The latest Palestinian statehood gambit

Recent developments in Sweden, the United Kingdom and Ireland exemplify yet another effort to create a Palestinian “state” out of thin air. Sweden’s new socialist government has recognized “Palestine,” as did non-binding resolution adopted by Britain’s parliament and Ireland’s Senate.

Similar moves elsewhere in Europe are expected shortly. And there are plans to have “Palestine” accede to various treaties, most notably the one creating the International Criminal Court, thus theoretically rendering Israel liable for “crimes” within the Court’s jurisdiction.

Of course, neither recognizing a fictitious state nor expressing legislative opinions actually creates facts on the ground. In what passes for “Palestine,” the terrorist group Hamas, aided and financed by Iran’s ayatollahs, continues to rule in Gaza, and on the West Bank, the corrupt, aging and ineffective Palestinian Authority lumbers on.


There is no Palestinian “state” and no prospect for one without dramatic real-world changes that are unlikely in the foreseeable future.

So what is this latest “recognition” campaign about? Although today’s effort follows a well-trodden historical path, prior attempts never altered the Middle East’s hard realities one iota.

Nonetheless, Palestinian leaders believe, precisely because statehood looks increasingly beyond their reach, that their best hope lies in the blue-smoke-and-mirrors world of the United Nations, where they can create a parallel universe, and then somehow export it back to reality.

Among earlier attempts at prestidigitation was the 1988-90 campaign to make “Palestine” a UN member by imagining a legitimate government where none previously existed, thereby rendering it somehow equivalent to the actual state of Israel. This prior ploy, only conceivable at the United Nations, began with insisting that the name card in front of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) place as an observer organization be changed to read “Palestine.” Well, of course. “Palestine” sounds much more like a real state than “PLO.”

From that momentous decision, the PLO launched an aggressive effort to join specialized agencies of the UN system, the theory being that since almost all UN bodies limit membership to “states,” having the PLO join would further prove that it too had become a “state.” Failing in 1989, the Palestinians gave up until 2011, succeeding then in being admitted to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

What happened at UNESCO in 2011 compared to 1989-90 dramatically underscores the difference the United States can make when it decides to do so. In 1989, when the PLO first tried to join the World Health Organization (WHO), and then UNESCO (from which the United States had withdrawn under President Reagan, and which many hoped to coax Washington to rejoin), George H. W. Bush’s administration responded decisively.

Secretary of State James Baker said publicly that he would recommend to Bush that Washington cut off all funding, assessed or voluntary, to any U.N. body that upgraded the PLO’s status toward statehood. Baker’s threat alone stopped the PLO in WHO and UNESCO. Moreover, Baker’s statement, later enacted into U.S. law, deterred Palestinian efforts to game the UN system for their own political purposes, right up until 2011 when they sensed that the Obama Administration could be intimidated.

This is the real lesson for American decision-makers contemplating today’s latest flight of fantasy about achieving Palestinian statehood. Under the U.S. statutes embodying James Baker’s threat, all American funding to UNESCO ceased immediately in 2011 after “Palestine” was admitted, eliminating 22 percent of UNESCO’s budget, the U.S. share of assessed contributions. Ironically, instead of having the UN world affect the real world, the reverse had happened. Real-world facts — losing tens of millions of dollars in U.S. contributions — caused UNESCO devastating consequences. American defunding also sent a clear signal throughout the UN system, and brought heavy pressure to bear on the Palestinians to cease their UN membership drive forthwith.

What was the difference between the PLO’s failures in 1988-90 and its more-recent successes, and does it provide an augury of what lies ahead for the current diplomatic-recognition campaign?

The answer is simple: American resolve matters enormously.

Twenty-five years ago, President Bush and Secretary Baker conveyed their determination to squelch fanciful maneuverings in the international system, rather than addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict through direct negotiations between the parties themselves. United States resolve prevailed.

Under President Obama, by contrast, we saw American weakness, with long lamentations about the devastating effects that would befall UNESCO if U.S. funding were cut off, and promises by Obama diplomats to seek repeals of the legislation axing our contributions. Sensing weakness, the Palestinians and their supporters struck, something they had feared to do for over twenty years.

Accordingly, today’s Palestinian gambit will turn not on what happens in Stockholm, London or UN headquarters in Turtle Bay. It will turn on how officials in Washington decide to react.

History is clear: American strength can stop this effort, and American weakness will facilitate it.

Over to you, President Obama.

John Bolton was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations from 2005 through 2006. He is currently a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a Fox News contributor