How Palestinians could sink or swim

By Tim Marshall, September 15, 2011

The mechanics of pushing a vote on Palestinian statehood through the UN may be as dry as a hundred committee meetings discussing item 1 of the agenda, but they matter to the outcome of what may be an explosive situation at the end of this month.

To become a member state you must apply to the UN Secretary General, who sends the request on to the 15-member Security Council for consideration. And therein lies the first problem.

Nine council 'yes' votes are enough for the application to be forwarded to the General Assembly to be ratified, so long as two thirds of the 193 countries agree. In this scenario, Palestine is then an internationally legally recognised state.

However, if, back in the Security Council, a 'no' vote comes from a Permanent Member (P5) of the Council; Russia, China, France, Britain or the US, then the application fails. The P5 have power of veto.

The US says it will veto, no matter how the application is worded and despite the level of bitterness this will result in across the Middle East. Washington is currently leaning on the Palestinian leadership not to force the veto and put the US in an embarrassing position.

The Palestinians are expected to agree and instead apply to the General Assembly alone for "non-member state" status. General Assembly approval would not have the legal authority of the Security Council and the legal responsibilities of the new "state" would be a murky area, but it would facilitate access to various international bodies and support the Palestinian position that Israel would then be illegally occupying a sovereign state.

Getting a two-thirds majority in the Assembly appears easy given the support from Muslim countries, and what used to be called the non-aligned movement. However, to make sure, the Palestinians need to draft their application very carefully. They want the EU countries to vote 'yes' en masse, which gives the British a particular problem as the US will still vote 'no' in the Assembly - but this time without the power of veto. It is not often the British vote differently from the Americans, but neither do they wish to vote differently to the EU bloc.

This is why all eyes are on the wording. Will it say "1967 borders" or "1967 borders with swaps"? Will East Jerusalem be declared as the capital? The wording matters because it affects how many votes the Palestinians get. They want as many as possible, especially from Europe.

That is why a thousand committee meetings are currently discussing item 1 on their agendas: "What is our position on a Palestinian State?" The application is expected on September 20; President Abbas addresses the General Assembly the day afterwards.

Tim Marshall is Sky News' Foreign Editor

Last updated: 1:37pm, September 15 2011