Can Palestine’s Bid for UN Statehood Revive the National Movement?
Graham Usher, The Nation
As we go to press, the Palestinian Authority has announced it will request full membership as a state at the UN Security Council. If Washington vetoes the move or the PA backs down, the Palestinians will probably seek a status upgrade at the General Assembly, from observer to nonmember observer state.
The PA’s appeal to the world body arises from the collapse of a two-decade Oslo “peace process” that has brought the Palestinians neither peace nor a state. But there is confusion at the heart of the move: is it an elaborate ruse to strengthen the PA’s hand in negotiations, or is it a new diplomatic strategy grounded in international law and political mobilization but born of the opportunities opened by the Arab revolutions?
It’s certainly a risk. Any bid before the Security Council will incur not only a US veto but Congressional sanctions and Israeli retaliation, including a possible ban on transfer of PA revenues to pay its 180,000 employees. Even an upgrade, which carries a lesser status, could incur Israeli reprisals. And both could trigger violence in the occupied territories and beyond. UN membership is said to be the preference of PA president Mahmoud Abbas, his Fatah movement, most Palestinians and the Arab League. The upgrade already has the support of most nations at the General Assembly, including several European states. The EU’s official position as a bloc, however, is to support a return to negotiations.
The Obama administration sees both a veto and a no vote as a train wreck. Either action would deepen—at a time of revolutionary upheaval—the already widespread Arab perception of America as Israel’s defender and Palestine’s enemy. Embassies in Cairo and Damascus have been burned for less. Former Saudi US ambassador Turki al-Faisal has warned that if Washington vetoes a Palestinian state, it will lose Saudi Arabia, historically its closest Arab ally.
The PA’s turn to the UN is an act of last resort. Since Obama was elected there have been just two weeks of PA-Israeli negotiations. Obama’s last throw on the PA’s part was a plea last year for Israel to obey a partial freeze on settlement construction. Israel refused, for the third time. Obama later vetoed a unanimous Security Council resolution calling for a freeze, something that had been Washington policy.
UN membership would strengthen the PA legally and politically. Even an upgrade may allow it to join bodies like the International Criminal Court; there, say legal experts, it could potentially prosecute Israel for grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, including the illegal transfer of settlers into occupied territory. The PA also knows that an overwhelming show of support for nonmember observer state status would not only strengthen its claim to eventual statehood. It would expose the United States and Israel as the real holdouts in the conflict, and “finally extract a price for US shameless pandering to Israel,” says Palestinian analyst Rashid Khalidi.
It could also help revive mass grassroots activism, which had largely vanished from the Palestinian struggle. In May refugees from Syria, Lebanon, Israel and the territories marched in protests commemorating the Nakba, the dispossession and exile caused by Israel’s creation. Similar marches are planned around the UN bid. Activists say the aim is not simply to endorse “a last chance for a two-state solution,” as PA slogans put it. Indeed, some activists worry that the UN move could weaken the Palestine Liberation Organization’s status as the representative of the Palestinian people as a whole, and especially the refugees’ right of return. But others see the bid as a potential mobilizer to unite a people that during the Oslo era became “un-nationed” into its fragments: West Bankers, Gazans, East Jerusalemites, Israeli Palestinians and stateless refugees. To them, the UN move is part of a new strategy that replaces the Oslo paradigm of unequal and bilateral negotiations with international law, popular protest, regional solidarity and national unity.
Is this the PA’s vision? For many in the current leadership, the UN bid is not about the death of Oslo but its resurrection. Abbas has said he would scrap the UN move if only Washington would compel Israel to return to negotiations based on 1967 lines and a settlement freeze. He has also said he will return to negotiations no matter what happens at the UN.
More seriously, he has stalled reconciliation talks with Hamas for fear they would harm international (read US and European) support at the UN. For many Palestinians, the rapprochement with the Islamists not only ended the conflict between rival authorities; it paved the way for new PA elections in the territories, and the hope of a democratically reconstituted PLO beyond them. The partial collapse in unity talks has aroused suspicions among some Palestinians that Abbas’s UN move is less about reinvigorating the national cause than retaining political control.
Likening the PA’s UN bid to the Arab revolutions is attractive but facile. Palestinians’ primary enemy is not autocracy; it is occupation. And their primary goal is not democracy; it is freedom. Where their struggle chimes with those of their kin in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria is in the fact that no change will come via leaderships or alliances that remain wedded to the ancien régime. If the UN bid really marks a break with a negotiating paradigm based on US control, Israeli domination and Palestinian retreat, then it may be the start of a new strategy. But if it is only brinkmanship meant to force a US-guided return to negotiations on slightly better terms, then it is the ancien régime dressed in new UN clothes. That paradigm was tried for twenty years, and the only thing it delivered was US-guaranteed impunity for Israel to colonize another people’s country. It’s as over as Oslo.
Many Palestinians feel the newest version of the bid for statehood no longer represents them and their interests.
Omar Barghouti, al Jazeera
“The Palestinian declaration of independence practically constitutes a victory for Israel’s declaration of independence, and this is why Israelis must celebrate in the streets and be the first to recognise Palestinian independence, calling on the world to follow suit.”
– Sefi Rachlevsky, Yedioth Ahronoth, September 5, 2011 (Israeli writer who led a recent Israeli delegation that met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to urge him to go forward with the statehood bid at the UN)
“Palestine 194” is the name of a campaign called for by Palestinian officials to drum up support for their “September Initiative”, or bid for statehood, in the hope that “Palestine” would become the 194th member of the UN. This same number, however, has historic connotations for the people of Palestine. It has been etched in our collective consciousness as the UN General Assembly resolution stipulating the right of the Palestinian refugees – most of whom were forcibly displaced and dispossessed during the 1948 Nakba by Zionist militias and later the state of Israel – to return to their homes and properties.
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.
Replacing the PLO
Practically speaking, there is no possibility for Palestine to become a full member of the UN so long as the US has a veto power in the Security Council and the US Congress and White House remain in full partnership (regardless whether the dog wags the tail or the other way around) with Israel, even with its present far-right government.
What is left of the initiative, other than replacing the PLO, one way or another, with the presumed state of Palestine at the UN? If this is not the case, why can’t Palestinian officials provide the people with concrete, rational assurances to the contrary to secure mass support for this endeavor?
And if the most parroted goal of having Palestine recognised as a state is to pursue legal channels to hold Israel accountable to international law, why has the Palestinian leadership squandered the 2004 ruling of the International Court of Justice against Israel’s wall and colonies? Why has it tried to bury the UN Goldstone Report on Israel’s assault on Gaza and, when it was forced to reverse itself, did absolutely nothing to follow up on the report’s recommendations, adopted by the UN?
The PLO remains the sole legitimate representative of all Palestinians, regardless of their location. This includes Palestinians under occupation in Gaza and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem); Palestinian refugees, both in exile and in historic Palestine, who constitute a majority of the people of Palestine; and Palestinian citizens of Israel, the indigenous minority that remained steadfast during the Nakba of 1948 when most Palestinians were uprooted and dispossessed by Zionist militias and later the state of Israel. The PLO, as such, is the embodiment of the Palestinian right to self determination which all Palestinians are entitled to.
The UN has consistently recognised the Palestinian people, regardless of place of residence, as “the principal party to the question of Palestine”, as the prominent Oxford University legal authority, Guy Goodwin-Gil, has argued. “It is thus the people of Palestine, as a whole,” he adds, “who possess the right to return and the right to self-determination.”
The September Initiative has left so many questions unanswered regarding how it purports to protect the representation of Palestinian refugees, let alone Palestinian citizens of Israel, and to defend the Palestinian people’s inalienable rights. Goodwin-Gill’s argues convincingly that, while the PLO represents, at least nominally, all Palestinians (including the refugee majority), thereby protecting our collective right to self determination, a Palestinian state cannot claim to represent refugees outside its “borders”, thus making their claim to the right of return and participation in self determination (both protected by international law) that much more difficult to assert.
Cognizant of the central role the PLO plays in the struggle for Palestinian rights, Israel has for quite some time been propping up the PA at the expense of the PLO, in a calculated attempt to circumscribe the rights that Palestinians can claim through the latter. The Reut Institute, an Israeli think tank closely connected to the Israeli establishment, has as early as 2005 openly advocated in a policy paper switching “the official Palestinian interlocutor from the PLO to the PA in order to facilitate the establishment of a Palestinian state with provisional borders”, to better fit Israel’s expansionist agenda.
The Reut paper accurately lays out the advantages expected for Israel from such a switch of the Palestinian representative, “The PLO, as the representative of the entire Palestinian People, will likely demand the expansion of the agenda of the political process to include issues pertaining to the entire Palestinian people such as the issue of Palestinian Refugees or Jerusalem; whereas the PA, if recognised as the formal interlocutor, is likely to limit the agenda of the political process to issues affecting its residents in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and, to a certain extent, East Jerusalem.”
Some Palestinian analysts have opined that we must endorse the Initiative and try, from within, so to speak, to contribute to its formulation in a way that can protect our rights. The obvious flaw in this path is two-fold. Given the lack of democratic mandate and accountability mechanisms for the current, unelected Palestinian leadership, no one can guarantee any significant influence on its decisions and whimsical adventures.
What have 20 years of the ‘peace process’ accomplished?
This September marks the 20th anniversary of the failed “peace process”. Hoping to escape accountability, especially in light of the budding Arab Spring and the related sharpening assertiveness among Palestinian youth everywhere, the same Palestinian officials responsible for this failure now want us to believe that they are going to the UN to advance the struggle for our rights.
Why haven’t they done so, one can only wonder, during the endless rounds of so-called negotiations, while Israel was busy entrenching its colonial presence in the oPT?
During twenty years of talks, used by Israel to cover up its systematic pillage of Palestinian land, especially in occupied Jerusalem, the Naqab (Negev) and the Jordan Valley, whole communities of Palestinians were ethnically cleansed or incarcerated behind a land-grabbing wall that denies them access to livelihood and land. Gaza was pulverised by an unprecedented, deadly air, land and sea assault and remains under a brutal, illegal siege. Racist laws have mushroomed in Israel, further denying Palestinian citizens their rights and aggravating their misery under Israel’s system of racial discrimination which completely fits the UN definition of apartheid. Palestinian refugees have remained deprived of their inalienable, UN-protected right to return to their homes and lands from which they were ethnically cleansed in 1948.
This could not have happened without the veneer of normalcy offered to Israel by a pliant Palestinian leadership that lacks vision, skills and principles, and that has categorically rejected and undermined every form of resistance, including non-violent methods, as a means to achieve Palestinian rights.
Why should anyone trust this same “leadership” to defend our rights?
Moreover, as we have learned from the South African struggle against apartheid, diplomatic initiatives, even the most well-intended, cannot on their own restore rights or end colonial injustice; in order to win our rights, we must apply sustained, morally-consistent, effective pressure against our oppressor, both from within and internationally. Effective resistance coupled with global solidarity is the key to freedom, justice and self determination.
Instead of seeking to weaken Israel’s regime of occupation and apartheid to compel it to recognise our rights, the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, during a recent address to a group of Israeli intellectuals urging him to proceed with his UN bid, declared, “We don’t want to isolate Israel”.
He assured his audience that, as long as he remained in office, security coordination between the PA and Israel will continue, in order “to prevent terror and keep the situation calm and quiet”. The spokesman of the Israeli delegation, notable writer Sefi Rachlevski, was quoted in Yedioth Ahronoth on September 5saying, “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.”
Palestinians have a right to statehood, but this is only one channel for expressing our far more fundamental and inclusive right to self determination.
Palestine’s rights according to international law
UNGA Resolution 3236, of 22 November 1974, elevated the applicability of the universally respected right to self determination to the people of Palestine to an “inalienable” right. Resolution 3236 “reaffirms the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people in Palestine, including: (a) The right to self-determination without external interference; (b) The right to national independence and sovereignty.”
It also reaffirms “the inalienable right of the Palestinians to return to their homes and property from which they have been displaced and uprooted, and calls for their return,” and emphasises that “full respect for and the realisation of these inalienable rights of the Palestinian people are indispensable for the solution of the question of Palestine.”
A morally-consistent, rights-based approach to resolving the question of Palestine, therefore, necessitates addressing these inalienable rights of the indigenous people of Palestine.
Adhering to a discourse based on human rights and international law, the Palestinian BDS National Committee, BNC, by far the largest coalition of Palestinian civil society groups, has raised serious concerns about the September initiative’s safeguarding of the right of return and the PLO’s status, while welcoming international recognition of our right to statehood.
In an important statement, the BNC said:
“Diplomatic recognition must result in protection of the inalienable right to self-determination of the entire Palestinian people represented by a democratised and inclusive PLO that represents not just Palestinians under occupation, but also the exiled refugees, the majority of the Palestinian people, as well as the discriminated citizens of Israel. For it to go beyond symbolism, this recognition must be a prelude to effective and sustained sanctions against Israel aimed at bringing about its full compliance with its obligations under international law.
In light of the above, and inspired by the will and the power of the people which have given rise to the Arab spring, the BNC calls upon people of conscience and international solidarity groups to proceed with building a mass BDS movement … before and after September.”
Fatah leaders in the Nablus region of the West Bank distributed on August 28 a statement raising the same key concerns:
“The right to self-determination is a collective right of all Palestinians, irrespective of their geographic location … All diplomatic initiatives, including the initiative at the United Nations this September, must preserve the status of the PLO as the sole representative in the United Nations and protect and advance the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people.”
Prominent Palestinian civil society figures, in turn, independently published a statement (Arabic) that resonates with the BNC’s concerns above. So has Stop the Wall, a respected grassroots campaign against Israel’s wall and colonies.
At a time of Israeli impunity and intensifying colonialism, occupation and apartheid, a principled Palestinian leadership would follow the example of Mandela and Gandhi, leading the masses in popular resistance and inspiring effective and sustained international solidarity in order to tip the balance of powers – a necessary condition for exercising our UN-sanctioned rights.
Ignoring the will of the people and potentially sacrificing their basic rights in order to secure some illusory advantages at the “negotiations” table hurts Palestinian interests and endangers the great advances our popular and civil struggle has achieved to date, particularly as a result of the global BDS movement. It would in effect reduce the Arab Spring to a Palestinian autumn.
Going to the UN should be strongly supported by all Palestinians – and, consequently, by solidarity groups worldwide – if done by a trusted, democratically elected, accountable leadership and if it expressly represents the will of the Palestinian people and our collective right to self determination.
Alas, neither condition is met in the current “September Initiative,” which may end up replacing the “194” we’ve always struggled to implement with a “194” that is little more than another irresponsible leap away from accountability and from the inevitable repercussions of the sweeping Arab Spring.
Omar Barghouti is an independent Palestinian analyst and human rights activist based in Palestine.