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Palestinian dreams and reality

December 03, 2012

AS Palestinians celebrate the vote at the UN upgrading their status at the world body, spare a thought for Israeli and American diplomats who have been labouring for months to block the move.

The fact that when it came to the vote on Thursday, the only American ally to stand with Washington was Canada. In Europe, France and Italy voted for Palestine, while unexpectedly, Germany and Britain abstained instead of supporting Israel, as they have traditionally done.

Overall, only nine states opposed the Palestinian bid while 138 supported it. There were 41 abstentions. Although resigned to the majority voting for Palestine, American and Israeli diplomacy aimed to persuade major democratic industrial countries to vote against, thereby robbing the notion of a Palestinian state of a degree of legitimacy. The eventual count came as a big disappointment for Israeli and American leaders.

But in reality, the vote reflects the growing unpopularity of Israel across much of the world. The accelerating colonisation of the West Bank, and the increasingly remote prospects of a viable Palestinian state, have disenchanted even staunch supporters of Israel. The recent conflict in Gaza is a reminder that the tiny territory remains an open-air prison where Palestinians are forced to live in squalor due to the Israeli siege.

While Hamas leaders in Gaza have welcomed the UN victory, they remain convinced that they will have to continue fighting. As Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas leader, said recently: “Negotiating without powerful cards on the ground has no meaning. It will turn into begging. This enemy doesn’t give anything unless under pressure.”

But if by ‘powerful cards’ Meshaal meant the rockets Hamas and Islamic Jihad launched at Israel recently, they turned out to be damp squibs in the face of the defences the IDF (Israeli Defence Force) mounted against them. The Iron Dome anti-missile system was a huge success, managing to shoot down well over 80 per cent of the rockets heading towards Israeli targets.

No, the real game changer in the Gaza conflict was the emergence of pro-Palestinian governments in the wake of the Arab Spring. As the days wore on and Hamas continued its defiance in the face of hundreds of Israeli air strikes, public anger in the region against Tel Aviv mounted.

In many Western countries, there was growing concern that the marginalisation of Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, could lead to an increase in the popularity of radical groups like Hamas. And Israel and the US have not given him anything to show his people as tangible benefits of his cooperation with Tel Aviv.

So several governments calculated that Palestine should at least win its bid for statehood at the UN, albeit as a non-member observer.

Clearly, the new Palestinian status at the UN will not lead to any dramatic change in the nature of the Israeli occupation. On the contrary, Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has used the UN vote to announce the construction of 3,000 new homes for settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But then Israel has never needed any excuses for its colonial expansion: there are already over half a million Israeli settlers living in the occupied West Bank.

While Israel’s desire to squash all Palestinian aspirations to statehood is understandable, the strong American opposition to the UN vote is more difficult to fathom. The reason given by American spokesmen is that the change in Palestinian status at the UN would make negotiations with Israel more complicated. This implies that there was an ongoing peace process that was in danger of being derailed.

Nothing could be further from the truth. For years now, even talks about talks have been in the doldrums. Ever since President Obama raised Palestinian hopes early in his first tenure, he has done nothing but disappoint by rolling over constantly before Israeli obduracy.

WINNING PLOY: Netanyahu has hit upon the winning ploy of threatening to bomb Iran to divert attention from the issue of peace talks. Now, whenever there is any talk of a Palestinian state, all he has to do is leak a story about the IDF’s preparations for an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.

So clearly, the Palestinians had nothing to gain by waiting for the US to persuade Israel to negotiate seriously. And Israel has been using this interregnum to continue building and expanding settlements, thereby creating ‘facts on the ground’ that will make it impossible for a Palestinian state to ever become a viable entity.

The advantage of the change at the UN is that it gives the contours of the future Palestinian state: finally, a legal document approved by the world body declares that the pre-1967 boundary will separate Israel from Palestine. The vote will also place pressure on Hamas and Fatah to reconcile their differences so a joint negotiating position can be achieved. Their squabbling has presented Israel with an excuse to avoid talks. Hamas needs to formally accept the existence of the state of Israel within its legal borders if they are to be taken as a serious partner in peace talks.

As ceasefire talks in Cairo between Israel and Hamas, with Egyptian mediation, showed, President Morsi is now a major player in future negotiations. Hamas needs his support too badly to ignore him if he suggests moderation. He is also well placed to effect a reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah.

Paradoxically, just as Israel is at its strongest militarily, it is more isolated than ever. Turkey, its only major Muslim ally, is now hostile to Tel Aviv. Syria, a non-combatant foe, is in a flux, and an anti-Israel government could well emerge there. The Jordanian throne is increasingly shaky. And as the stream of important visitors to Gaza during the Israeli bombardment showed, Palestinians are no longer as isolated as they were.

We can see why Israel is fighting this tide: the leaders of the Jewish state see it as a matter of survival. But the United States is choosing to alienate millions in an important region at a critical time in its political evolution. It would have been viewed as less biased had it not taken such an unnecessarily hard line at the UN. So those who expect Obama to be more even-handed in his second term are going to be disappointed again.