From BBC News
24 September 2011 Last updated at 02:40 ET
Here is a guide to what is likely to happen and its significance.
Q. What are the Palestinians asking for?The Palestinians, as represented by the Palestinian Authority, have long sought to establish an independent, sovereign state in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza - occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six Day War. However, two decades of on-and-off peace talks have failed to produce a deal. The latest round of negotiations broke down a year ago.
Late last year, Palestinian officials began pursuing a new diplomatic strategy: asking individual countries to recognise an independent Palestinian state on the 1967 borders. Now they want the UN to admit them as a full member state. Currently the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) only has observer entity status. This would have political implications and allow Palestinians to join UN agencies and become party to international treaties, such as the International Criminal Court, where they could take legal action to challenge the occupation of territory by Israel.
Q. What is the general process?There are clear procedures at the UN which began its annual General Assembly General Debate in New York on 21 September.
In order for the Palestinians to be admitted as a member state, they would need the approval of the 15-member UN Security Council. Any Council recommendation for membership would then need a two-thirds majority vote in the 193-member General Assembly for final approval.
At the start of the process, Mr Abbas submitted a request to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on 23 September. Mr Ban has handed the application on to the Security Council.
The Council would need nine votes out of 15 and no veto from any of its permanent members to pass a decision. However, the US has made clear it will wield its veto power. The UK and France would almost certainly abstain because they cannot endorse UN membership of a state they have not recognised bilaterally.
If, as expected, the US vetoes the bid, the Palestinians have a second option, though this would not result in full membership. They can submit a resolution to the General Assembly and a vote could be held within 48 hours of submission, though it would probably be delayed until after the General Debate, ie late September or early October. This would give more time to negotiate a text that would have maximum support, from European countries in particular. Approval would require a simple majority of those present. There is no veto.
Q. What might the resolution say?A resolution could ask for support for the Palestinians to be admitted to the UN as a "non-member observer state", an upgrade from the PLO's current status as observer. This status is held by the Vatican and has been held in the past by countries such as Switzerland.
Palestinian UN membership bid
- Palestinians currently have permanent observer entity status at the UN
- They are represented by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO)
- Officials now want an upgrade so a state of Palestine has full member status at the UN
- They seek recognition on 1967 borders - in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza
- Enhanced observer member status could be an interim option
The Palestinians can follow either the Security Council or General Assembly paths, or do both.
Q. What is the US position?President Obama has told Mr Abbas that the US would use its UN Security Council veto to block a Palestinian bid. Mr Obama is facing a difficult battle for re-election next year and will be conscious of Israel's many friends in the US. The front runner for the Republican presidential nomination, Gov Rick Perry, has accused him of appeasing the Palestinians and betraying Israel. Mr Obama is also deeply aware how much of a blow to his prestige in the Middle East a veto would be. Palestinians and others contrast his support for Arab uprisings this year with his stance on the statehood bid.
Q. Is this symbolic or would it change facts on the ground?
Who currently recognises Palestine?
| Source: UN, Foreign ministries |
| Permanent Security Council members |
| || |
| Non-permanent Security Council members || || |
| All General Assembly members || 122 || 71 |
The Palestinians argue that admission of Palestine as a full member state at the UN would strengthen their hands in peace talks with Israel especially on the final status issues that divide them: the status of Jerusalem, the fate of the Jewish settlements, the precise location of the border, the right of return of Palestinian refugees, water and security. Israel says that any upgrade of the Palestinian status at the UN is a unilateral act that would pre-empt the final status talks.
Q. Why is this happening now?The main reason is the impasse in peace talks. However, the Palestinians also argue that their UN plan fits with an agreed deadline. The Middle East Peace Quartet - the European Union, United States, Russia and UN - committed itself to the target of achieving a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict by September 2011. Last year, US President Barack Obama also expressed a hope that this deadline would be met. The Palestinian Authority Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, says that Palestinians have succeeded in building up state institutions and are ready for statehood. The World Bank and IMF have said the same.
Recent Arab uprisings also appear to have energised Palestinian public opinion. Officials have urged civil society groups to hold peaceful demonstrations to show their backing for the UN bids.
Q. How is this different from previous declarations?In 1988, the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, unilaterally declared a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders. This won recognition from about 100 countries, mainly Arab, Communist and non-aligned states - several of them in Latin America. UN membership of Palestine as a sovereign state would have much greater impact as the UN is the overarching world body and a source of authority on international law.
Q. Who supports and opposes the UN option?Recent polls suggest this course of action is supported by most ordinary Palestinians in the occupied territories. Mr Abbas's main Fatah faction backs it, although there is less enthusiasm from its political rival, Hamas, the Islamic group which governs Gaza.
After the recent Palestinian reconciliation deal, Hamas leaders accepted there was a broad consensus on the establishment of a Palestinian state within 1967 borders, though they formally still refuse to recognise Israel. They have described the appeal to the UN as carrying "great risks".
Within the wider region, the 22-member Arab League has given this approach its full backing.
The main opposition comes from Israel. "Peace can only be achieved around the negotiating table. The Palestinian attempt to impose a settlement will not bring peace," Mr Netanyahu told a joint session of the US Congress in May. Israeli officials have warned that any UN bid could terminate the peace process. They also worry that possible Palestinian accession to the ICC could lead to the pursuit of war crimes charges at the Hague and say there is potential for rising tensions to trigger violence in the West Bank. Settlers there have received Israeli military training in preparation for this scenario.
The US has joined Israel in vociferously urging the Palestinians to drop their UN bid and return to negotiations, which were previously derailed by the settlement issue. In his recent major speech on the Middle East, President Obama dismissed the Palestinian push as "symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations". The White House sent two envoys to the region to try to persuade the Palestinians to change their minds. However, Palestinian officials say the Americans presented no alternative to going to the UN.
Only nine out of 27 European Union countries have formally recognised a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders. Others are looking increasingly favourably on the idea. This is mainly because of their frustration with Mr Netanyahu's government in Israel-Palestinian peace talks and what they see as its recalcitrance over settlements. Britain, France and Germany are likely to support a General Assembly resolution only if it includes a clear roadmap back to the negotiating table.
In the coming days, both Palestinian and Israeli delegations will be on a diplomatic drive to win countries around to their point of view.