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).

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