September 30, 2011
The State of Palestine
Last week, President Mahmoud Abbas went to the United Nations General Assembly and made the case for admitting Palestine as a member nation to the UN. His plea was met with applause from the ambassadors of the nations of the world, with the exception of Israel and the US. This was a strong start, but there is much hard work to do.
Why did Abbas take this step, and what really will come of it? Even if the UN were to vote favorably, nothing on the ground changes as Israel continues to occupy the West Bank and Gaza, and the Israelis have dismissed it as merely symbolic.
In fact, a Palestinian success at the UN would be far more than just symbolic. It would provide a whole series of tangible benefits to the Palestinians. First and foremost, it would restore the issue of Palestine to the front of the world’s attention. From 9/11 to the Iraq War to the Arab Spring, the Palestinians have had to struggle to have their issue heard and their real grievances paid attention to. It will force all the players, from the PA to Israel to the EU to Hamas and the US, to reassess the landscape and the route forward.
Secondly, it clearly moves the Palestinians to the status of a nation, and it will grant huge legitimacy to the Palestinian demand for immediate statehood when nations such as China, Russia, France, and Brazil vote in favor. It would change the dynamic of further negotiations between the PLO and Israel to that of two states talking to each other.
It comes at the perfect time diplomatically to further pressure Israel. Israeli relations with Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan have deteriorated sharply in the recent past. All these nations recognize Israel and are committed to a two-state solution, so their change of stance toward Israel is significant. The Israeli establishment should recognize the long-term risks here by continuing the occupation for more decades.
UN recognition is not merely symbolic. It would give the Palestinians a chance to participate in many international forums such as UN Human Rights bodies, International Court of Justice, and even the International Criminal Court. Palestine could potentially lodge war crimes charges against Israeli politicians and generals for actions such as the Cast Lead operation in Gaza in 2009.
The Palestinians would have liked to negotiate an end to the occupation. But the problem is that the Israelis have no intention of leaving the West Bank and giving the Palestinians their freedom. So the Palestinians felt they had no choice. Obama has talked a good game, but at the end of the day he did not apply even an ounce of pressure on Israel to negotiate or even to stop their settlement drive. Instead, he has been selling them more weapons. When the Palestinian bid goes to the Security Council, Obama will veto it, but it has a good chance of passing in the General Assembly thereby giving Palestine the status of a “non-member state”.
The Palestinians on the other hand are taking a gamble with this approach. By asking the world community to recognize Palestine on the land occupied in 1967, it also commits the Palestinians to accepting Israel on the rest of the land. While the PLO did that in 1993 with the Oslo Accord, Hamas rejects that, and opposes this UN strategy. The UN bid also does nothing for the refugees or their right of return, nor does it create a link between Gaza and the West Bank. At the end of the day the Palestinians will still need to negotiate a final agreement with Israel, but global recognition of Palestine creates a new chapter, and gives great moral support to the eventual establishment of Palestine in reality.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s right-wing Prime Minister, has done everything he can to avoid ending the occupation. Even now he claims he is ready to talk with Abbas but the reality is that he will never allow a viable Palestine to exist, nor will he dismantle the settlements and leave the West Bank. He is locked in to that with his coalition and his government would collapse if he chose any other direction.
But time is running out for Israel. The occupation is not acceptable to the rest of the world. Even the people of Tibet are Chinese citizens, and the people of Chechnya are Russian citizens, but the Palestinians are citizens of nowhere, with no legal rights and no court to hear their complaints. Their lives and property are forfeit to the Israelis whenever Israel so chooses. But the playing field is tilting. Palestinians are now equal to Jews in their numbers, and among the children, the Palestinians are 60% of the population. In 30 years, the Palestinians will have a solid majority of the total population of Israel and Palestine. Meanwhile the Arab Spring has unraveled Israel’s regional security. A democratic Egypt will be a great friend of Palestine, as Turkey is proving to be. The rising status of Muslim countries and the rise of Muslim populations in Europe and the US will also further change the global calculus. How much longer can Israel maintain its iron grip in the face of these forces? Ten years? 30 years? 50 years? 100 years? If the leaders of Israel had any real foresight, they would realize that now is their position of maximum relative strength, if they don’t make an equitable deal now, they may end up with a single state that has a Palestinian majority, which would be the end of Zionism as it was understood by most. Comments can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org