Why Obama Should Support a Palestinian State at the UN

By Joshua Haber
August 8, 2011

In 1947 the United Nations mandated the partition of the Palestinian territory, envisaging an autonomous Palestinian state emerging alongside the Jewish state of Israel. Nearly 64 years later, this vision remains unfulfilled. The Palestinian territories are fractured and subject to Israeli occupation, and negotiations to implement a two-state solution are moribund. Frustrated by the futility of bilateral negotiations with the Netanyahu government, Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas is seeking UN recognition of Palestinian statehood in September.

UN recognition would establish diplomatic parity between Israel and Palestine and confer international legitimacy to Palestine’s leaders and institutions. Backed by powerful members of the international community, Palestinian leaders could renew bilateral negotiations with Israel with a real sense of legitimacy and purpose. Despite the merits of this approach, the Obama administration opposes Abbas’s unilateral action. President Obama has dismissed UN recognition as a misguided and purely symbolic endeavor, while U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton has stated, “the international community cannot impose a solution on the parties.” Because the UN General Assembly vote depends upon prior Security Council approval, the United States as a permanent member could derail the vote by casting a veto.

The Obama administration should carefully consider the consequences of a veto. It would unequivocally cast the Obama administration as an Israeli partisan, damaging the United States’ political and diplomatic leverage in the region. Specifically, a veto will further alienate a Palestinian public already disenchanted with the Obama administration’s inability to pressure Israel into halting settlement expansion. In his May 19 speech , President Obama reaffirmed America’s solidarity with Israel and directly addressed Israel’s security concerns, while ignoring issues relevant to Palestinians. Representing a rebuke of Palestinian statehood, a veto will permanently eliminate the United States as a credible, even-handed mediator in the conflict.

On the other hand, U.S. support for Palestinian statehood would demonstrate the Obama administration’s determination to achieve a fair and lasting peace and, moreover, would reinvigorate negotiations. In addition to enhancing the Palestinian Authority’s diplomatic leverage, UN recognition would pressure Israel into compromising on substantive issues, such as the status of Jerusalem, settlements, and the borders of a future Palestinian state. In this way, UN recognition would serve as the impetus for renewed peace talks.

According to President Obama, “the United Nations can achieve a lot of important work. What it is not going to be able to do is deliver a Palestinian state.” Instead, Obama insists that only a negotiated peace between the Israelis and Palestinians will yield a Palestinian state. The president is right. However, UN recognition will enhance the Palestinian Authority’s diplomatic leverage and legitimacy, thereby increasing pressure on the Netanyahu government to make compromises. This will pave the way for a serious resumption of negotiations. The Obama administration should not miss this historic opportunity to improve its regional credibility, win favor among proponents of peace, and propel the peace process forward.

Naturally, U.S. support for UN recognition will require political courage. Taking a stand on a contentious and deeply divisive issue is especially unsavory amid a reelection campaign. Israel’s partisans and lobbyists will continue to pressure President Obama, but their position runs counter to American interests. Indeed, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) executive director Howard Kohr recently suggested that the United States should flout its commitment to even-handedness and openly favor Israel’s position in the conflict. Kohr, and other votaries of Israel, brazenly disregard America’s national interest in fostering a peace process. Even-handed diplomacy is the only tenable U.S. approach to resolving the conflict. Only a balanced mediator can win the trust of both sides and, subsequently, broker meaningful concessions and compromises. In September, the Obama administration should ignore its detractors and endorse Palestinian statehood at the United Nations.

Joshua Haber is a graduate student in Middle East Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.


An American UN veto would perpetuate the horrors Israel has wreaked upon Palestine for generations. This is not what my country is all about. Israel and its AIPAC minions have garnered disproportionate media, financial and political control right here in United States.  Seems our country, not just Palestine, has been occupied.  At horrific cost, Palestine justly and honorably resists, whereas we, like donkeys, serve the Israeli herdsmen. Please, save Palestine and save us too. No veto.

I wonder what happened in 1947 that deterred the Arabs living on the land from a accepting a state that would live side by side with the Jewish state. Functionally speaking, what will the vote give the Palestinians. The problem must be solved through direct negotiations. There is just no way around that. What a surprise, the name AIPAC surfaces when a writer begs the President to undue a deep and ingrained relationship between the people of the two countries. We forget that strong bonds were built way before the two governments ever became allies.

Palestine, by coming to the UN for recognition in this matter violate an agreement it made during the Clinton administration. This is no surprise. Time after time the Palestinians are offered a significant majority of what they are asking for (it was once estimated that the Palestinians were offered 95%). Unless they act in good faith, what negotiations can be made? The Palestinians need to make peace before they should expect their own country (which was offered to them in '48)

There is no way the Obama administration can win on this issue in the short term. Over a longer period of time, a policy of candor and the abandonment of euphemism regarding the issues at stake (as well as the designation of one senior American official to serve as the spokesperson for that policy) could make of the future annual recognition controversies at the UN a lever on the Netanyahu government. America could require concessions on settlement and border issues as the price for continuing to exercise its Security Council veto of recognition in cash advance of a final status agreement. This possibility would require greater resolution in the face of domestic political opposition than the Obama administration has yet shown.

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