Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Palestinian 'statehood' bid - what really changes?

As the day nears for attempts to establish a Palestinian state at the UN, key Palestinian figures and civil society groups have raised significant objections to the plan.

While the bid seems popular with many Palestinians and may garner welcome publicity for their cause, it also creates many more detrimental possibilities, all to Israel's advantage. 

The bid for statehood is, first and foremost, a survival strategy for Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority (PA).  And, in that vital context, it elevates the PA's own political agenda above that of any true liberation agenda.

Omar Barghouti argues, convincingly, that the Abbas administration has neither the political authority to present such a motion nor any intention of defending the wider rights of Palestinians, as entrenched, most notably, in UN resolution 194:
"Without any sense of irony, Palestinian officials who have time and again colluded in eroding official international support for UNGA 194, as the Palestine Papers have amply shown, are now appropriating that very number and using it in a bid that runs the risk of surrendering the right of return associated with it for more than six decades. This is merely a symbol of the far more substantive moral, political and legal bind that this Initiative may potentially place the Palestinians and their supporters in. 
The “September Initiative” is at best vague and confusing and at worst damaging to the interests of the Palestinian people. Regardless, it is entirely divorced from the will of the Palestinian people, and those advocating it have no democratic mandate from the people to employ it in any way that jeopardises our UN-sanctioned rights."
Barghouti also cites strategic Zionist thinking on the bid, noting, in particular, the dangers of any transfer of authority from the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) - the officially-recognised voice of all Palestinians, occupied or exiled - to the effective hand of a PA-led state, a scenario that would only diminish Palestinian rights and entrench Israeli claims to a Jewish state.  Thus:
"The spokesman of the Israeli delegation, notable writer Sefi Rachlevski, was quoted in Yedioth Ahronoth on September 5 saying, “We are a group that fully supports [Israel’s] declaration of independence and the Zionist dream of establishing the State of Israel, and we see the Palestinian initiative a definite continuation of that.”"
With the US pledging to veto the bid if it gains the necessary nine SC votes, even the likely endorsement of the General Assembly will mean only an attenuated version of UN membership (note that only states can recognise other states, the UN can only consider membership of states).

All of which begs the question: why is Netanyahu so vehemently opposed to the UN statehood bid.

The answer lies, mainly, in Israeli fears of further international isolation. Any US veto, should the bid first be referred, as promised by Abbas, to the Security Council, would also place Obama in a more embarrassing situation, having openly-declared US support for a two-state solution. 

Avi Schlaim, seeing the symbolic merit of the UN bid, elaborates the point:
"Why are Israel and the US so hysterical about the UN bid if it doesn’t make a difference? They are hysterical about it because until now, for the last 20 years, they have everything their way. There was the American-sponsored peace process, which was leading nowhere slowly, and Israel was carrying on with its expansionist agenda and pretending to be involved in a peace process. Now this has ended. There is no pretending."
More fundamentally, Netanyahu, like all previous Israeli leaders, lives by the expansionist dictum that no settlements can ever be sacrificed, no serious concessions ever granted to already occupied and dispossessed Palestinians. 

While Israel has always pitched for Abbas as the preferred 'negotiating' party - with all the useful stalling props and collaboration that entails - the apparent problem for Netanyahu now lies in the prospect of having to recognise, or at least deal with, a Palestinian state, rather than a territory, notably one that includes illegal Israeli settlements. 

And yet, what would statehood effectively change in this regard?  The occupation would still be in place.  The settlements would still be present. Jerusalem would still be annexed.  Would Israel, now intensively arming the settlers, suddenly be more inclined to vacate the West Bank?  Would it end the siege of Gaza?  After six decades of calculated oppression, would this declaration make Israel rush in genuine haste to the negotiating table?       

The biggest risk for Palestinians, on the other hand, in terms of international support, is that any realisation of statehood could be widely interpreted as the issue having been 'resolved': Palestine, many might say, now has its state, so does Israel, and the 'facts on the ground' suggest that the settlements are there, long-established, and, therefore, a realistic fact of life. 

Not only would the settlements remain in perpetuity, but the claims of diaspora Palestinians would be rendered an increasingly abstract issue.  Jerusalem would still be under Israeli control and the wall would still be in place protecting stolen land beyond the 1967 line.

Adherents of the plan also argue that statehood would allow Palestine a more effective means of challenging the occupation through the UN and its legalistic bodies.  This all sounds convincing in theory.  

Yet, consider that Lebanon and Syria, both holding such state 'rights', have been unable to use those procedures to halt Israeli violations of their borders. 

Joseph Massad's analysis suggests that whatever of the two possible outcomes comes to pass, Israel will be the main beneficiary. 

Any failure of the bid would see Israel carrying on as determined occupier, with the US and Israel able to impose even more stringent, punishing conditions on a disobedient PA.

Alternatively, should a state be declared, it would mean effective relegation of the PLO and sacrificing the right of return, with Israel also likely declaring, once and for all, the limits of Palestinian 'sovereignty': namely, the minuscule pockets of West Bank territory they already 'control'. 

In addition, notes Massad, the establishment of any such state would firm-up the reality of Israel as a Jewish state alongside it, with Israel now better able to set punitive preconditions for recognising a Palestinian state, including the relinquishing of its recent pact with Hamas. 

Whatever happens on the political stage after the bid is presented, the reality on the ground will be one of ongoing occupation, siege and apartheid policies. 

Abbas has created a heightened sense of expectation in the West Bank - less so in Gaza - and the likely frustration that will be created after the full bid fails  - or gets committee-delayed at the Security Council - may be expressed as either raised street reaction or weary resignation. None of these scenarios augurs well for Abbas's own survival. 

Netanyahu's late 'appeal for direct talks' can be easily read as yet another stalling move, intended to show Israel as a 'willing negotiator'. 

Whether Abbas succumbs to more last-minute Israeli-US platitudes remains to be seen.  In an effort to offset its increasing pariah status and prevent the US from having to use its veto, Israel may offer token 'assurances' that something could still be 'on the table'. 

If Abbas resists another such charade, and the bid proceeds, some useful publicity might be earned from the exercise.  But it will still leave the core problem unresolved and Palestine stuck as a limbo-land 'state' with no effective authority. 

When all the dust settles on this 'diplomatic offensive', the reality of Israeli power will still be grossly apparent.

True Palestinian liberation will only come about through sustained popular resistance to the occupation itself - using the Arab Spring and BDS as tactical opportunities - not via any superficial claims to statehood or upgraded UN status.     


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