The Palestine Vote: Who Will Vote How?

by Erik Voeten on September 16, 2011 · 4 comments

in Blogs,International Relations

The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is not a legislature. If it passes a resolution, then this does not necessarily change anything in international law or international affairs. This doesn’t mean that its votes are always inconsequential (although many are). The UNGA is the only place where all states formally and publicly state their positions on controversial issues. This can influence other processes, especially if the resolution is supported by many states and the most powerful ones. For example, the UNGA does not have the formal authority to designate statehood. Nevertheless, if a vast majority of states, including most of the powerful ones, vote in favor of a resolution that recognizes Palestine as a state, then other entities are more likely to be persuaded by the claim of statehood than if the resolution would squeak by with a bare majority.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that it really matters not just whether a UN resolution on Palestinian statehood will pass but how many and which states will vote in favor of it. The graph below provides some guidance into this question. Using the methodology outlined in the previous post, Mike Bailey and I estimated the ideal points of states and the uncertainty surrounding those ideal points from UN votes on issues related to Israel in 2010. These ideal points could provide a pretty good idea of how states are likely to vote on the 2011 resolution (once there is one). The graph below depicts the ideal point estimates of the 75 states closest to Israel (click on the graph to enlarge and read the country labels more clearly). Most of the other states are highly unlikely to choose Israel’s side.

So what do we learn from this? A first conclusion is that it would be wrong to suggest, as so often happens, that the U.S. is alone in its almost unwavering support of Israel. At least, Nauru, Palau, the Marshall Islands, and Micronesia follow the same course. It’s all about a common interest in survival and citrus fruits, or something like that.

Second, you’ll notice some peculiar countries that are more supportive of the Israeli cause than one might suspect. Some of these countries vote the way they do because they have separatist movements or contested borders of their own. These states worry about precedents set by the UN vote (Cameroon is an example). There are going to be a number of countries (e.g. Serbia) who will have to assess the potential precedential effect of any resolution. This is where the language of the resolution is going to matter a lot.

Third, a large number of states have identical positions. This is largely a consequence of the EU’s attempts to forge a common position given its role as part of the Middle East Quartet. This common position is relatively recent and does not present true convergence of foreign policy positions. There are ample stories that the EU is internally divided and is eager to avoid a showdown on the most controversial issue, UN membership, as it would expose those internal divisions. It is questionable, however, whether the EU foreign policy apparatus is sufficiently strong to succeed. Many EU leaders have their own domestic political circumstances to think about when they decide on the issue. I’d be surprised if the common posture survives.

All of this means that we can’t at this point predict the outcome of the vote. We don’t know the text of the resolution and even if we did, we don’t know the location of the cut-point that divides proponents and opponents of a resolution. Moreover, states may be motivated by other concerns in a vote with clear strategic consequences. I already mentioned precedent but there is also evidence that states that receive a great deal of foreign aid from the U.S. are more likely to vote with the U.S. only on those issues where the U.S. actively lobbies (pdf, non-gated). So, vote-buying may distort the predictive ability of a model purely based on these ideal points (although see Panama’s position in the graph). We’ll get more traction on these issues when the resolution is known and when states start announcing their positions. In the mean time, I invite you to play with the data and look for your favorite country (data in Excel format).

{ 4 comments }

Mihai Martoiu Ticu September 16, 2011 at 1:36 am

“This calculation is arrived at as follows. The vote on Israel’s application for UN membership [30] in 1949 was thirty-seven in favour, twelve against and nine abstentions in the then fifty-eight-member body. The fact that two-thirds of the members “present and voting” were in favour of admission was sufficient to enable Israel to join the UN, though in total just under this figure – 64% – had positively recognised Israel during the vote. In the context of the current composition of the general assembly, recognition by 64% of the 192 members would equal 123 votes. Accordingly, the PLO/PA needs only an increase of nine votes to its current number of 114 to achieve the same number of recognitions that Israel acquired in 1949.”
http://www.opendemocracy.net/print/60311

Andrew Gelman September 16, 2011 at 8:40 am

I like the graph very much but I would rotate it 90 degrees so you can read the country names! Also it would help to include one more big dot to show the position of the other UN members so that we can place these 75 countries in the entire context of the General Assembly.

Scott Monje September 16, 2011 at 3:07 pm

It may be worth noting that the Marshall Islands, Palau, and Micronesia are all former members of the U.S. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, and each maintains a “Compact of Free Association” with the United States. The U.S. retains full responsibility for their defense and security, and I believe federal agencies still operate in at least some of them. While each is responsible for its own foreign relations, they maintain few embassies outside the Pacific region. In describing Palau’s foreign policy, the State Department comments that “Palau is a dependable supporter of U.S. positions in the UN.” I think it’s safe to say that their consistent support of Israel is a spurious correlation.

Guy Grossman September 18, 2011 at 10:44 pm

Throughout your post you are conflating between “Israel’s cause” and Israel’s government position. I would argue that many resolutions that the Israeli government opposes are actually quite beneficial for Israel . This week seems to provide a fantastic example — Israel (and the US) will oppose a resolution recognizing Palestinian statehood, even though this does not serve the people of Israel one bit.

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