The Question of Palestine in Miniature

by The Editors | published September 16, 2011

The countdown to September 23 has begun. On that day, if he does not renege on his September 16 speech, Mahmoud ‘Abbas will present a formal request for full UN membership for a state of Palestine. The UN Security Council, which must approve such requests, will not do so, because the United States will act upon its repeated vows to exercise its veto. And then?

The world, by all indications, will denounce the Obama administration for rank hypocrisy. How can President Barack Obama deliver speech after speech endorsing Palestinian statehood in principle and then block it in practice? Several advisers to ‘Abbas, the nominal president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), think the embarrassment to the White House will be enough to make the point. Others want him to rub Obama’s nose in it, taking a request for upgraded non-member observer status to the General Assembly. When that proposal passes overwhelmingly, they insist, the PA will have declared its independence of the United States, specifically the US monopoly on the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.” The Palestinians, meanwhile, might be one big step closer to full voting UN membership, since no polity seeking statehood would have achieved this status before. And they might win access to UN bodies like the International Criminal Court, where Palestinian claims against Israel could then be pursued directly. It would be, as these advisers like to say, istihqaq Aylul, loosely translated, “the September claim of our just due.” And then?

If the US, Israel and European states get their way, ‘Abbas will never face even the initial dilemma, because he will have been dissuaded from submitting a request to the world body in the first place. There have been frenetic diplomatic efforts to avert the Security Council scenario. The Obama administration has dispatched high-ranking officials to Ramallah bearing bludgeons hidden in bouquets of unspecified blandishment. In Washington, pro-Israel members of the House of Representatives have summoned a slew of witnesses to urge that US aid to the PA be slashed if ‘Abbas persists. At a September 14 hearing on the subject, Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) upped the ante: “I believe it is appropriate to point out that, should the Palestinians pursue their unilateralist course, the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual assistance that we have given them in recent years will likely be terminated.”  

Berman and his colleagues echo Israel’s line of attack on the putative Palestinian initiative, which is not to oppose the idea of a Palestinian state, but to object that ‘Abbas proposes to act outside the framework of bilateral negotiations with Israel supervised by the US. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to make this case to the General Assembly on September 23, as the “unilateralist” PA argues its brief before the Security Council. Netanyahu must know the tenor of his plaints will fall on scornful ears. Israel has spent each of the 18 years since the conclusion of the Oslo accords with the Palestinians unilaterally violating their letter and intent, whether with continuous building of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, withholding of customs revenue from the PA or any number of other policies deepening the illegal occupation of Palestinian territory. And the General Assembly delegates will know that it is he, not ‘Abbas, who has torpedoed the possibility of meaningful negotiations under the Oslo aegis, with his refusal to freeze settlement construction. So, to look reasonable, Netanyahu has indicated Israeli assent to an upgrade of the PA’s observer status. His real audience in New York will not be the General Assembly, but the mainstream American media, which he calculates will reproduce his broader message that if there is no peace in Israel-Palestine, the Palestinians, once again, are at fault.

European states are laboring, on the one hand, to help the US avoid the whole mess and, on the other hand, to craft some formulation for future Palestinian status at the UN that will not upset Washington but that ‘Abbas can present as an accomplishment. In the past, when ‘Abbas has hinted at maneuvers of which the US and Israel disapprove, he has not followed through, content with one promise or another or cowed by heavy pressure. Most notorious of all, at US-Israeli behest, he agreed to defer a UN Human Rights Council vote on the Goldstone report, the investigation of the 2008-2009 Gaza war that could have been used to support war crimes cases against Israeli officials. With this record in mind, there was great skepticism into early September that ‘Abbas would push matters so far on the statehood bid, but now all seem to think he is serious. The rush for damage control is on: In Israel, the government continues to inveigh against the PA even as on September 15 it approved the PA’s application to purchase riot gear for its security forces. The PA, it seems, is not sure it can control the demonstrations it has called in West Bank towns as the UN drama unfolds.

Herein lie the most painful ironies of the PA’s 17-year existence, oft-stated, but still poorly understood in the West: As a non-sovereign entity, it must beseech its overlords for the trappings of autonomy. As the constable of its appointed domains, the PA must crack the heads of the Palestinians it claims to represent if they transgress the boundaries of official discourse. As a creature of the Oslo accords, it cannot transcend the terms of these agreements between an occupying power and an occupied people. No one can doubt who the arbiters of the agreements are: When Palestinians narrowly elected Hamas to head the PA in 2006, Israel and the US imposed a tight physical and diplomatic siege upon the Hamas-affiliated officers and their territorial seat in the Gaza Strip.   

Hence ‘Abbas must listen when American legislators thunder and at least wince when they brandish the stick of cut-off aid, monies upon which the PA’s administrative apparatus and its some 140,000 West Bank employees depend. The Obama administration has been cagey about the Congressional threats, with State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland demurring: “We have not chosen to use our humanitarian aid in such a fashion.” It is significant, as well, that not only the pro-Israel Washington Institute of Near East Policy, but also the hawkish Elliott Abrams, point man for the Middle East on the George W. Bush administration’s National Security Council, testified against cutting aid before Congress. But Congress has been more pro-Israel than the pro-Israel lobby before, and it could act “unilaterally” itself, denying future aid appropriations or introducing new punitive strictures on disbursements. With the 2012 presidential campaign approaching, moreover, and attacks on Obama’s pro-Israel bonafides already appearing on New York billboards, the White House will be loath to battle over aid to a rump PA that the likes of Berman have targeted for “collapse.” The vaguer, but angrier warnings of “dire consequences” coming from the far-right foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, and others in the Israeli government are likewise not to be dismissed lightly. If no one expects that the most successful of UN gambits will improve the lot of ordinary Palestinians one iota, either in Gaza or in the West Bank, it is quite possible that their plight will worsen.

At a deeper level, many Palestinian critics of the UN initiatives are right to point out the similarities between “non-member” status and the “provisional state” of which Israeli politicians have frequently spoken. Such a truncated administrative body would neither rule nor govern in Palestine. It would lack control of its borders or firmly defined borders at all, since it would have no power to halt settlement expansion or forward progress of the wall Israel is building in the West Bank. It would have no army, but a gendarmerie that would secure the PA’s meager prerogatives and certainly would not deter Israeli military operations across the Green Line. With the West Bank ever more carved up by concrete barriers, barbed-wire fences and bypass roads, it would have no “territorial contiguity” and hence no “viability” as a polity or economy, to use two more buzzwords of the late Oslo era. Israel might be pleased to see such an entity gain recognition at the UN: It would have no meaningful authority, but it would be vested in the eyes of the international community with responsibility for Palestinians’ welfare that Israel has never wanted. Israel might even receive a boost in its attempts to portray its incursions and aerial bombardments as part of a conflict between two roughly equal sides rather than assaults upon a mostly defenseless occupied population. Maximum power, minimum accountability -- it is a restatement of the adage, “Maximum land, minimum Palestinians,” that underwrote the Allon Plan of 1967, the envisioned “village leagues” of the 1970s and other schemes of Israeli control over the years.

The UN puzzle sitting before ‘Abbas, therefore, is a small-scale version of the existential stumper: In the face of these realities, what is the Palestinian leadership, such as it is, to do?   

Many observers ask why ‘Abbas and his entourage broached the UN possibilities at all. The Ramallah politicos abandoned previous threats to dissolve the PA to the derision of all concerned; ‘Abbas has withdrawn more than one pledge to resign. Why choose another course that highlights one’s fecklessness vis-à-vis the powers that be, even if it wins the plaudits of the Arab League, Turkey and supporters of the principle of self-determination worldwide? There is another reality that likely forced the PA’s hand.

Simply put, 2011 is not 1994 or 2006. The Arab revolts, despite the formidable obstacles they have encountered, have cleared the atmosphere in the Middle East of its relentless gloom. Young, middle-aged and even elderly, Arabs in country after country have poured into the streets to elucidate a more hopeful vision, one that does not bow (however grudgingly) to the inevitability of injustice. In Tunisia and Egypt, in particular, these demonstrators achieved victories that would have been unthinkable before. And the protesters want more than greater democracy at home. As Rashid Khalidi writes in Critical Inquiry, “They have put us all on notice: ‘The people want the fall of the regime.’ They mean by this the regimes in each and every Arab country that robbed citizens of their dignity. They also mean a regional regime whose cornerstone was a humiliating submission to the dictates of the United States and Israel, and which robbed all the Arabs of their collective dignity.”

To assert the truth of these words is not to resurrect the pan-Arab nationalism of the 1960s or to foresee an assembly of Arab armies at the gates of Jerusalem. It is simply to take seriously the sea change in mentalité, particularly among the region’s youth, that attends the historical moment. Even leaders as worn and compromised as Mahmoud ‘Abbas and his circle cannot ignore what is happening, if only to coopt the fighting spirit or blunt its force. In February, still stinging from criticism of his Goldstone report capitulation, and worried that Palestinians would organize for the fall of his regime, ‘Abbas defied the US and Israel in pressing for a Security Council resolution on the illegality of settlements. (The US vetoed it.)

Today, at the tactical level, it is probable that dissension within the ranks of Fatah, the de facto ruling party of the West Bank and ‘Abbas’ own faction, pushed the nominal Palestinian president into further action. He sought to parry the thrusts of party figures who had long advocated for the UN route and to channel popular pressure in a direction he could influence, if not control per se. The certainty with which his spokesmen declaim his intention to proceed at the Security Council is surely born of these factors, as well. Having staked a virtual Palestinian flag at UN headquarters, he cannot now uproot it if he hopes to remain party chairman. Having taken a stand for the principle that Palestinians, like any other nation, have a right to seek self-determination, whatever they are told to do by others, he cannot now back down without “dire consequences” to be designed by Palestinians.

Some form of enhanced UN recognition could offer ‘Abbas and the PA external legitimacy and their own sense of hope against daunting odds. But the UN initiative, whatever shape it takes, could also be empty symbolism or, worse, a seal of approval on creeping apartheid if it is only an isolated tactic. Caution is warranted in two respects.

The UN maneuver has potential to break the US stranglehold on Israel-Palestine diplomacy only if ‘Abbas and his confreres take additional steps toward a comprehensive strategy of internationalization. First on such an agenda would be revival of efforts to unify the PA and Palestinian national movement, from which ‘Abbas has retreated over the summer, and insistence that Israel and the US lift the Gaza blockade, which ‘Abbas’ wing of the PA has of course championed as a means of defeating its rival Hamas. Steps two and three would be resuscitation of the Goldstone report and pursuit of the 2004 International Court of Justice opinion against Israel’s separation wall. But given the doldrums of reconciliation talks, and the dearth of other signs of strategic thinking in Ramallah, there is reason to fear that ‘Abbas will pocket the coming US veto and desist, hoping that the ensuing hubbub itself will prod the US and Israel back to the negotiating table. It is almost surely a vain hope, and in any case, renewed bilateral parleys under unilateral US tutelage can lead only to reinforcement of the Oslo paradigm and further dispossession of the Palestinians.

What media outlets are dubbing the “showdown” at the UN also comes at a juncture of eroded US hegemony. Its economy teetering on the brink of double-dip recession, its overseas wars unending and its historical coddling of dictators laid bare, the US is in no position to tell the Palestinians what to do, particularly since Washington will not rein in its Israeli ally. If the September 16 Washington Post is correct, the Obama administration failed even to extract a non-apology apology, one devoid of assumption of guilt, from Israel for its May 2010 raid on the Gaza aid flotilla. The White House had thought such an Israeli statement would diffuse international anger over the impending veto. If US weakness made the UN gambit possible for the Palestinians, it also makes the US a highly questionable patron going forward. It is the paradox of global affairs in miniature: Washington’s clout is hollow, yet there is nothing to replace it, so it lives on as simulacrum.

Whether now or in 25 years’ time, no force but the Palestinian people is likely to tear down the walls and redress the systemic wrongs in the lands between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. It is the Palestinian people’s struggle, ultimately, and not the ventures of quasi-governments, that the world supports. The PA sectors loyal to ‘Abbas and the West Bank chief administrator, Salam Fayyad, will not mount or harness a genuine popular movement to challenge the status quo; by the logic of Oslo, they cannot. Perhaps the groundswell, whether it is an uprising or a campaign of mass civil disobedience or something not yet imagined, must come from sources that, as in Tunisia and Egypt before January, are largely unknown today. But the Palestinians have striven heroically, for decades before the 2011 Arab awakening, for justice and freedom. Their two intifadas have cost them dearly. If liberation is to transpire, the onus is upon outside backers of Palestinian rights -- in the Arab world, the West and elsewhere -- to develop new means of solidarity and, in particular, new ways of holding Israel accountable to the international law it has flouted for so long.

Filed under: