General Assembly Upgrades Palestine Representation at the U.N.

Small Victory on the Path to the Big Victory

On 7 July 1998, the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to upgrade Palestine’s representation at the United Nations to a unique and unprecedented level, somewhere in between the other observers on the one hand and Member States on the other. The Assembly adopted resolution 52/250, entitled "Participation of Palestine in the work of the United Nations", by a vote of 124 Member States in favor and only 4 against, with 10 abstentions.

The resolution conferred upon Palestine additional rights and privileges of participation that have traditionally been exclusive to Member States. These include the right to participate in the general debate held at the start of each session of the General Assembly with the traditional high level participation, the right to cosponsor resolutions and the right to raise points of order on Palestinian and Middle East issues. The resolution also changes the seating of Palestine from its present location to a location directly after non-Member States, with the allocation of six seats for delegates (observers get two seats). The resolution also maintained the right of Palestine to inscribe at any time under agenda items related to Palestine and Middle East issues, while giving it the additional right under other agenda items at any meeting with priority given to Member States at those meetings.

The Israeli side waged a fervent campaign aimed at blocking adoption of the resolution, with the direct participation of the Prime Minister, including personal calls to many Heads of State or Government. The Israelis claimed that the resolution represented a gross violation of the agreements reached between the two sides and that its adoption would endanger the peace process and would lead to unilateral Israeli acts in response. However, just before adoption of the resolution, sensing the crushing defeat, the Israelis tried to make a sudden reversal, attempting to downplay the importance of the achievement. After the vote, Prime Minister Netanyahu stated that the resolution simply entails minor corrections of the Palestinian representation! The Israeli side was unable to maintain a balanced and coherent argument to prevent adoption of the resolution.

The United States was more consistent in its view of the resolution, claiming that it was an example of unhelpful, unilateral acts, which undermine U.S. efforts to revive the Middle East peace process. This was a position reiterated by the spokesman of the U.S. Department of State. Further, the U.S. Mission sent a note to virtually all Member States before the vote urging them to oppose the resolution. Ambassador Bill Richardson of the U.S., who spoke before the vote in the Assembly, stated that this was "the wrong resolution at the wrong time." At an earlier stage, Secretary of State Madeline Albright had personally sought postponement of the vote, which had originally been scheduled for 24 June, leading to its delay until 7 July.

The unanimous positive vote of the members of the European Union (EU), however, dramatically added to the political importance of the resolution. The Europeans had previously taken an unfriendly position back in December when the original draft resolution was presented to the Assembly. The EU even tried to force an amendment on the draft, a move that was subject to a procedural vote, which the Palestinian-Arab side unexpectedly lost. Sometime before the recent vote took place, however, the EU Troika engaged with the Palestinian delegation and the Arab Troika in intensive negotiation of the text of the draft resolution, which led to a watering down of the text, but also lead to agreement between the two sides. There was no doubt that the EU had taken a political decision, trying in good faith to reach agreement on the matter.

After the loss of the procedural vote in December, the Palestinian side maintained continuous and consistent efforts to ensure the success of their endeavors during the resumed 52nd session of the General Assembly. A memorandum on "Observer Status at the United Nations and Endeavors to Achieve Full Participation of Palestine in the Work of the Organization" was prepared and distributed to all Member States early in 1998. Intensive and broad consultations were undertaken and later a decision was taken by the Ministerial Meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Qatar in April to support the endeavor, followed by a similar decision by the Ministerial Meeting of the Coordinating Bureau of the Non-Aligned Movement in Colombia in May. Both ensured the necessary votes to adopt a maximal text and in a way opened the door for successful negotiations with other regional groups.

It would not have been possible for Member States to agree on extending the above-mentioned rights and privileges to Palestine had they not been convinced that Palestine is much more than an organization or even a national liberation movement. Clearly, Member States were convinced that, particularly from the U.N. perspective, Palestine is at least a state in formation. The Palestinian side considered the achievement to be a small victory on the path to the big victory, namely the full membership of the State of Palestine in the U.N., perhaps, God willing, during the 53rd session of the General Assembly.