Hearts and Minds With Palestine

Palestinian flag, May Day demo. Turin, 2012.

The UN vote on Palestinian statehood went pretty much as expected, with overwhelming agreement on supporting the proposed resolution. And today, Palestinians woke up just as stateless, just as occupied as they were before the vote. Does that mean that the whole episode was, as Israel has been trying to claim these past few days, much ado about nothing?

There is a view that leads to that conclusion; it is the frame that both the United States and Israel have tried to put around the Palestinian endeavor, that this was an attempt to circumvent negotiations and achieve statehood unilaterally, through the international community. That is, on its face, a purely nonsensical view, not least because the simple reality is that there is no Palestinian state, or any Palestinian rights unless Israel relents, or is made to do so, in its occupation and dominion over the Palestinians and their territories.

But this was never about that. Quite the opposite, in fact, it was Mahmoud Abbas last-ditch attempt to get the United States to finally make a real effort for a two-state solution and for Israel to finally have some incentive to agree to one. It was also his attempt to save his Palestinian Authority and the primacy of the Palestine Liberation Organization from the rising prestige of Hamas, which had just withstood another massive Israeli attack and won more concessions that impact the population at large from Israel than the PA had in nearly two decades.

Yet, as we can see from Israel’s defensive and combative reaction to the vote, there was considerably more here than that. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Abbas’ speech in advance of the vote was “full of dripping venom and false propaganda against the IDF and Israeli citizens. This is not how someone who wants peace speaks.” In fact, Abbas’ speech was more aggressive than his usual manner, and certainly made a Palestinian case with little lip service to the Israeli view, but there were no falsehoods in it, and he reaffirmed his recognition of Israel and support for a two-state solution.

Netanyahu’s defensiveness is understandable. For the first time, there was almost no European opposition to the Palestinian bid. Only the Czech Republic stood with Israel, followed by Canada, the United States, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, and Panama. Even that had been in doubt, as some expected the Czechs would follow Germany’s example and abstain. In the end they didn’t, but they did end up becoming the exception that proved the rule: on this issue, Israel had finally lost Europe.

This matters, as Israel does a great deal of business with European countries, business which is becoming increasingly uncomfortable for the Europeans. Heads of European states have no illusions about Israel’s intransigence, its imposition of intolerable conditions on peace talks, let alone an agreement and its arrogant behavior and callous disregard for the millions of people whom it deprives of basic rights on a constant basis.

Perhaps even hollower were the American condemnations. “Today’s unfortunate and counterproductive resolution places further obstacles in the path peace,” U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice said. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the vote “unfortunate” and “counterproductive.” The argument about the initiative being counterproductive and placing obstacles is based on the idea that Israel will now dig in its heels and be even more reluctant to engage in serious negotiations.

Local graffiti. Turin, April 2012.

That stance ignores reality to a stunning degree. No serious observer, no matter their views of the conflict, seriously believes that Netanyahu is interested in seeing a Palestinian state that is independent and viable in the West Bank and Gaza. His heels are digging in regardless, especially since his party has just filled its electoral list with radical right-wingers, demoted the relative moderates and is a virtual lock to lead the next government. Indeed, the continuing Israeli charge toward the extreme right makes it even clearer that only outside pressure will ever bring Israel to consider compromise.

There’s little doubt that Clinton realizes and understands this, but Washington cannot afford to give any ground to the international community. No US President wants to be seen as abdicating “leadership” on Middle East peace to the international community. Yet, for all that, Clinton had already made it clear that the US does not want to see the PA collapse, and so expected Israel to refrain from any serious punitive measures in response to this move (though it’s a pretty safe bet that Netanyahu had already thought of this and just used the US admonition for political cover.)

Palestinian flags and banners. Piazza Vittorio, May Day 2012.

For both the US and Israel , this was about the Palestinians making a move in the diplomatic arena that they could not counter. It’s a very unusual occurrence, one that hasn’t been seen in a very long time, perhaps not since 1974, when Yasser Arafat’s speech to the United Nations brought the Palestinian cause back to the international community and began the shift in the view of Middle East peace from an interstate context to the Israeli-Palestinian one. And, as a friend, Emily Hauser, tweeted in response to the UN vote, “Dear Israel, You know what could have prevented today’s UNGA vote? Honest negotiation at ANY POINT since ’93!” Israeli and US rejectionism led to the PLO, which had so long hoped that the US would bring Israel to the table in a sincere way, turning back to the UN and the international community more broadly out of desperation.

None of this is likely to augur a sudden change of heart in Israel or the United States. Indeed, there is little doubt that short term response will be great anger, as we see in the Israeli response and as was demonstrated in the US Senate, where a bipartisan bill calls for closing the PLO office in DC (again) and threatens to cut off all US aid to the PA if it ever tries to go to the International Criminal Court, as is now their right in the wake of Palestine’s upgraded UN status. However, in the longer term, once initial anger dies down, today’s vote will still be there, and it represents a permanent message from almost the entire world: we’ve had enough of the occupation and settlements, so figure out how to free the Palestinians.

The Palestinians themselves, as a people, got something else out of this, something quite significant. In a break from their prior attitude, Hamas ended up supporting this effort. That support was unequivocal and was directed at Abbas personally as well as at the idea. That means they shared in this victory. Abbas, for his part, spent as much time in his speech talking about Gaza as he did about the West Bank. It may amount to nothing, but it may also be the first real, sincere step toward Palestinian reunification. And if that should ever happen, it will be an additional building block in the push for resolving this vexing conflict once and for all.

Quite frankly, up until a few weeks ago, if you had suggested to me that the UNGA vote would have much effect, I’d have scoffed. In many ways, it was precisely because of Israel’s latest campaign of bombing Gaza that gave this event the weight it ended up having. And the truth of the matter is that the defensive and hostile response from Israel and American leaders is just the foot-stomping of children who have just realized they cannot do anything and everything they please any more. The world has made it clear that they are tired of an endless process which brings no peace, which diminishes the Palestinians’ standard of living, freedoms, rights and security.

The world is not going to sit back while the vast majority of Israelis, who may yet want a two-state solution, can live comfortably while their government robs the Palestinians of their rights. This happens not because the rest of the world is so noble, but because they recognize that this is a major source of instability and the political forces in the United States that force lock-step US support for this madness – a madness, one should note, that is driving Israel off a cliff at breakneck speed, into a future of apartheid, true pariah-like isolation, and eventually its own demise – either don’t exist or are not nearly as strong in other countries.

Today, a move toward global pressure on Israel to end its dispossession of another people and its holding them without basic rights may well have started. It’s high time people who want to see an end to Israel’s belligerent, land-grabbing, often paranoid and always self-destructive behavior come together to make sure it picks up momentum rather than losing it.


Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit

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