty.

UN membership and the 1947 resolution

The UN has been dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict almost since it was founded in 1945. The Palestinian application for UN membership references UN resolutions back to 1947.

That year, the General Assembly adopted the famous partition resolution. It supported an independent "Jewish State" and an independent "Arab State" and stated that for both, "sympathetic consideration should be given to its application for admission to membership in the United Nations."

Israel was admitted in 1949.

For the Palestinians, the sticking point is territory. They don't control Gaza, Hamas does. In the West Bank, they control some areas, alongside areas that Israel controls.

About 500,000 Israeli settlers are now living in the West Bank.

With statehood as the goal, for the past two years the Palestinian Authority has been carrying out a program of institution-building under Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

This month, both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund issued report cards. The World Bank says, "There has been substantial progress in implementing the program's goals and policies, centering on the objective of building strong state institutions."

The IMF also issued a passing grade: "IMF staff considers that the PA is now able to conduct the sound economic policies expected of a future well-functioning Palestinian state."

However, the World Bank report does warn that "an acute fiscal crisis" could undermine the achievements.

In this case, what are the advantages of UN membership?

For Abbas, membership means that the Palestinians "would be negotiating from the position of one United Nations member whose territory is militarily occupied by another, and not as a vanquished people."

The symbolic advantages probably outweigh the practical.

Full members do have the right to vote, of course.

Other media have pointed to UN membership making it possible to take legal action at the International Criminal Court. However, the ICC may be able to pursue a case whether the Palestinians are members of the UN or not .

Since 2009, when the Palestinian Authority declared that it accepted the ICC's jurisdiction, the ICC has been considering whether that declaration is valid.

The only state in the region that has signed the ICC treaty is Jordan.

What is the U.S. position on Palestinian statehood?

U.S. President Barack Obama, who opposes the Palestinian membership bid, said in his address to the General Asembly on Sept. 21 that he nevertheless seeks 'a future where Palestinians live in a sovereign state of their own.' (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

Obama set out the position in his speech to the General Assembly on Wednesday: "A two-state solution with a secure Israel next to an independent Palestine."

He reminded the delegates of the hope he expressed while addressing the assembly last year. "We can say that this time will be different — that this time we will not let terror, or turbulence, or posturing, or petty politics stand in the way," Obama declared, adding to applause, "If we do, when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations — an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel."

With little progress in the past year towards achieving an agreement, Obama dealt with how to move forward. He did not mention the UN membership issue.

But he did observe that "the deadlock will only be broken when each side learns to stand in each other's shoes."

The Obama administration had already said it would veto the impending request for Palestinian membership. It views the request as "counter-productive," because "such a move in the UN could raise tensions in the region," State Department spokesman Mark Toner explained at a press briefing on Sept. 16. He added that it will not help to get the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations restarted.

What is Canada's position?

Canada declared its opposition to Palestinian membership in July and on Sept. 20 Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters at the UN that the Palestinian move could be "counter-productive" to the peace process.

"I think there’s no likelihood of this initiative by the Palestinian Authority doing anything to further the peace process," he said.

The Canadian government says it supports a two-state solution reached through negotiations.

What is Hamas' position on the Palestinian bid for UN membership?

The Palestinian flag is carried in Gaza City earlier this year. The Palestinian Authority has applied for full UN membership. ((Hatem Moussa/Associated Press))

Hamas, the Islamist faction that controls Gaza, opposes the Palestinian Authority's bid.

On Sept. 18, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh told the legislative council in Gaza, "we reiterate our rejection of this bid," but he added that Hamas would "not place obstacles in the way of the establishment of a Palestinian state with full sovereignty."

Hamas officials have also complained that they were not consulted about the UN plans.

Hamas has banned public demonstrations supporting UN membership, making it more difficult to gauge popular sentiment in Gaza.

Could the Palestinian leadership change its position on seeking UN membership?

In his speech on Sept. 16, Abbas did leave the door slightly open to other options, without going into details. 

If the Security Council vote takes place quickly but the Palestinian bid fails, there is widespread speculation the Palestinians will then ask the General Assembly to upgrade their status to non-member state observer. They could also make such a move while the council is deliberating. A vote on upgrading their status would require only a simple majority to pass, and the Palestinians appear to have the votes to win.

There is also the possibility that both sides will agree to get back to the bargaining table. A push is underway to make that happen.