Re-establishing UNSCOP at the UN General Assembly (with an emphasis on the API)

By Jerome M. Segal
April 1, 2018


This memo proposes an international initiative that focuses directly on the two peoples, rather than on the two governments. The proposed step, re-establishing UNSCOP, could emerge from the UN Security Council, but as US support is not likely, it can proceed without US support from the UN General Assembly. The core idea is that the General Assembly re-establish the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) and that UNSCOP be directed to come to the region for an extended period (e.g several months) to engage in a dialogue with the Israeli and Palestinian peoples following which it would develop a fully detailed draft treaty that would be a basis for future negotiations to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As such, the work of UNSCOP could be presented as Phase II of the Arab Peace Initiative (API). It would take the API as its terms of reference, and seek to find a draft agreement that would be acceptable to a majority of both the Israeli and Palestinian people. It would do this through a high profile process that would involve listening to the two peoples from across all parts of civil society, including Palestinian refugees in Palestine and in Diaspora camps, and Israeli groups generally not heard by peace processers, (Russian immigrants, settlers, religious right). It would not only hold hearings, but undertake public opinion research, and study of the record of past Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, in particular, the progress made at Taba and in the Olmert-Abu Mazen round. It would also hear from negotiators on both sides, should the Israel government not boycott its work.

Then it would return to New York, and develop a fully detailed draft treaty, which it would report to the General Assembly for further action discussed below.

Background on UNSCOP:

In May of 1947, the UNGA passed a resolution calling for the establishment of the UN Special Committee on Palestine. UNSCOP was quickly established, held hearings in the Middle East, receiving testimony from Ben Gurion and Chaim Weizmann. It was boycotted by the Palestinians. In September, UNSCOP reported back to the UNGA and in November 1947, its majority report was adopted as the Partition Resolution, UNGA Res. 181, which became, in May 1948, the basis on which Israel was established.

Advantages of Re-establishing UNSCOP:

1. As a new UN-based process, it will fill void if the current negotiations effort fails. In doing so, it offers an alternative to the resumption of violence.

2. Even if Israel boycotts UNSCOP, because of the centrality of UNSCOP-1947 to the creation of Israel, UNSCOP-2 will be given great attention by the Israeli public, and many distinguished individuals will testify at UNSCOP hearings. Potentially, this process can shake-up the stagnant political reality inside Israel.

3. The UNSCOP-2 idea cannot be dismissed as some Palestinian effort to avoid real negotiations. The idea was first put forward i the New York Times in an article called “Going Directly to the Israelis and the Palestinians.” It was authored by Dr. Jerome Segal and three of the most distinguished thinkers: Shlomo Ben-Ami, former Foreign Minister of Israel; Javier Solana, former High Commissioner of The European Union; and the late Thomas C. Schelling, Nobel Prize winner for his work on international strategic interaction.

4. During the course of its work, UNSCOP will re-center international and Israeli/Palestinian discourse on the final status issues themselves, rather than on issues of process and obstacles to renewed negotiations.

5. In searching for an agreement acceptable to both sides, UNSCOP will take as an essential reference point the most recent productive negotiation and understandings, those between President Abbas and former Prime Minister Olmert.

6. The UNSCOP process will be a vehicle for updating thinking about solutions to the conflict. Quite possible, new and constructive ideas that have not been part of past negotiation efforts will emerge. The likely result of UNSCOP will be an international sanctioned draft treaty that goes beyond what was proposed in the past.

7. As a UN initiative, a new UNSCOP plan may be a vehicle for the PLO to say “Yes” to a specific peace treaty proposal, or to announce its willingness to resume negotiations with Israel with the draft treaty as a starting point. Were this to happen it would transform the situation, with the next Israeli elections being, in effect, a referendum on whether to negotiate on the basis of treaty that is supported by a majority of Israelis and Palestinians.

A Possible Scenario:

1. A resolution would be introduced in the UNGA which would establish UNSCOP-2. This would be presented as Phase-II of the Arab Peace Initiative, an effort to develop, in full detail, a plan to end the Israeli-Arab conflict. It would take the API as its terms of reference.

2. UNSCOP would be directed to undertake an inquiry-process to formulate a plan that could win majority support of both the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples. UNSCOP would travel to the region, hold hearings, conduct opinion research, and review the 25 year record of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

3. The US would, no doubt, maintain its opposition to using the UN as an alternative to bilateral negotiations. However EU support could be achieved if it were agreed that UNSCOP would be utilized as a path back to bilateral negotiations, rather than as the basis to a new-181 and an imposed solution.

4. Hopefully, the US would abstain (rather than vote “No”) in the UNGA vote to establishing UNSCOP. On this scenario, the US would state that it would take a “wait and see” approach in determining whether it would cooperate with UNSCOP. It would be pointed out to the US that a “wait and see” approach would allow it to have an important role in influencing the composition and mandate of UNSCOP.

5. Once UNSCOP was created, depending on its mandate, composition, terms of reference, and mode of operation, the US would decide whether to cooperate with UNSCOP. Ideally, UNSCOP would be headed by a widely respected American public figure, perhaps a retired member of Congress, or a figure such as former Secretary of State James Baker.

6. Six months or a year later, attention would shift from how UNSCOP was created to what UNSCOP proposes. Hopefully, the US response to the UNSCOP recommendations would be based on their merits. Possibly, the US would support proposals to renew negotiations that take the UNSCOP plan as a starting point.

7. One approach to renewed negotiations would be for the General Assembly (or if the US agrees, the UNSC) to call on both sides to negotiate for three months to see if they can agree on any mutually acceptable improvements to the draft treaty. Extensions would be made if requested by the parties. If they fail to reach agreement, the UNGA would call for the draft or amended document would be put to a non-binding referendum in both societies. Likely Israel would refuse to do this.

8. If UNSCOP succeeds in developing a balanced proposal that a majority of Israelis and a majority of Palestinians support, the next Israeli elections will in effect be a referendum about whether Israel should enter negotiations. If Israelis vote “Yes” it will be a vote to rid themselves of the Netanyahu government. If the Israelis vote “No” then Israel will have isolated itself, and the Palestinians will have laid the basis for a successful non-violence campaign to end the occupation, perhaps accompanied by a new 181, dictated by the UN General Assembly.

Questions and Answers:

1. What about the Palestinian demand that settlement activity be halted prior to resuming negotiations?

A: Israel certainly will not halt settlement activity in order to resume negotiations based on the UNSCOP draft treaty.

2. Why link this to the API.

A: Linkage to the API offers Israel full normalization with the Arab world. The API was unsuccessful because it was deliberately vague with respect to refugees; Israelis interpreted mention of UNGA Res. 194 as threatening. The UNSCOP draft treaty will propose a detailed solution to the refugee issue.

3. Wouldn’t this mean that the Arab states would be turning the API over to the UN to fill in the content?

A: Not really. The API calls for an agreed solution. The UNGA would note that standard negotiations efforts have failed to yield a negotiated solution, and that this is simply an alternative approach to productive negotiations.

4. How would the Palestinians have any assurance that the results of UNSCOP would not compromise their positions as found in international law.

A: UNSCOP would have to report back to the UNGA, the very body that produced the key resolutions that the Palestinians invoke.

5. Would this proposal avoid a cut-off of US funds for the PA?

A: No. The Trump Administration will do what it has to do. However, with a new peace process underway, even if boycotted by Israel and the US, it will not be so easy for the Trump Administration to win the support of the Democratic Party for such action.

6. What about EU support?

A: Support of the European nations is key to establishing UNSCOP’s credibility. Preliminary discussions have been held with many of the European delegations as the UN and there is receptivity to this approach. Moreover, it was authored by Javier Solana, who for 10 years was the head of European Union foreign policy.

7. Would the Europeans take the lead in introducing UNSCOP?

A: Their preference would clearly be for this to be a Palestinian initiative. However, it they were approached at the highest levels by the Palestinians, it might be possible to find a EU state that would submit the needed UNGA Resolution.

8. What happens if this is tried and is unsuccessful?

A: If the Palestinians go through this process and support a final status plan that has been endorsed by much of the world, and embedded in a UNGA Resolution, they will only be in a stronger position to galvanize international support for other actions.

9. Is this the only way to carry out an UNSCOP initiative?

A: No. Many variants of this general idea are possible. For instance, one alternative approach would be to have the UN General Assembly create a “Listening Commission.” The Commission would travel to Israel/Palestine in order to hear from the two peoples and to determine if there is any comprehensive solution to the conflict which would be acceptable to a majority of both Israelis and Palestinians. So formulated, the commission would be open to a wider set of solutions than the two- state solution, and as a result, its establishment would not be linked to the API.

10. On this “Listening Commission” approach, would the Commission produce a draft treaty for resolving the conflict?

A: That is one possibility. Alternatively, the decision on whether or not to develop a draft treaty could be determined by the General Assembly once it has received the report and recommendations of the Commission. It need not be part of the original mandate of the Commission.

11. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the “Listening Commission” approach?

A: Advantages include the possibility of wider support internationally, and less likely opposition by US Congress and GOI, as it is less likely to be perceived as a step towards an imposed solution. Also, by being open to ideas such a “one-state solution” it may be of more interest to both Israelis and Palestinians, and get more attention. On the other hand, rather than focusing on how to make the two-state solution work, the focus might shift to hypothetical alternatives that would be impossible to negotiate.

12. Is it possible to start with a Listening Commission that is open to all ideas, but for it to evolve into the UNSCOP approach detailed above?

A: This is certainly a possibility if the Commission concludes that only the two-state solution can win the support of a majority of both peoples.

13. How does the UNSCOP proposal connect to the issue of Palestinian unity?

A: The proposal has no direct connection to reconciliation efforts between the PLO and Hamas. It does, however, have several important connections to the deeper issue of Palestinian unity:

– UNSCOP will undertake hearings in both the West Bank and Gaza. In its mandate to find a solution acceptable to a majority of the Palestinian people, it will be treating the two populations as a single people and bringing them into a common discourse.

– A variety of polls show that the views of Palestinians in the West Bank are not greatly different from those of Palestinians living in Gaza. Thus, an UNSCOP peace proposal that has overall support of a majority of Palestinians will also be supported by majorities of both populations. This will contribute to moving both the PLO and Hamas in the direction of a common program.

– Hamas (e.g. the Mecca Accord of 2006) has taken the position that it would support any agreement approved in a referendum of the Palestinian people. Once UNSCOP has produced its proposal, it could be the subject of a Palestinian referendum, and this in turn could contribute to a major evolution in the Hamas position.

Jerome M. Segal directs the International Peace Consultancy Project at the University of Maryland’s Department of Philosophy.

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