How to Teach Model UN: Current Events, Israel-Palestine, and UN Membership

by Ryan on September 22, 2011

What I wrote as I explained Israel-Palestine and UN membership to my students

I’m starting a new series on “How to Teach Model UN.” Every week, I will share teaching tips, lesson plans, and classroom activities on various Model UN topics and skills. 

This series is geared towards US-based high school and middle school teachers who are new to Model UN, interested in starting a club at their school, or looking for ideas on how to use Model UN in the classroom.

I welcome teachers to comment below and ask questions or share their own tips. Also, check out the Teacher Workshops that KFC and I will host across the United States this Fall!

The news is full of teachable moments. For teachers, every day and every story is a lesson you can use to teach your students something new about the world. And this week’s news is particularly interesting for MUNers — the world’s leaders are meeting in the General Assembly to discuss a conflict as old as the UN itself: Israel-Palestine.

In this post, I’ll go over:

  • How to use the “Current Events” activity to get your students to read the news, learn about the world, and practice public speaking,
  • Palestine’s application for UN membership, including background info on the Israel-Palestine and how UN membership works, and,
  • A Model UN simulation of the Security Council debating Palestine’s UN membership, which you can use in class.

Classroom Activity: Current Events

My high school history teacher and Model UN advisor, Ms. Elowe, began each class with current events. We had newspapers on every desk and we were encouraged to follow the news at home. Students would take turns sharing different news articles, which was a good way to stay up-to-date on global affairs, as well as to practice public speaking. When a particularly important event took place, Ms. Elowe would use that event to prompt a classroom discussion or to give a presentation describing the background behind the event in detail.

I’ve seen current events used to great effect by different teachers. Here are a few tips on bringing current events into the classroom:

  • Ask students to bring a news article to class. They can cut out articles from newspapers and magazines, or they can print out articles they find online. Encourage students to read both national news sources, such as the New York Times and Washington Post, and international news sources, such as BBC and Al-Jazeera. Students should select national or international news, but otherwise let them pick the articles they find most interesting.
  • Ask students to share their news articles. They should summarize the articles by identifying the 5 Ws. At first, allow students to read from their news articles as they build their confidence as public speakers, but as they become more proficient, ask students to summarize articles instead of reading them (you may allow them to write down notes or bullet points on a piece of paper to help them remember).
  • Ask students questions about their news articles. If a student mentions something that the class might be unfamiliar with, ask that student to elaborate. The student may not know the answer, in which case you can ask the student to research the issue further for their next current event. As your students become more familiar with global issues, you can use current events to prompt classroom discussions.
  • Give students basic tips on public speaking. Ask them to stand straight and speak to the entire class, not just you. This activity not only helps students learn about the world, but is also public speaking practice.
  • Optional: Ask students to speak as if they were a news anchor – with gravitas!

Israel-Palestine and UN Membership

For participants in Model UN, the big story this week is what’s happening at the real UN: Palestine has announced that it will apply for UN membership, and the United States has vowed to veto their application in order to support Israel.

For the international community, the Question of Palestine is an issue that the UN has discussed since its very beginnings, followed by several decades of conflict and peace negotiations between Palestine, Israel, and neighboring Arab states.

For teachers, this event is an opportunity to provide context for this current event by introducing the Israel-Palestine conflict and explaining how the United Nations works

I won’t try to explain the entire Israel-Palestine conflict – that will take a few days, both on this blog and in your classroom, and there are plenty of books and online resources on the subject. Let’s start with what’s been written in the news this week, and then provide context for different parts of the story.

  • Last Friday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced that Palestine will seek UN membership. Palestine is currently an “observer entity,” meaning it can interact at the UN and make speeches, but it cannot vote on UN resolutions. (New York Times)

    From left to right: Palestine's Abbas, America's Obama, and Israel's Netanyahu

  • In response, US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared their opposition to UN membership for Palestine. The US vowed to use its veto power in the UN Security Council to block Palestine’s application, and Israel called upon Palestine to resume direct negotiations. (Haaretz)
  • Tomorrow, Abbas plans to submit Palestine’s application for UN membership. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon will review the application first, and then it will go to the UN Security Council for debate, which could take weeks. (Al-Jazeera)

The news articles above cover most of the 5 Ws – specifically who, what, where, and when – so let’s dig deeper into the why and the how.

Why is Palestine seeking UN membership, and why do Israel and the US oppose it?

Becoming a UN member state gives Palestine increased legitimacy, both in the UN, in the international community, and at the negotiating table with Israel.

The BBC provides a concise introduction to the topic in this Q&A page:

“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 one 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.”

Palestinian statehood raises additional political and even legal issues for Israel. If Palestine were recognized as a UN member state, then Israel would not only be accused of occupying foreign territory, it would be accused of violating another country’s sovereignty.

Voice of America describes a few more motivations behind Israel’s opposition:

  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the Palestinians’ plan to seek statehood recognition at the United Nations is “futile,” and that only direct negotiations can lead to a peace agreement.
  • Netanyahu has accused the Palestinians of “consistently evading” negotiations. He called on the Palestinian Authority “to abandon unilateral steps” and said it would then “find Israel to be a genuine partner” for peace.
  • Israel leaders say that by bypassing talks and going to the U.N., the Palestinians are violating previous agreements, and that could result in Israeli sanctions.

Palestine’s timing also coincides with multiple revolutions taking place across the Middle East, or what the media has called “Arab Spring.” This timing puts the United States in an awkward position — on one hand, the US supports Arab Spring, but on the other, the US will veto Palestine’s UN membership in order to support all Israel.

Obama described his stance in his speech to the UN General Assembly:

 One year ago, I stood at this podium and I called for an independent Palestine. I believed then, and I believe now, that the Palestinian people deserve a state of their own. But what I also said is that a genuine peace can only be realized between the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves.

Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations — if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now. Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians who must live side by side. Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians — not us –- who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: on borders and on security, on refugees and Jerusalem.

The articles above provide some background for Palestinian, Israeli, and American motivations, but tomorrow’s General Assembly speeches by Abbas and Netanyahu will provide more authoritative information (read: primary sources for your students to analyze).

I think the simplest way to understand what’s happening is to see the entire thing as a negotiation. Palestine is going to do something that Israel and the US do not want to happen. In order to dissuade Palestine, Israel and the US have to offer something. Whether or not Palestine receives UN membership status, they’ve already gotten something: leverage.

How does a country become a UN member state?

The UN Charter sets the process for membership under Chapter II, Article 4:

“The admission of any such state to membership in the United Nations will be effected by a decision of the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.”

The UN website goes into more detail, listing the 4 steps to becoming a member:

  1. “The State submits an application to the Secretary-General and a letter formally stating that it accepts the obligations under the Charter.
  2. The Security Council considers the application. Any recommendation for admission must receive the affirmative votes of 9 of the 15 members of the Council, provided that none of its five permanent members — China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America — have voted against the application.
  3. If the Council recommends admission, the recommendation is presented to the General Assembly for consideration. A two-thirds majority vote is necessary in the Assembly for admission of a new State.
  4. Membership becomes effective the date the resolution for admission is adopted.”

In the case of Palestine’s UN membership application process, the bottleneck is step 2. The Security Council has 15 seats — UN member states can be elected to 10 of those seats for 2-year terms (they are called “non-permanent members”) and the remaining 5 seats are reserved for the winners of WWII (called “permanent members”) — and the permanent members can “veto” Security Council resolutions. (For more information, I highly recommend the Global Policy Forum.)

Here are a few questions that you can use to evaluate their understanding (e.g. homework) or to prompt student discussion:

  • Primary Sources. How does a country become a member of the United Nations? Describe the process and provide supporting evidence from the United Nations Charter.
  • Points of View. Why is Palestine seeking UN membership? Why do Israel and the United States oppose Palestine’s application for UN membership? How does the rest of the world feel?
  • Critical Thinking. Do you agree with the US government’s position on this issue? Should the US use its veto power in the Security Council to block Palestine’s application for UN membership?

Model UN Simulation: Security Council Debate on Palestine

In this simulation, students will assume the roles of the 15 Security Council members, as well as Israel and Palestine. As delegates representing their respective countries, they will take turns giving speeches on whether or not they support Palestine becoming a UN member state, and why or why not. Afterwards, students can ask each other questions, and then they will vote on a draft resolution.

Suggested Directions

  1. Assign students a country to research and represent. Each student should represent one of the 17 countries listed below. If more than 17 students are participating in this activity, then have 2 students represent a single country (students representing the same country should sit together and they share speaking time).
  2. In preparation for the simulation (i.e. homework), ask students to prepare a 1-minute speech in which they describe their government’s position on Palestine’s application for UN membership. Is their government for or against and why? (See “Research Tips” below.)
  3. To begin the activity, students will take turns delivering the 1-minute speech they prepared. Start with Palestine, followed by Israel, and then the Security Council members in alphabetical order (in which case the United States speaks last). Use a clock or timer to keep student speeches to 1 minute.
  4. When all students have finished delivering their speeches, ask if anyone else would like to speak again. Encourage them to respond to each others’ speeches and pose questions. (I would expect most speeches to criticize the United States’ andIsrael’s position on this topic.)
  5. Before class time ends (or if no more students wish to speak), ask students to vote on whether to approve Palestine’s UN membership (see “Voting Procedure” below). Optionally, you can print and distribute this sample resolution that I put together (which uses language from resolution 1999 recognizing South Sudan and resolution 1860 regarding Gaza).
  6. Conclude the activity with a group discussion.

Country Assignments

Security Council Members:

  • Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Brazil
  • China
  • Colombia
  • France
  • Gabon
  • Germany
  • India
  • Lebanon
  • Nigeria
  • Portugal
  • Russia
  • South Africa
  • United Kingdom
  • United States

Observers:

  • Israel
  • Palestine

Research Tips

  • Find out whether or not your country recognizes Palestine. The BBC’s Q&A page here and the table above is a good place to start.
  • UN member states are speaking before the General Assembly this week and next. Look for speeches by your country’s representative here.
  • Google search your country’s ministry of foreign affairs website.

Voting Procedure

  • Each Security Council member gets one vote, except for Israel and Palestine (Israel and Palestine are not Security Council members so they cannot vote. They are included in this simulation in order to provide their perspectives).
  • A country has three options: “yes,” “no,” or “abstain” (meaning they are not taking a position on the issue).
  • Passage of a Security Council resolution has two requirements:
  1. “Yes” votes from 9 members of the Security Council.
  2. If any of the “Permanent 5” members — the US,UK, France,Russia, or China– votes “no,” then the resolution fails (this is called “veto power”).

Additional Notes

The expected result of the debate is that most of the Security Council will vote in favor of Palestine’s membership application — except the United States, who will exercise its veto power.

Your outcome may differ, but predicting the future is not the goal of this activity. Rather, this is an exercise intended as a fun way to foster an appreciation of current events and practice research and public speaking skills.

I hope you find this article useful in your classes and clubs! Feel free to leave a comment below to ask questions or share your own tips.

Interested in Model UN training for teachers? Check out Best Delegate’s Teacher Workshops!

  • Derrick Whang

    Easiest way to win= pre write. It’s what we at dmun do. And seeing as we’re top ten, I guess it works

  • TheGuest

    Hey, this is actually a quite well-written and neutral explanation of the statehood bid – kudos to you. I should note – though this might be outside what you’re proposing as a simulation – that there’s the GA bid that’s worth mentioning too, even if only as context for the SC discussion. The GA bid, basically considered plan B to full UN membership as discussed above, would upgrade the Palestinian observers from “observer entity” to “observer state”, and give them identical status to the Holy See (ie Vatican City). This would allow them to start ratifying treaties – like the Rome Statute, which would get them into the International Criminal Court, and allow them increased ability to call for the prosecution of individual Israelis for crimes committed (from the Prime Minister down to the IDF members/settlers). Worth mentioning, I think.

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