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UN Special Rapporteur, Richard Falk Talks About Palestine's Bid for Statehood (Part 1)

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Kathleen Wells: Today my guest is UN Rapporteur, Richard Falk, and we are going to discuss Palestine's bid for statehood, what this means -- the consequences, the ramifications.

Professor Falk is professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University and has been appointed to two United Nations positions on the Palestinian territories.

In 2008, Richard was appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council to a six-year term at the United Nations. Thank you, Professor Falk for joining me this afternoon.

Professor Richard Falk: Thank you, Kathleen, for having me.

Kathleen Wells: Well, let's see, on September 23rd, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas presented to UN Security General Ban Ki-Moon a request for membership.

And on Thursday, Palestine won a diplomatic victory in its quest for statehood when UNESCO's executive committee backed its bid to become a member. So Professor Falk, talk to me about the significance of this request by Palestine and the support from UNESCO.

Prof. Falk: Well, I think it is a major development. And it has several different consequences even if in the end Palestine doesn't become a member of the United Nations because that would require a Security Council recommendation to the General Assembly and that may not receive the majority of nine votes that it needs in the Security Council. And even if it should get those nine votes, the US has indicated that it would veto the recommendation.

So that means it's almost impossible for Palestine to succeed in their primary goal of gaining membership in the UN. But what they are doing successfully in the UNESCO development is illustrative: is getting approval from the international community of which a vast majority of states supports their claim to be treated as a sovereign state even though its territory is occupied.

They are entering into various parts of the UN system such as UNESCO which doesn't require membership in the UN. The only thing that Palestine wouldn't be able to do is to participate as a state in the General Assembly and Security Council, which require, of course, being a member of the organization.

Kathleen Wells: So that's the only thing that it will not be able to do and I'm really not clear what the other things are that it will be able to do are. Can you be specific on that?

Prof. Falk: It's important to understand the full range of effects that this could have. One is that they could be as with UNESCO treated as a state by the International Criminal Court. And that's probably the institutional initiative that worries Israel and indirectly the United States the most because it would potentially open Israel to allegations of violations of the laws of war and violations of International Criminal Law. And it is not clear that the Palestinians would push for that institutional relationship. Or, even if they gained it that they would use it in this more assertive way, but it's a possibility.

Another thing that could happen and is likely to happen I guess, is that the General Assembly by a two thirds vote could confer statehood on Palestine i.e., recognize their status as a state which would give them enhanced observer status such as the Vatican enjoys within the UN system. And that wouldn't have great consequences at the diplomatic upgrading so to speak, short of membership but more than what they presently possess.

But perhaps the most important element in this whole initiative is its political significance because what it is expressing is a Palestinian sense of futility about direct negotiations which, since 1993, has led nowhere for the Palestinians. And have, in fact, had the effect of allowing Israel to continue to expand its settlements on the occupied territories to change the demographic character of East Jerusalem. And generally to make whatever prospects there were for a viable independent Palestinian state much less attractive than they had been in 1967.

So for the US and Israel to continue to call for direct negotiations is not only a prescription for a path of failure, it's also a way of allowing Israel to take advantage of delay to improve their relative claims on portions of the occupied territory -- what they call Creating Facts on the Ground.

It's a very significant development in this way and if the United States in the end has to cast its veto to block membership by Palestine or even if it has to mobilize these nine states to abstain or withhold their votes, that too will isolate the United States even more in relation to the Arab world and more generally to the international community.

Kathleen Wells: I've heard Palestinians spokespeople say that they are receiving tremendous pressure, unreasonable pressure to withdraw their bid. What is the likelihood of that occurring?

Prof. Falk: Well, at this point, their credibility is so associated with maintaining the bid that they probably have little political choice but to go ahead with it. They've gone this far and I think the Palestinian authority and Mahmoud Abbas have really put their credibility on the line.

The only thing that could break through that would be an unanticipated Israeli initiative, which indicated a willingness to freeze expansion of the settlements and that would satisfy the Palestinian demand for this precondition before negotiations are again revived.

Some Palestinians are disturbed by the PA's willingness to even consider the resumption of these direct negotiations because they've proved so damaging to the Palestinian struggle for self-determination in the past. So, there is some division in the Palestinian community itself.

Kathleen Wells: Talk to me about how the direct negotiations, which have been going on for 20 years, have been ineffective.

Prof. Falk: They've been ineffective in creating expectations that this was a path to Palestinian self-determination and more specifically, toward the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Originally, in 1993, when there was much fanfare around the Oslo breakthrough that established a set of principles that would guide the parties, it was more or less promised that the final status of the conflict would be resolved within five years. There have been constant repetitions of this raising of hopes, particularly by American leaders -- Bill Clinton did this, George W. Bush did it, Obama did it when he, in 2011, said there would be a Palestinian state within a year.

The Palestinians have been led on this path which is not neutral, that's what I'm trying to suggest, which I think most people don't understand. It's not just that neither side gets what it wants in terms of an end to the conflict. It is that Palestinians continue to endure the ordeal of occupation. But in addition to that, they lose land, they lose control over part of East Jerusalem, they suffer from house demolitions and confiscation of residence permits. It's been a very hard experience for those that have initially been very dedicated on the Palestinian side to a negotiated approach to ending the conflict.

Kathleen Wells: Explain to me why the majority of American citizens do not understand this disequilibrium -- this shape of things, how they actually are on the ground.

Prof. Falk: Well, I think the United States has been so willing to overlook Israel's violations of international law. The media has generally been extremely sympathetic with Israel's positions on various contested questions. And the American domestic scene is one where the Israeli lobby has achieved such influence in the US Congress as no special interest group has ever achieved and this creates a kind of political climate in this country, that doesn't exist anywhere else, even in Israel where there is no really open and objective discussion of these issues.

One of the things that has distorted the negotiations has been that the US which is, as I've been saying, very partisan, very much on the side of Israel in a way that it is on the side of probably no other country in the world, is also claiming to be the honest broker and the intermediary in these negotiations. It's an incredible double role that the US has been allowed to play and it's only an expression of Palestinian weakness that they are willing to subscribe to such a framework.

Kathleen Wells: And how does this benefit America to take this position?

Prof. Falk: Well, I think an increasing number of informed observers of American foreign policy feel that it isn't in the interest of America and that we need to be friends with the Arab world in general. It's very important for energy, it's very important for nuclear non-proliferation, it's important for peace and stability in the region.

But this policy seems to be domestically driven by a very strong consensus that exists within the beltway. My view from speaking around the country is that the society would be ready for a balanced approach, and this would depend on a President taking the initiative to go to the people rather than to be captive of Congress, the Israeli lobby, and the think-tanks in Washington.