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Palestine’s Moment of Truth

فلسطين لحظة الحقيقة

An year ago, President Barack Obama used the opening session of the UN General Assembly to express his hope that “when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the UN — an independent, sovereign state of Palestine”. He returned to the same podium on September 21 to do the opposite i.e. to voice uncompromising opposition to Mahmoud Abbas’s decision, succinctly set out in an article published by the New York Times on May 16, 2011 that he would come to UN to “request international recognition of the state of Palestine on the 1967 border and that our state be admitted as a full member of the United Nations.” Palestinians, Obama now said, must make peace with Israel before gaining statehood themselves; the international community should continue to push Israelis and Palestinians toward talks on the four intractable ‘final status’ issues that have vexed peace negotiations since 1979: the borders of a Palestinian state, security for Israel, the status of Palestinian refugees who left or were forced to leave their homes in Israel, and the fate of Jerusalem, which both sides claim for their capital. In short, Abbas should first seek negotiations from the same position of utter helplessness as before.
Behind this polarisation of postures lie two remarkable transformations. Once elected, American presidents accommodate to the realities of power which are heavily linked to the mighty Jewish electoral and financial machine. Obama has been no different. In fact, he has deployed worldwide diplomacy to stop Abbas from pursuing the request for statehood, including a categorical threat to veto it in the Security Council. In bowing to this machine, he is willing to take the risk of losing Arab goodwill when the United States badly needs it to be on the right side of the Arab Spring.
The other transformation is that of Mahmoud Abbas. No other Palestinian leader has kept his faith in a peaceful negotiated settlement in the face of impossible odds. Most objective observers of the slowly dying 20-year-old Oslo process concluded years ago that Israel would never allow a viable Palestinian state even in what Abbas describes, with a touch of pathos, as “the remaining 22 per cent of our historic homeland”. The Oslo process only facilitated Jewish colonisation of occupied lands to a point where a Palestinian state became a geographical absurdity. Obama began by opposing more settlements but had by 2009 muted this idealism.
Abbas has come to the UN, evidently because he has run out of options. He does not even have a Palestinian consensus behind him. Hamas has not obstructed the UN initiative but without any optimism. More Palestinians than ever before despair of a two-state solution and are ready to wage a protracted, if romantic, struggle for a single state where Arab demographic advantage would eventually tame Zionist militarism. Abbas has already faced considerable internal criticism that his request for statehood is tantamount to reneging on the refugees’ right of return.
He knows that full membership is impossible even if nine members of the Security Council defy intense pressure and vote for it; Washington would simply veto it. Obama can limit the damage of an instant veto for US by delaying the vote through procedural stratagems that Abbas may not or cannot circumvent. Defeated in the Security Council, Abbas could still win a majority in the General Assembly to achieve the scaled-down objective of a ‘non-member observer state’ that would upgrade Palestine from being an observer “entity”; it would open more doors including the one that Israel and the United States fear most, namely, the International Court of Justice. Given the western pressure, the UN General Assembly cannot confer full membership on Palestine by invoking the procedure “uniting for peace”.
The consensus of independent opinion in the West is that the US should follow up the UN episode with a vigorous initiative to bring about a final status settlement in a year or so. Without it, Abbas’s barely patched-up tent would be buffeted by contrary winds and Obama would face a fierce wave of anti-Americanism in the Arab-Islamic world. It is a moment of truth for all the parties.

President Mahmoud Abbas’s address to the UN General Assembly was by global consensus, his finest hour. A leader who never possessed the charisma and verve of Yasser Arafat and had often been derided as an eternal appeaser withstood almost intolerable American pressure and made a bold attempt to break the stranglehold of the moribund Oslo process. He would seek negotiations in future as the head of a state, not a vague entity, and that only when the international community shows willingness to stop the colonisation of Palestine. Regrettably, President Barack Obama’s speech at the same forum had portrayed Israel as the aggrieved party. Abbas retaliated, by breaking a major western taboo: he reminded the world that Israel was racist and practised apartheid.

Israel has perpetuated occupation of Arab lands for 45 years, to construct ever expanding Jewish settlements in it. In April 2004, President Bush wrote his infamous letter to Sharon, supporting Israeli retention of these “settlement blocs” and opposing the Palestinian right of return. Henceforth, any bilateral negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel were foredoomed to failure. Obama’s retreat from a position diametrically different from that of Bush, forced even Mahmud Abbas to build freezing of settlement construction into a precondition for talks and also renew the quest for statehood. His current defiance of the West is the last effort to prevent the final burial of a two-state solution by Israel through appropriations that shrink the Arab land by the week.
Abbas faces formidable obstacles: he cannot force the pace at the UN Security Council because he lacks the nine votes required by his request, even though its adoption would trigger an American veto. It is not clear when he would go to the General Assembly where a resolution granting non-member statehood will receive strong support. Armed with it, Mahmoud Abbas can forestall, for some time, another intifada that may ignite a regional conflagration. What has changed for him is that he cannot return to a soft posture on colonisation, including that of East Jerusalem. The stakes are so heavy high, that Abbas may eventually conclude that the momentum of colonisation can be broken only by taking the risks of a mass uprising.
In pure military terms, the balance of power is in Israel’s favour. But this advantage is being offset by far- reaching changes in the strategic landscape. The new Egyptian regime will reflect a new modus vivendi between the army and resurgent political groups ranging from nationalists to Muslim brotherhood. It will not provide space to Israel that Hosni Mubarak did for three decades. Turkey’s disenchantment with Israel goes beyond the murderous Israeli assault on the peace flotilla; it is also becoming a requisite of its new political and economic role. As Prince Turki al-Faisal warned in a forthright article in the New York Times, President Obama’s abandonment of his earlier position on the Arab-Israel issue might force Saudi Arabia to review ties with Maliki’s government in Iraq, a development that would probably drive Maliki closer to Iran. Hezbollah acquitted itself better than Arab armies during Israel’s last invasion of Lebanon. The crisis in Syria may affect its capability but would not neutralise it. Iran’s progress in missile development is another factor to reckon with. America is finding it increasingly difficult to find a satisfactory exit strategy in Afghanistan. The current strains between Washington and Islamabad weaken pro-western forces in the region. India is an ally of the United States but its domestic dynamics and external ambitions require it to maintain the semblance of independence. It was not for nothing that at the same UN forum, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, visibly distanced India from US-led military interventions.
Israel is getting progressively isolated. Washington’s blind support for it diminishes American influence in this indispensible region. There are hawks in Israel and the United States who believe that these two allies can hit their way out of this unfavourable situation with their preponderant military power. Regional realities, however, militate against Washington joining a military adventure by Tel Aviv. Israel’s security is not enhanced by its opposition to Palestinian statehood. The resumed journey to a Palestinian state with pre-1967 borders can be delayed but not denied.

By Tanvir Ahmad Khan, Published in The Express Tribune, October 3rd, 2011.

Read more >>> Implications of the Palestinian U.N. drive

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