The Palestinians failed in their bid to join the United Nations Universal Postal Union (UPU) last week, falling far short of the two-thirds majority vote necessary for membership. The failure to gain admission to this UN specialized agency is a setback for the Palestinians’ ongoing campaign to secure international recognition while evading negotiations with Israel.
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), acting under the name of the “State of Palestine,” has for eight years been angling to become the 194th country recognized by the UN, a campaign known as “Palestine 194.” The United States and Israel have discouraged this initiative on the grounds that it removes one of the most important incentives for Palestinian leaders to negotiate with Israel, namely the promise of statehood.
In September 2011, the Palestinians submitted a request for full UN membership to the United Nations Security Council, whose recommendation is necessary prior to approval by the General Assembly. But the U.S. effectively blocked the Security Council from voting on a recommendation.
Shortly thereafter, the PLO gained membership at the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. This triggered a Clinton-era American law that prevents the United States from funding any UN agency or affiliate that “grants full membership” to non-states. This provision has discouraged other UN agencies from granting full membership to the PLO.
The next major step for the Palestinians came when the UN General Assembly recognized the “State of Palestine” as a non-member observer state in 2012, an upgrade from its status as a non-state observer. This change allowed the Palestinians to sign UN treaties. During U.S.-backed negotiations with Israel in 2013 and early 2014, there was a lull in the Palestinian campaign, but it resumed rapidly once the talks failed. PLO chief and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas joined or applied to join over 50 international organizations and treaties in separate tranches in April 2014, December 2014, December 2017, May 2018, and November 2018. The last round included an application to the UPU.
In the case of treaties, the Palestinians can join via signature, so Israeli opposition is ineffective. But when it comes to joining organizations, a process which generally requires a vote, the Palestinians’ progress has been uneven.
Following intense American pressure, the Palestinians in September 2017 rescinded their bid to join the World Tourism Organization, though they likely would have been accepted. In May 2018, however, the Palestinians joined the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), an organization from which the U.S. withdrew in 1996 and therefore could not threaten to defund. That same month, the Palestinians also joined the UN Conference on Trade and Development, which the U.S. continues to fund.
Israel fears that the Palestinians could use their membership in international organizations as a weapon. For example, Palestinian membership at the International Criminal Court (ICC) has dramatically increased the threat of spurious war crimes lawsuits against the Jewish state. (As with UNIDO, the U.S. is not an ICC member, so it has no funding to pull.)
Rejection by the Universal Postal Union was a clear defeat for Palestine 194, which appeared to be on a clear path toward success. The Palestinians needed two-thirds approval, but only 56 countries supported the move; seven opposed, 23 abstained, and 106 failed to respond and were counted as abstentions. However, this is unlikely to spell the end of the Palestinian campaign. To deter further unilateral moves, the Trump administration should defund any UN agency that grants full membership to the Palestinians.
David May is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Follow David on Twitter @DavidSamuelMay. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.