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Frequently Asked Questions--2012 Update

November 7th, 2012

Click on a question below to read its answer.

1 - What is happening with Palestine’s bid for U.N. membership at the General Assembly this fall?

It has been widely reported in the media that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which is currently recognized as “Palestine” at the U.N. as an Observer, will ask for a vote on a resolution at the U.N. General Assembly to upgrade Palestine’s status at the U.N. to a “non-member state permanent observer.” This vote is currently anticipated to take place either on November 15 (the anniversary of the PLO’s 1988 Declaration of Independence) or November 29 (the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People).

Currently, only the Holy See (the Vatican) has this status at the U.N. Switzerland did as well until it became a full member of the U.N in 2002.

With this status, Palestine could gain some additional powers and functions it currently lacks within the General Assembly. In addition, Palestine could become a signatory to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, potentially enabling it to hold Israeli military and political figures accountable for their crimes through this international judicial venue.

The United States does not have veto power in the General Assembly and if the measure comes to a vote, then it is expected to pass by an overwhelming margin. The State Department remains vehemently opposed to any upgrading of Palestine’s status at the U.N.

2 - Didn’t Palestine already apply to become a full member of the U.N. last year?

Yes, in September 2011, Mahmoud Abbas, PLO Chair and Palestinian Authority President, submitted Palestine’s application for full membership in the U.N. to the Security Council. Due the United States threatening to veto the application if it came to a vote in the Security Council, the Committee on the Admission of New Members reported in November 2011 that it “was unable to make a unanimous recommendation to the Security Council” on whether to admit Palestine as a member. The application has remained bogged down in the Security Council ever since and is expected to remain so indefinitely.

3 - Hasn’t Palestine already become a member of UNESCO and didn’t the United States impose sanctions as a result?

Yes, in October 2011, following Palestine’s submission of its application for full membership in the U.N, the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted overwhelmingly to admit Palestine as a full member of this important U.N. specialized agency.

Palestine’s membership in UNESCO automatically triggered U.S. sanctions against the organization. Foreign Relations Authorization Acts from the early 1990s prohibit U.S. funding to any U.N. agency which gives the PLO “the same standing as member states,” or which grants full membership “to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood.”

Prior to this vote, the United States contributed nearly one-quarter of UNESCO’s annual budget. Because of these laws, the United States immediately defunded UNESCO, resulting in “an enormous shortfall,” and “a big blow to the organization,” according to UNESCO’s Director-General.

4 - Will the United States impose additional sanctions if the U.N. General Assembly upgrades Palestine’s status at the U.N. this month?

Yes, most likely. The sanctions mentioned above could be interpreted to require the United States to defund the U.N. General Assembly if Palestine’s status were upgraded.

In addition, in the 2012 budget passed by Congress in December 2011—a few months after Palestine became a member of UNESCO—Congress added a new sanction to the law. It states that no economic aid “may be made available for assistance for the Palestinian Authority if the Palestinians obtain, after the date of enactment of this Act, the same standing as member states or full membership as a state in the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof outside an agreement negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians.” This sanction can be waived by the State Department if it deems it to be in the national security interest of the United States to do so.

Also, in October 2012, the State Department warned that under existing law, restrictions could be imposed on the PLO office in Washington if Palestine’s status at the U.N. is upgraded.

Some Members of Congress also placed “holds” on foreign aid appropriated for Palestinians in both the 2011 and 2012 budgets as an informal, but tangible, sanction against Palestinians. These “holds” were placed on the aid, in part, as a punishment for Palestine pursuing U.N. membership. These “holds” resulted in delays and setbacks for various U.S. economic aid projects. Some “holds” have been lifted by Members of Congress, others have simply been ignored by the Obama administration, while others remain in place.

As Congress returns after the elections for its “lame duck” session and works to pass a 2013 budget, it is very likely that some Members of Congress will attempt to impose additional sanctions through the budget process if Palestine’s status is upgraded at the U.N.

5 - What is the US Campaign’s position?

The US Campaign takes no position on this Palestinian diplomatic initiative. As a U.S.-based coalition, the US Campaign takes positions only on U.S. policy toward Palestine/Israel.

The US Campaign, however, does take the position that the United States should not oppose an upgrading of Palestine’s status at the U.N. If Palestine becomes a “non-member state,” then the State Department should exercise its waiver authority where possible to prevent the implementation of additional U.S. sanctions against the U.N. and/or Palestinians. Where additional sanctions are mandatory under existing law, the US Campaign urges the Obama administration to work with Congress to amend the law if Palestine becomes a “non-member state.” Finally, the US Campaign calls upon Congress not to impose any new, additional sanctions against the U.N. and/or Palestinians if Palestine becomes a “non-member state.”

For additional information and background on Palestine’s UN membership bid, please see these Frequently Asked Questions.

For additional information about U.S. aid to Palestinians, the US Campaign’s position on this aid and U.S. attempts to sanction aid to Palestinians, please see these Frequently Asked Questions.