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The Palestinian Statehood Question

Background

In organizational terms the Palestinians have had a state for quite a long time. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) began performing most of  the duties of a state apparatus soon after Yasser Arafat took over the organization in 1969. Departments ranging from Health and Education to Internal Security were set up to provide services at first for Palestinian refugees and eventually for at some of those under occupation. The organization soon had executive, legislative, diplomatic and military branches. Following the Oslo Accords in 1993, the PLO also controlled territory, albeit tenuously, on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. As a consequence of this history the state of Palestine has received a good level of diplomatic recognition from 142 states – 105 of which have established full diplomatic relations with Palestine.

The problematic part of this story was the tenuous control of territory. Under the “guidance” of the United States a “peace process” began to try to bring about a two-state solution to the conflict that would create sovereign territory for the Palestinians. As described by William Quandt, who served as a member of both the Nixon and Carter National Security Council, this process was to constitute a “gradual, step by step, approach to resolving one of the world’s most difficult conflicts.” Quandt’s judgment on the “peace process” is as follows, “at [its] worst, it has been little more than a slogan used to mask the marking of time.” Actually, this is something of an understatement.

The “peace process” as described by Quandt, has been going on since the 1970s. Some of the milestones of the process have been the Rogers Plan (1970-1972) which sought a resolution to the 1967 War issues based on UN Resolution 242.  The Israelis rejected this.  In 1978 President Jimmy Carter arranged for the Camp David I Summit between Menachem Begin of Israel and Anwar Sedat of Egypt. This meeting was to create a “framework for Peace” that included, among other things,  autonomy for the Palestinians. As is it turned out, according to Carter, Begin lied about his intentions to grant that autonomy and so that part of the Camp David process failed. In 1991-93 there was the Madrid Conference which sought resolutions of the Arab-Israeli conflict as well as Palestinian-Israeli issues through “direct bilateral and multilateral talks.” This failed in good part due to Israeli intransigence. In 1993 came the Oslo Accords which saw the return to Palestine from exile in Tunisia of Yasser Arafat and the PLO. Israel allowed this under the assumption that Arafat would keep order among the Palestinians while the Israelis continued illegal expansion into the Occupied Territories. When the PLO refused to perform this role the Oslo Accords began to break down. In 2000 the Camp David II Summit took place under the auspices of the Clinton administration. At this meeting Israel allegedly offered Yasser Arafat most of the West Bank but configured in such a way that it hardly came to more than a series of Bantustans. Arafat rejected the offer as not amounting to a functional state. In 2002 the Arab League offered up a plan for solving the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict that promised Israel full recognition from the Arab states and open trade in exchange for Israeli agreement to the 1967 line as the border of a Palestinian state. Israel refused. Finally, George Bush Jr. initiated the “Road Map” for peace. Under this same rubric, and pressured by the Obama administration, direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians took place in 2010. President Obama aimed at a viable two state solution. But these talks also soon bogged down, largely due to two factors: Israel’s reluctance to compromise on issues that they felt they could simply resolve by main force and the introduction of a relatively new demand, the insistence that the Palestinian side explicitly accept not only Israel’s right to exist (which the PLO had done as early as 1988) but that it accept Israel as an eternal “Jewish state.” As the Palestinian Papers (leaked to the public in January 2011) detailing these negotiations  made clear, the Palestinians agreed to the vast majority of Israeli demands. As the Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told George Mitchell, the U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, “we did everything but convert to Zionism.” And yet the Israelis turned up their noses and walked away. Thanks to U.S. support they could have all they want by virtue of their military superiority. And, what they want is the West Bank (Judea and Samaria)–all of it. Thus it was that the Road Map met the same fate as all other plans. It has proved a road to nowhere.

Well, not quite nowhere. Throughout this entire history of plans, summits, initiatives, and talks the Israelis have been the only party actually making “progress.” Progress for the Israelis is defined as occupying Palestinian land. Actually, this is an illegal process of theft. There is no other way of putting it if you have any regard whatsoever for the international law. The Fourth Geneva Convention, to which both the United States and Israel are signatories, makes it illegal for an occupying power to “transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” This program of transfer, pursued by all Israeli governments since 1967, has now resulted in close to 500,000 Israeli Jews living in 121 officially recognized (by the Israeli government) settlements. In other words, the peace process, supposedly designed to lead the way to a two state solution, has actually been serving as a cover for the destruction of the possibility of that solution.

As far as the Palestinians are concerned, there is a direct correlation between the lack of progress at the peace table and the “progress” of illegal settlement on the West Bank. Thus, by the end of the last round of unsuccessful face-to-face negotiations the determination of the Palestine Authority (PA) and its leader Mahmoud Abbas was that the Israelis were not negotiating in good faith and the United States as mediator was not functioning as an “honest broker.” Amongst the whole array of politically active Palestinians (from Hamas in Gaza, to the various groups in the refugee camps, to the activists in the U.S. and Europe), the PA appears to have been the last to come to this realization. But now, if belatedly, they have. This being so, they made the decision not to go back to the bargaining table unless the Israelis demonstrated their good faith by ceasing settlement building. The Israelis have refused but have nevertheless insisted that the only way to peace is by returning to negotiations. They were obviously loath to lose their cover.

There was another reason that the PA representatives were not anxious to return to negotiations. The leaked Palestine Papers mentioned above were more than just embarrassing for Abbas, Erekat and other leaders. They showed a willingness to compromise with the Israelis that, in the eyes of some other Palestinians, came very close to treason.  Certainly these revelations were a blow to a Palestine Authority already lacking in credibility. It will be recalled that in 2006 Fatah,  Abbas’s party, lost an internationally supervised democratic election to Hamas. Abbas has continued in office due to support from the United States and Israel. In exchange he cooperated with them as they literally beat back Hamas and imprisoned the people of Gaza. Therefore, legally, Abbas had no mandate for negotiations at which he appeared quite willing to give away the heritage of Palestine. There now seems no advantage to repeat that situation. So, Abbas and company have sought a new way to boost both the Palestinian changes for statehood, and simultaneously save their own reputations.

Going To The UN

Having hit a dead end with negotiations and badly needing to reestablish credibility, the PA leadership turned to the United Nations. Abbas, and almost every one else knows that seeking recognition of statehood from the United Nations will not actually change conditions on the ground in Palestine. However, the move was seen as a way of gaining leverage to more effectively make Israel a “rogue state” in the eyes of the rest of the world.

Being a full member of the United Nations, or alternatively being voted into an upgraded observer status by the General Assembly, will give the Palestinians access to an array of committees from which to voice their grievances and point fingers at Israel. And since a large majority of the UN member countries are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, Israel will find itself increasingly isolated. Then there is the International Criminal Court. An increased level of standing at the UN means access to the Court and, one would hope, that the PA will seek to indict Israel at that venue the first  moment it can.

There are two questions that can be asked about these expectations: 1) Will Israel care? They have never responded positively to UN condemnation in the past. For instance, the UN condemned Israel’s December 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights and the Israelis took almost no notice. Israel occupied the southern part of Lebanon (a full member of the UN) from 1982 to 2000 and despite repeated condemnations the occupation went on. This lack of Israeli response to UN resolutions brings us to the second question: Does the world care? The UN and indeed the majority of the world’s nation states have shown no interest at all in enforcing resolutions condemning Israel. And, in good part, this is why the Israelis do not respond. You can have laws, but if they are unenforceable one should not be surprised that criminals pay no attention. As Ali Abunimah has pointed out there is no reason to believe things will be any different if Palestine is recognized as a state by the United Nations.

Nonetheless, as we will see, the approach to the UN has made Israel and its ally, the United States, very nervous. They have claimed that the United Nations is not the right place to solve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. But, as Henry Siegman, president of the US/Middle East Project has pointed out, the opposite is true. The job of the UN is to seek resolution of disputes that could lead to war and, as we have seen, all efforts at peace negotiations outside the UN purvey have ended in failure. In a significant way it must be the UN that settles matters because it was the UN that created the problem when, in November of 1947 it passed resolution 181 which laid the groundwork for the establishment of the state of Israel (and a Palestinian state that was soon made impossible by Zionist and Jordanian aggression). Thus, the UN has a certain moral obligation to help resolve this conflict and it has the legal wherewithal to do it, at least in theory.  Besides resolution 181 there are also UN resolutions 242 and 338. All these resolutions mandate peaceful settlement of the conflict. In addition Resolution 242 makes clear that there is to be no acquisition of territory as the result of war.

The Israelis reacted to the Palestinian intent to seek statehood recognition with high anxiety. Why should they do so if this move will not interfere with their absorption process on the ground? Here are a couple of suggestions. First, it may be recalled that it was a UN General Assembly vote that gave legal status to the State of Israel. A similar vote today would give equal legal legitimacy to a State of Palestine. The Palestinians could then get up in the world organization and say that their state is being invaded by another UN state. The pressure on Israel to withdraw to the 1967 line would go up accordingly, whether they chose to respond to it or not. Again, the International Criminal Court would soon be brought into the matter. Israeli isolation would increase. Secondly, the Israelis are, in general, fearful of any and all references to the 1967 armistice line as a border. Keep in mind that the Israelis do not want peace, they want the land.  That is why the peace process has, to date, come to nothing. UN recognition of a Palestinian state would sanctify the 1967 armistice line as Palestine’s western border. That would make Israeli territorial ambitions officially illegal.

Complications On The Palestinian Side

The reasons that the Israelis fear, at least on the level of perceptions,  the Palestinian move at the United Nations are quite understandable. However, they are not the only ones who are upset at the maneuvers of Abbas and company.  There are Palestinians who do not like this gambit at all. And, ironically, they do not like it for some of the same reasons the Israelis are against it.

The end game for the Abbas and the PA is a two-state solution. The move to the UN was made upon the belated recognition that Israel was using the peace negotiations as a cover for destroying any possibility of such a solution.  Other Palestinians, particularly those in exile, have long ago understood that to be Israel’s goal and moved on to support a one-state solution. The Palestinian one-state solution, of course, does not look like the Israeli one-state solution. The latter is a Jewish state in control of all the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean. The Palestinian single state is the classic secular democratic state as originally proposed by Arafat’s PLO back in the late 1960’s–a state in which all citizens regardless of religion or ethnicity are politically equal.

It is not surprising that there is a split among the Palestinians on this issue. The Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza are under occupation. They want a solution that will relieve them of their suffering and a two state solution will do that.  But it will not address the grievances of those in exile, many of whom have roots in pre 1948 Palestine. For these folks, a two state solution will forever close the door to their homeland. In this sense the two groups have grown apart in their interests. Of course, there is the fact that the one and half million Palestinians in Gaza are ruled by Hamas. Hamas has refused to endorse the PA’s statehood bid. For ideological reasons, it is dedicated to a one state solution that looks different again from that of exiled Palestinian version. Hamas wants a one state Palestine that is Islamic. One may or may not want to see this end as something of a parallel vision to that of the Israelis.

Let’s take a brief look at the main arguments of the Palestinians in exile who oppose the PA move to the UN. First and foremost is the issue of refugee rights. UN resolution 194 affirms the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland. Israel might not take this seriously, but the nearly 8 million Palestinians in exile do. Indeed, most consider it a non-negotiable right. Even those of second and third generations are dedicated to seeing this right recognized and realized. There is a great fear among in the Palestinian diaspora that the PA will sacrifice this and other rights of diaspora Palestinians. In other words, a  two-state solution with a set border at the 1967 line would probably permanently close off the possibility of the Right of Return to Israel proper. Such a solution would also abandon the nearly 2 million Arab-Israelis to their fate as second class citizens who are systematically discriminated against economically, socially and in other ways as well.

A good example of the exile response to the PA bid for statehood was put forth by the US Palestinian Community Network. It described the move to the UN as a “distraction that unjustifiably and irresponsibly endangers Palestinian rights and institutions.” This is so because instead of functioning to “protect and advance our inalienable rights” it serves to undermine them.  Amongst these Palestinians, Abbas and company have no credibility and seeking statehood at the UN will result in less trust in the PA, not more.

The Role of the United States

If many Palestinians do not trust the Palestine Authority, fewer still trust the United States. And that distrust seems pointedly affirmed by the striking way the United States government has unhesitatingly gone out of its way to place itself outside the world consensus when it comes to Palestine. As the rest of the world slowly but surely comes to the conclusion that Israeli behavior is not only illegal but also reckless, the US embraces the Israeli point of view all the more and protects that country from the consequences of its own actions through the use of its veto at the UN Security Council.

This situation has not altered in the present circumstances.  The Obama administration, after seeking rapprochement with the Arabs and declaring itself in favor of the 1967 border as the basis for a two state settlement, has sought to intimidate the PA leadership into dropping their UN bid for statehood based on that very borderline.  Failing intimidation, the administration has threatened to veto the effort at the Security Council level.  The US Congress is right in line with this effort and has threatened to stop all aid to the Palestinian Authority (even though that funding subsidies the PA security forces that cooperate with Israel in keeping order on the West Bank) and to cease supporting any UN committee that admits the Palestinians to membership.  Why has the government acted in such a way?

The answer has to do with the very nature of American politics. Although the United States is a democracy wherein citizens elect their leaders, it is not the case that, between elections, the voting citizenry counts for very much. The case of the Palestinians is a good example of this. The truth of the matter is that a politician can be critical of Israel and even sympathetic to the Palestinians and still, at least potentially, get elected to office in the United States. Very recent polls by the Pew Research Center show that 42% of Americans are in favor of US recognition of Palestinian statehood as against 26 % opposed. 32% had no opinion. That means that a energetic and savvy politician running for national office, who is also publically in favor of Palestinian statehood, would have a pool of 74% of American voters to work on. The numbers are even more impressive when considering only Democratic voters. There 54% are in favor of Palestinian statehood and only 14% opposed. These are telling numbers for a politician with pro-Palestinian sympathies, but it has not impacted party stands on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at all. Why? Because voters are only important at the actual time of election. At all other times the politicians’ constituencies are special interest groups.

It is the special interests that supply the resources the politicians actually use to manipulate the voters at election time.  The political parties know this very well. They know that what political suicide actually consists of is putting forth a candidate that displeases the special interests. In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the vast majority of the time both Democrat and Republican parties won’t even nominate a candidate who expresses opinions favorable to the Palestinians. Thus the American political response to the Palestinian bid for statehood has nothing to do with popular opinion. It has to do with the present overwhelming power of pro-Zionist interest groups and their ability to shape foreign policy in areas of their interest.

As a consequence, American interests in all areas of the Middle East outside of Israel must and do suffer. US influence throughout the Arab lands is waning and might be going down hill even faster in the Muslim world in general. The region’s leaders are loath to be identified with a country whose policies on key issues appears to be so manipulated by Zionist agents. As for the Israeli leadership, they too just as soon insult an American president as take his advice. It seems no one loves a puppet, not even the puppeteer. As a position paper by Yousef Munayyer of the Washington based Palestine Center put it, “Washington is broken and won’t be fixed any time soon.”

Probable Consequences of the Bid for Statehood

On September 23rd Mahmoud Abbas went before the UN General Assembly and made his government’s formal bid for statehood. As of this writing the application resides in the Security Council where it has been referred to the Admissions Panel. It could linger at this stage for a very long time and ultimately it faces a US veto. At any point in this process the PA has the option of seeking upgraded observer status from the UN General Assembly where there is no veto.  As of now (October 2011) it is unclear if Abbas will take up this option. If he does not the possibility is strong that the entire PA maneuver will have been an exercise in futility.

The most severe consequences of the PA action is liable to come in Israel and the West Bank where the Palestinian move has raised the anxiety level of the Zionist establishment and energized elements within the country’s very right-wing Knesset.  Here there are increasing demands for annexation of the West Bank.  News reports suggest that the Knesset will vote on annexation at the end of October, 2011. The Knesset Speaker, Danny Danon, says the annexation bill will also nullify any financial obligations Israel has to the Palestinians as a function of previous agreements.  Since the Israelis more often than not steal PA tax receipts this is not much of a threat. The bill will also nullify the Oslo Accords which, in any case, have been a dead letter for a long time. However, the annexation of the West Bank, which will serve as a requiem for the two state solution,  is likely to let loose a wave of Israeli settler violence toward the Palestinians resident there.  This violence, which may well reach the level of pogroms, will be part of an organized effort at ethnic cleansing – seeking to initiate yet another mass exodus of West Bank Palestinians in the direction of Jordan.  The present leadership of Israel is no doubt in real sympathy with this goal.  In the repression of non-violent protests in West Bank towns such as Bilin, Nebi Saleh and Walaja, Israeli soldiers have acted brutally and when witnessing settler violence against Palestinians they have more often than not stood by and let it happen.  As Israel’s military chief Amos Gilad has noted, “we [Israelis] don’t do Gandhi very well.”  True enough.  There behavior toward Palestinian protesters much more reflects the tactics of the Monarchy of Bahrain, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the dictatorship of  Syria.

If there is any pressure from the United States on Israel to avoid such draconian actions it will come from the executive branch.  Yet, by now, the Israelis have made turning up their noses at the Obama administration something of a high art.  President Obama, in turn, has been at best inconsistent in his actions toward the Palestinians. On the other hand, the House of Representatives is very likely to stand up and cheer as the Israelis proceed on the path to annexation.

Leading the cheer will be Congressman Joe Walsh of the 8th district in Illinois. Congressman Walsh, along with thirty other co-sponsors, has already submitted a House Resolution in support of Israel’s right to annex the West Bank.  According to Knesset Speaker  Danny Danon, the two annexation bills, one in the Knesset and one in the US House of Representatives, are actually being coordinated. Walsh, who is also identified with the Tea Party movement and the National Rifle Association, two regressive conservative phenomena, seems to perceive the Middle East through the distorting lens of an AIPAC briefing book. According to his understanding of the matter Israel is free to move forward with annexation because the Palestinian move to the UN nullifies the Oslo Accords. It does so because it is a unilateral act seeking to change the status quo on the ground in the West Bank, and this is specifically forbidden by the Accords.  However, as Henry Siegman has pointed out, if this is the case, Israel actions in terms of settlements and the building of the Wall, both unilateral and condemned by international law, has long ago destroyed the viability of this particular Oslo statute and freed the Palestinians to go their own way. Obviously, Mr. Walsh is oblivious to this history and as a consequence he has wittingly or unwittingly, chosen to vocalize in America the bigotry of the racist Israeli right-wing.

Thus the likelihood is that the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN will lead to an acceleration of Israeli appropriation of what is left of the West Bank. Perhaps this will also result in the collapse of what is left of the Palestine Authority and the political career of Mahmoud Abbas. If events go this way the nation states of the world, including the Arab ones, will most likely sit on the sidelines watching passively, and the Congress of the United States, as presently constituted, will clap loudly. Tens of millions of Christian fundamentalists will praise God and watch ever  more closely for the second coming of Jesus Christ. A majority of Jewish rabbis of all denominations will find ways of rationalizing the resulting barbarism of their brethren in Israel, while a sub-group of that number will gleefully reveal themselves as Jewish fascists. Meanwhile a humanitarian minority of Jews, both lay persons and rabbis, will try to explain that irreparable damage has been done not only to the Palestinians, but to the Jews and Judaism as well. The Palestinians themselves will have to pick up the pieces, probably going back to the job of revamping the PLO as a real representative of Palestinians worldwide. As such the organization has potential to become, once more, the base of future leadership to carry on the struggle for Palestinian rights. Hopefully it will do so in close alliance with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel (BDS). BDS will no doubt build at an accelerated pace, having established itself as the only practicable approach to the original and still worthy dream of a one state solution–that is  Israel/Palestine as a democratic secular state.

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