The Palestinian Push for Statehood
I’m no Don Quixote. Unlike, for example, Thomas Friedman’s perpetual push for an increase in the gasoline tax, I like to write about possible policies rather than political pipe dreams. With the United States, at the behest of its ally Israel, set to veto Palestinian statehood at the United Nations next week, however, I feel the need to at least criticize the inevitable.
Make no mistake, I am no knee jerk opponent of Israel and everything it is and does — a syndrome endemic among my fellow academics. I have great respect for the accomplishments of the Israeli people and the relative freedom of Israeli society. I recognize the constant threat from suicide bombings, rocket attacks, and even annihilation that understandably haunts the psyche and collective memories of many Israelis.
But. . .whereas a mere decade ago, I saw an Israeli government and people willing to compromise and take risks for a just settlement and two-state solution, that spirit has long since dissipated. Whereas it was once famously said that the “Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” that dictum applies more and more to the Israelis these days.
Earlier in the decade, in the wake of the bloody second intifada unleashed by Palestinian leadership against Israeli civilians, the Israeli government announced its refusal to entertain serious negotiations without a “credible partner” on the Palestinian side. That credible partner would be one willing to build legitimate government institutions, have the support of the population, and, most importantly, reform security forces that had often aided, rather than fought against, terrorism.
Over the last half decade, a credible partner has emerged in Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. He has overseen radical improvements in governing institutions in the Palestinian West Bank, maintained a tenuous popularity while eschewing the cult-of-personality surrounding his predecessor, and built local security forces that have arrested thousands of militants.
Yet, over the last year, the two sides have refused to even negotiate with one another. Israeli leadership has refused to talk unless there are “no preconditions” to negotiations, while Palestinians have asked for only a single precondition, the end to the expansion of Israeli settlements on the occupied West Bank that is to form the core of a hoped-for new Palestinian state.
The Israeli settlements are illegal under international law, represent a complication to further negotiations and, most of all, humiliate Palestinians who see their land as being gradually colonized in the same way that American pioneers once gobbled up Native American lands one homestead at a time. If Palestinian leader Abbas were to negotiate as settlement construction continued it would be seen as a catastrophic capitulation. The subsequent loss of popular support would represent a win for the militant forces in the Palestinian community and permanently cripple the Abbas government, Israel’s one and only partner in peace for the foreseeable future.
Without negotiations, however, there has been no progress toward the Palestinian dream of statehood, and Palestinians are understandably frustrated. With no hope of negotiations in the near future, Abbas has little choice but to pursue the only avenue available to him in furthering the Palestinian path to independence. And that brings us to impending U.N. vote…
There are two paths the Palestinians can take. The first is to seek recognition through the General Assembly, which would result in a landslide vote to recognize Palestine as a non-voting member of the U.N. The second path is to seek recognition through the Security Council, which would result in full Palestinian recognition were all the permanent members to agree.
Of course, the Security Council path is doomed to failure as the United States has promised to veto membership. Sadly, this is an ill-conceived stance by our government, which has, in recent years, taken an uncompromisingly pro-Israeli stance no matter the circumstances. Such a policy might be important domestically with an overwhelming percentage of the American public identifying more with the Israeli than Palestinian position, Jewish voters sensitive to the U.S.-Israeli relationship representing important voting blocs during election season, and a Congress willing to display more enthusiasm for Israeli leadership than their own, but it is not in the U.S. interest to embed itself permanently in the Palestinian consciousness as the main obstacle to their national aspirations.
Think for a second about perceptions of America in another predominately Muslim country — Albania. Opinion polls in Albania have revealed its populace to have one of the most favorable opinions of the United States in the world. While this is partly due to NATO’s intervention on behalf of Albanians in Kosovo during the 1990s, it is also due in large part to Albanian collective historical memory of the role played by Woodrow Wilson in advocating Albanian independence almost a hundred years ago.
The point is that while relations with Israel might be strained at time, the Israelis will always look to the U.S. as their most important backer. The Palestinians, however, will remember for generations the roadblocks thrown up by the U.S. in their quest for statehood. During my last blog entry, I advocated a lighter touch for U.S. policy in the Middle East. This week would be a good time to start by simply abstaining during any vote in the Security Council, even though, as I’ve written, it won’t happen.
While diplomats behind the scenes have pressured Palestinian leadership to settle for a vote in the General Assembly, Abbas made clear today that his intention is to go through the Security Council first. This is unfortunate, because the result will be more self-inflicted ill will brought about by a U.S. veto, and more frustration on the part of the Palestinian populace.
Some commentators have suggested that procedural delays might string out the process over several months providing a window of opportunity for renewed negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. This is profoundly wishful thinking. As long as Israeli settlements continue to expand in the West Bank with nothing more than a shrug of indifference from the United States, there is no hope for a common solution and a permanent peace remains further away than ever.