The implications of Palestine seeking membership in UN and international organizations are seismic for Israel, Palestine and the US. The divergent interests of the US and Israel will come to a head in Congress as members will have to choose between US interests and the Israeli interests. For Palestine, it is now more at parity with Israel as the threat of seeking justice within these UN agencies makes Israelis shiver as the threats of international sanctions, economic boycott and international criminal trials for its current and former leaders loom in the horizon.
For the Palestinians, the decision to seek membership in UN agencies is a win-win move which was precipitated by Israel’s breach of its commitment to release the last of the 104 Palestinian prisoners it was holding before the Oslo Agreement. Palestinians were enticed by Secretary of State John Kerry to restart peace talks with Israel in July, 2013 on condition that 104 Palestinians will be released and that final status discussions would be addressed. The Palestinians agreed not to seek membership in UN agencies.
When Israel breached its part of the agreement, the Palestinians, seeing no progress on the final status issues, applied to 15 UN agencies for membership. Israel wanted Palestine to recommit to the talks beyond the April 29, 2014 deadline set out when the “talks” began but the Palestinians stated that the release of the prisoners was already agreed to and would not commit to extend the talks for the same agreement. The US then tried to sweeten the deal by considering releasing the notorious Navy spy Jonathan Pollard in exchange for the release of 400 Palestinian women and children prisoners held by Israel. (The reader should note very clearly that this is an admission by Israel that it is imprisoning Palestinian children.)
Additionally, Secretary Kerry elicited a show of “restraint” by Israel in new housing starts that did not include settlements in East Jerusalem and did not include housing starts already announced. On Tuesday, April 1, 2014, Israel, in what it thought was a cunning move before an agreement could be reached, announced over 700 new housing starts. This was the last straw for the Palestinians and the Palestinian Liberation Organization Action Committee unanimously voted to seek UN agency membership.
The divergence of US and Israeli interests was evident when Palestine was granted membership in the UN agency UNESCO in 2012. The US had to stop paying its membership dues in UNESCO as two US laws, over 20 years old, compel the US to de-fund any UN organizations which approves Palestine’s membership. The laws were intended to keep Palestine out of these organizations as a way to protect Israel. The law, however, was ill conceived for it has and will hurt the United States while protecting Israeli interests. Congress attempted to influence member nations of these organizations to vote against the acceptance of Palestine for fear of losing significant US funding. Members of UNESCO were not easily bribed.
For two years the Obama administration sought a waiver from Congress without success, and last November the U.S. lost its voting rights at UNESCO as a result of being two years in arrears. US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Powers urged Congress on April 2, 2014 to repeal or waive the law in its application to Palestine stating that defunding UN agencies that admit Palestine is not in the interests of the US. She stated that defunding these agencies would be a “double win” for the Palestinians. With US influence in these agencies diminished through losing its voting rights, Russia, China and even Cuba would take the lead.
UNESCO’s purpose is to contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through education, science, and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, the rule of law, and human rights along with fundamental freedom proclaimed in the UN Charter. Some UNESCO sponsored projects include literacy, technical, and teacher-training programs; international science programs; the promotion of independent media and freedom of the press; regional and cultural history projects; the promotion of cultural diversity; translations of world literature; international cooperation agreements to secure the world cultural and natural heritage and to preserve human rights, and attempts to bridge the worldwide digital divide. These are all within the interests of the US but with the loss of its voting rights, that influence has been negated—all because Congress has put Israel’s interests ahead of the interests of the US.
A pro-Israeli Congress would be reluctant to allow Congressional members to vote their conscience to grant a waiver or repeal these laws. The Israeli lobby, true to its history of championing Israeli interests over US interests, will not allow Israel interests to be hurt and therefore, its considerable power over Congress will restrain Congressional members from voting for US interests and against Israeli interests. The Israeli lobby has demonstrated on numerous occasions that it champions Israel’s interest over the US interests; most recently over President’s policy visa vie Syria and Iran. The lobby in both cases wanted the US to attack these countries over a reluctant American public’s weariness over two unfunded wars.
With the Israeli lobby ever threatening each member’s election over their loyalty to Israel, members of Congress will be in a quagmire trying to decide whether they should act in the best interest of the US or Israel—or more accurately whether they are willing to put their own re-election interests at the mercy of the Israeli lobby or whether they will do the very thing they were elected—protecting US interests.
Secretary of State John Kerry was perceptive in January, 2014 when he stated that if a peace agreement is not reached, Israel will be further isolated. He must have foreseen that the US must now act in its own self-interest and cannot therefore base its international relations based on the interests of Israel.
The US cannot allow other nations’ political agenda to drive the US out of the UN and its agencies. The decision whether to fund these agencies must be based on the totality of US security, political, and economic interests served by the agencies. Congress will have to stand up for American interests and tell Israel that the divergence of US and Israeli interests is at hand. US foreign policy cannot be based on the interests of another nation.
U.S. diplomats have warned Israel that the United States cannot stop further Palestinian moves at the United Nations, especially if the current negotiations collapse—which they have despite the statement by Secretary Kerry to not write off the “talks”.
The move to seek membership in UN agencies is yet another step toward legitimacy for the Palestinian State after having won “non-member observer state” status in 2012 from the UN General Assembly. Legitimacy for the Palestinian Authority is also achieved from the Palestinian people who have been exasperated by yet another round of “talks” with Israel that are endless and lead to no end. A great majority of Palestinians, most of which are moderate and who were supporters of the Oslo Accords, have become frustrated with an endless state of talks that never end, that are always conditioned upon an agreement to agree on something else in the future. They were also frustrated that as the Palestinian Authority was conducting “talks” with Israel, Israel killed over 60 and wounded over 900 Palestinians; Israel kept building and building more Israeli settlement housing; and the illegal Israeli settlers were cutting down more and more Palestinian olive groves. Thus, taking the step to seek membership in UN agencies is very much favored by the Palestinian people in Palestine and around the globe.
Once Palestine is a member of UN agencies, it can seek to address the Israeli violations. For example, Article 2 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that signatories are bound by the convention both in war, armed conflicts where war has not been declared, and in an occupation of another country's territory. In addition, the United Nations Security Council, in 1993, adopted a report that concluded that the Geneva Conventions had passed into the body of customary international law, thus making them binding on non-signatories to the Conventions whenever they engage in armed conflicts.
The Fourth Geneva Convention clearly states the illegality of an occupying power moving its people to occupied areas. The International Court of Justice has given an advisory statement regarding the Israeli wall built deep on Palestinian land. The advisory ruling in 2007 states clearly that as an occupying power, Israel is forbidden to settle in Arab areas captured during the 1967 war. Thus the status of the Israeli colonization (settlements as the press calls them) will be legally challenged through legal means once Palestine is granted membership in the Fourth Geneva Convention and the International Court of Justice.
Palestine will be in position not only to bring war crimes against Israeli officials but against countries and corporations who support or benefit from the occupation of Palestine. Tzipi Livni, Israel's foreign minister during the War on Gaza in 2008-2009, was cautioned by legal experts not to leave Israel if the Palestinians resorted to the “nuclear option”, i.e. seeking membership in UN agencies. Corporations worldwide, like Caterpillar, can be sued for aiding in the Israeli practice of demolishing Palestinian homes, 27,000 since 1967. Legal precedents have been set by the case against former Yugoslavia President Slobodan Milošević and against Shell Oil--which had to make a hefty settlement to Nigerian farmers after being indicted for human rights violations in its efforts to extract oil. The tide is turning towards justice for the Palestinian people.
By applying for membership in UN agencies, the Palestinians are on the road to achieving parity with Israel. Parity is much needed. The latest action by the Palestinian Authority may be the action that achieves parity. Parity has been thwarted by the diplomatic shield that the US has been giving Israel for more than 6 decades. That shield is evaporating as Palestine’s admission into these agencies has caused a diversion of US and Israeli interests.