UNGA Recognition of “Palestine”: Does It Matter?
I am guilty of trying to convince myself that United Nations General Assembly acceptance of “Palestine” as a nonmember observer state is of no real consequence. And of trying to convince myself that UNESCO determination of our Jewish indigenous sites, the Temple Mount and the Cave of the Patriarchs, as, instead, sites “belonging” to Palestine are also of no real consequence. After all, neither the General Assembly (GA) nor UNESCO have the legal clout of the UN Security Council (SC).
So I applaud those in the UN fighting to protect Israel against delegitimization while calming myself that nothing bad will come of it if they do not succeed. After all, what is the GA going to do?
And then I discover two research articles examining whether or not UNGA recognition of Palestine matters to those living in the Palestinian Authority (PA). And the articles give me pause. They give me something about which to ponder a bit more deeply.
Both papers were written by Nadav Shelef and Yael Zeira.The first article, “Recognition matters!: UN state status and attitudes toward territorial compromise“, was published recently in the Journal of Conflict Resolution. The second article, “International recognition and support for violence among nonpartisans“, is still under review and awaiting a decision regarding whether or not to publish, yet has been made available online in any case.
The Study Regarding Possible Effects of UNGA Recognition of “Palestine”
In the introduction to their first article, Shelef and Zeira state the purpose of their study:
In the fall of 2012, the UNGA recognized Palestine as a ‘‘nonmember observer state’’ on the basis of the ‘‘1967 borders,’’ which refer to the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. While sought by the current Palestinian leadership, these borders fall short of the historic claims of the Palestinian national movement and constitute a significant compromise for many Palestinians. The international recognition of Palestine by the UNGA thus offers a rare opportunity to examine the real-world impact of international recognition on domestic attitudes toward territorial compromise in the context of an ongoing territorial conflict. [page 538]
In their second article, they examined the impact of UNGA recognition on attitudes of the PA population regarding using violence to obtain their goals.
Rationale for their Study
Previous studies of Palestinian Arab attitudes toward compromise with Israel in a negotiated settlement and use of violence have focused on individual attributes, such as education, socioeconomic level, religion, ethnicity, etc. The authors suggest that international events, such as UNGA recognition, play a salient role in attitude formation and therefore should be considered by those interested in understanding the dynamics affecting populations such as those in the PA. This is no small matter since national leaders and leaders of nations-in-potentia must consider domestic support or lack of support for negotiations of such far-reaching significance as those between Israel and the PA.
Positive reactions to the UNGA recognition overshadowed the hard feelings generated by UNSC rejection a year previously, both in media presentations and in the eyes of the PA public, according to Shelef and Zeira.
The study examined attitudes of a random sample of 226 residents in 32 localities in the PA (excluding Gaza and East Jerusalem) at two different time periods: firstly, in September 2011, just before the PA submitted its application for membership to the UN Security Council (UNSC); and secondly, in November 2012, just after UNGA recognition of the PA as a nonmember observer state.
The methodology involved both a panel survey and a survey experiment, two techniques that the authors claim complement each other, one making up for the weaknesses of the other. They describe in detail their sampling procedures, how they controlled for extraneous potentially confounding variables, and data analyses, but these are beyond the scope of this brief summary. If you are interested in examining their methodology more closely, you are invited to open the links provided above.
Results of the Study on UNGA Recognition of “Palestine”
The authors claim that, as a result of UNGA recognition, the population in the PA demonstrated:
- increased support for partition as a way to resolve the conflict between Israel and the PA (two-state-solution);
- decreased support for additional territorial concessions of any kind beyond partition (e.g., land swaps); and
- attitudes toward use of violence was not affected for those who were politically aligned (partisans), but there was decreased support for use of violence among those who were not identified with any political party (nonpartisans).
In their first article , the authors conclude that UNGA recognition affects attitudes toward territorial compromise by influencing the PA populations’ sense of their own bargaining strength. As a result of feeling they have more bargaining power, they are willing to concede to territorial partition, but they resist making any additional territorial concessions beyond partition. And they are sure that the world is behind them in this.
My interpretation of this conclusion is that, buoyed up by international support, the PA population surveyed was willing to concede to territorial partitioning in theory; when it would come down to it in fact, however, they would resist anything less than whatever they consider their maximal demands. The authors disagree with me here because, as they wrote in a personal email (which I have permission to quote), for the Palestinian Arabs, partition in and of itself is felt to be a “deep compromise”. I do not think this contradicts my contention: if partition itself is a deep compromise, then even with potential openness to territorial partitioning, there is nothing to negotiate. Furthermore, it seems to me to support the idea that what the Palestinian population really wants is from-the-river-to-the-sea. Or perhaps that is just me looking with my own bias.
UNGA recognition opened up, for the PA, membership in a number of international treaties and organizations. By applying to these organizations, the PA was believed to be putting pressure on Israel to produce negotiation results favourable to the former. The PA threatened to join the ICC, but refrained from doing so, something that would have likely caused Israel to refuse to negotiate at all, according to studies cited by Shelef and Zeira. This seems to me to indicate that the PA does not really want to shut down all semblance of potential cooperation with Israel, in spite of periodic threats to do just that.
The authors argue that such widespread international recognition, before Israeli recognition, and before they had to make any concessions whatsoever, gave the Palestinian Arabs “something for nothing”, thereby increasing their bargaining leverage [page 542]. I would add that perhaps this set up expectations that they would continue to get something for nothing, corresponding to my comment above that even with willingness, supposedly, for territorial partition, “negotiations” may be a total misnomer for what the PA population is prepared to engage in.
The politically involved PA population, surveyed in 2012, showed no change in attitude toward use of violence to achieve their goals. One might have expected that greater international support would have meant they felt they could ease off on the use of violence and pressure Israel only in the diplomatic arena. After all, as the authors state, it was their leaders who sought international recognition, perhaps signalling to the people that the means for achieving national goals was by diplomacy rather than by the sword (or knife or car or bomb). This was apparently the view only of those who were not aligned with any political movement in the PA and therefore “not committed to any political party and its favored strategy” [page 26]. The authors argue that the politically involved population had already made up their minds about the use of violence (one way or another) and, therefore, would be unlikely to change them.
Shelef and Zeira suggest that the nonpartisans form a kind of swing-vote that can exert significant influence on national leaders and change the direction of leaders’ decisions. That would be nice, except that the PA leadership has not shown itself to be particularly concerned with the good of the electorate, according to brave souls such as Bassem Eid, so there is no reason to believe that Abbas or anyone in Parliament cares whether or not the PA population supports the two-state-solution, territorial compromise or normalisation with Israel in any form. The only thing Abbas cares about beyond his own personal interests (keeping outside money flowing into his coffers) may be whether or not a move toward peace will result in assassination attempts, something Arafat apparently feared when meeting with Ehud Barak and President Clinton at Camp David.
Therefore, studies examining the impact of international recognition of “Palestine” on popular attitudes will be more meaningful when there are also attempts to connect popular opinions with PA leadership expectations, behaviours and intentions.
Is This Study Relevant Today?
The second series of data was collected in 2012. The articles are only being published today, in 2017. In some ways, five years is a long time. Five years since the UNGA recognized “Palestine” may have been sufficient time for the PA population today to take this situation as a natural state of affairs and nothing to be excited about. Thus, perhaps attitudes may have since returned to pre-UNGA-recognition levels.
Since negotiations for a final settlement between the PA and Israel seem more unlikely than ever, in spite of international support for Palestinian independence, violence has once more become a popular means of applying pressure to Israel. It would be interesting to return to the original participants and see if or how support for violence has changed since 2012. Of course, the ongoing incitement in the PA will have to be accounted for at the same time. Perhaps that is another topic for study: the relationship between international recognition and state sanctioned incitement to violence.
Who Are the Authors of This Study?
I was not able to find a social media presence for either of these authors and that limited my exploration of their political biases. I believe it is important to understand the bias of an academic scholar because bias has a way of affecting interpretation of data, even for the researcher who seeks to attain neutrality and trusts the intelligence of the reader, something I found to be true for Shelef and Zeira.
Reader bias is also important and I openly admit to my right-wing leanings regarding the conflict between Israel and the PA.
According to their bios, both Shelef and Zeira live in the USA. Aside from their Israeli names, I found no evidence that either was born or raised in Israel. From their BA degrees to their PhDs, they studied in the States. Zeira is fluent in Hebrew, but she also speaks good French and Arabic, according to her CV.
Unable to find anything on Shelef, I did find something about Zeira to gave reason to suppose that she is left-wing regarding our conflict with the Palestinian Arabs: of all the images that she could have chosen to upload onto her website, she chose a sculpture commemorating the First Intifada [she has updated her website and it no longer features that statue, but it was there; I promise] that was installed on An-Najah University campus in Nablus. Perhaps I am reading more into this than I should, but I thought you might like to know. I leave it to you to decide whether or not you feel that affected their study. I did not.