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Richard Falk
Richard Falk
Richard Falk is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.
Reflections on the Abbas statehood speech
Regional developments that increasingly support Palestine may be Israel's historic opportunity for sustainable peace.
Last Modified: 04 Oct 2011 08:58
Mahmoud Abbas received several standing ovations from many of the assembled delegates [REUTERS]

There is a natural disposition for supporters of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination to suppose that the Palestinian statehood bid must be a positive initiative, because it has generated such a frantic Israeli effort to have it rejected. Despite the high costs to United States diplomacy in the Middle East at this time of regional tumult and uncertainty, the US has committed itself to exercise its veto on Israel’s behalf if that turns out to be necessary. To avoid the humiliation of disregarding the overwhelming majority opinion of most governments in the world, the US has rallied the former European colonial powers to stand by its side, while leaning on Bosnia and Colombia to abstain, thereby hoping to deny Palestine the nine votes it needs for a Security Council decision, without technically casting a veto.

On the side of Palestinian statehood, one finds China, Russia, India, South Africa, Brazil, Lebanon, Nigeria, and Gabon, the leading countries of the South, the main peoples previously victimised by colonial rule. Is not a comparison of these geopolitical alignments sufficient by itself to resolve the issue of taking sides on such a litmus test of political identity? The old West versus the new South.

Add to this the drama, eloquence, and forthrightness of Mahmoud Abbas’s historic speech of September 23 to the General Assembly, which received standing ovations from many of the assembled delegates. Such a favourable reception was reinforced by its contrast with the ranting polemic delivered by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who insulted the UN by calling it "the theatre of the absurd" while offering nothing of substance that might make even mildly credible his strident rhetoric claim to support "peace," "direct negotiations" and "a Palestinian state". The deviousness of Netanyahu was made manifest when, a few days later, the Israeli government announced that it had approved 1,100 additional housing units in the major settlement of Gilo, east of Jerusalem. This was a bridge too far even for Hillary Clinton, who called the move "counter-productive" and which Europeans regarded as deeply disappointing and confidence-destroying - so much so that Netanyahu was openly asked to reverse the decision.

Security Council recommendation

There are a variety of other indications that additional settlement expansion and ethnic cleansing initiatives will be forthcoming in the weeks ahead. Are not such expressions of Israeli defiance that embarrasses even their most ardent governmental supporter enough reason by itself to justify a Security Council recommendation of Palestine statehood at this time? Would it not be worthwhile at this crucial moment to demonstrate the wide chasm separating increasing global support for the pursuit of justice on behalf of the Palestinian people from this domestically driven US reliance on its ultimate right of veto to block Palestinian aspirations? Would it not be well to remind Americans across the country, including even its captive Congress, that its own Declaration of Independence wisely counselled "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind"?

If ever the use of the veto seems ill-advised and deeply illegitimate, it is in this instance, which the Obama administration seems to acknowledge. Otherwise why would it use its leverage to induce allies and dependent states to go along with its opposition to Palestinian membership in the UN?

Turning to the speech itself, the language of recognition may be more notable than the substance. Never before in an international forum had the voice of the Palestinian Authority spoke of Israel’s occupation policies so unabashedly - as "colonial", as involving "ethnic cleansing", as imposing an unlawful "annexation wall", as creating a new form of "apartheid". With admirable directness, Israel was accused of carrying out the occupation in a manner that violated fundamental rules of international humanitarian law, and cumulatively amounted to the commission of crimes against humanity.

In the course of his speech Abbas tried hard to reassure the Palestinian diaspora on two matters of deep concern: that the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) will continue to represent the Palestinian people, who are the ultimate beneficiaries of the most fundamental of Palestinian rights at stake, the right of self-determination. The issue here is lost on almost all observers of the conflict, that the Palestinian Authority (PA), of which Abbas is president, is a subsidiary body that was created by the PLO with a temporary mandate to administer Palestinian territory under occupation, and thus it was important to allay suspicions that the PLO was an intended casualty of the statehood bid - so as to territorialise the conflict and give the Abbas and PA leadership complete representational control over the Palestinian role at the UN.

Straightforward language

The deep concern here relates to the adequacy of representation relating to the Palestinians living in refugee camps in neighbouring Arab countries or in exile around the world. In the Palestinian National Council, 483 of its 669 members are drawn from Palestinians not living under occupation. President Abbas used the clearest possible language to reaffirm the position of the PLO just prior to enumerating the five conditions guiding his leadership role: "I confirm, on behalf of the PLO, the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, which will remain so until the end of the conflict in all its aspects and until the resolution of the final status issues..."

In the background of this representation issue is an anxiety that Palestinian refugee rights will be forgotten or marginalised in the course of striking a deal that is build around a "land for peace" formula. Again, Abbas inserted some reassuring language in his speech to the effect that peace will depend on "a just and agreed upon solution to the Palestine refugee issue in accordance with resolution 194," which unconditionally affirmed a Palestinian right of return. Relevantly, Netanyahu in his speech alluded to the "fantasy of flooding Israel with millions of Palestinians", which is his way of both dismissing the rights of Palestinian refugees, especially as derived from the massive dispossession of Palestinian in 1948, and insisting on the Palestinian recognition of Israel as "a Jewish state". This insistence combines demographics with democracy, contending that ever since the promise of Lord Balfour on behalf of the British government to a leader of the Zionist movement in 1917 there were continual acknowledgements that Israel was a Jewish state.

Netanyahu made short shrift of the claims to dignity and equality of the 1.5m Palestinians existing under an array of discriminatory burdens - by saying merely that Israel treats its minorities in a manner that respects their human rights. It should be recalled that the Balfour declaration, a notoriously colonial disposition, did not promise the Jewish people a state, but rather "a national home", and that it was to be established in a manner that did not interfere with the "civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine". Human rights and democracy have become significantly universalised during the past several decades. This development implies that the governing structures of society embodied in the state must renounce any claim of ethnic or religious particularity.

Religious declaration

Political legitimacy in the 21st century should not be accorded to any state that claims to be a Jewish state, an Islamic state, or a Christian state. Such statist neutrality should be set forth as an element of legitimate statehood by formal action at the United Nations. Such a declaration would impose a limit on the right of self-determination by denying to peoples the right to establish ethnic or religious states. In a globalising world, ethnic and religious diversity are present in every major state, and this needs to be respected by unfurling a banner of equality that grants religious freedom to all faiths and allows collective identities to be expressed without prejudice.

For some widely respected Palestinian activists and NGOs, these assurances were not enough. With the formidable intellectual support of Oxford professor, Guy Goodwin-Gill, the very idea of Palestinian statehood compromises the representational rights of diaspora Palestinians within UN arenas of decision - and potentially deforms future negotiations by according predominance to territorial priorities. Goodwin-Gill’s analysis was built around the general view that a state could never adequately represent people outside its borders.

Given existing realities, this would mean disenfranchising the Palestinian refugee and exile population that comprises a majority of "the Palestinian people" who are as a collectivity the holder of the overarching entitlement embodied in the right of self-determination. Such a view may be technically correct, and operationally prudent, but it overstates the clarity of the legal implications of Palestinian statehood and UN membership, while understating the degree to which what is being questioned are the psycho-political priorities of the current PA/PLO leadership.  

To further strengthen and promote the unity of the Palestinian global solidarity movement, it is crucial to continue to seek accommodation between territorial and non-territorial dimensions of the Palestinian struggle, and thus to minimise intra-Palestinian divergences, including the ongoing rift with Hamas. Here again Abbas had some reassuring words to say about the future implementation of the reconciliation agreement reached between the PLO and Hamas in June, but the failure of Hamas to endorse the statehood/membership bid at this time raises doubts about whether cooperation between these two political tendencies of Palestinians living under occupation will be forthcoming in the future.

There are, against this background, some further grounds for concern that result from gaps or disappointing formulations in the Abbas speech. One glaring gap was the failure to address the accountability issues associated with the non-implemented recommendations of the Goldstone Report, arising out of war crimes allegations associated with massive attacks (Israeli code named "Operation Cast Lead") on Gaza between December 27, 2008 and January 18, 2009. In an important statement issued by the Palestinian Centre of Human Rights, jointly with several respected human rights NGOs, the PLO was given responsibility for doing their best to see that these recommendations for referral to the International Criminal Court be carried out. 

In the words of the statement: "Should the PLO choose not to pursue the accountability process initiated by the Report of the UN Fact-Finding Mission - at the expense of the Statehood initiative - this will amount to the prioritisation of political processes over victims’ fundamental rights; indicating acceptance of the pervasive impunity that characterises the situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory."

International law

Although implicit in the Abbas speech, the systematic refusal of Israel to comply with international law, was not accorded the emphasis in deserves. Given this reality, it was comic irony for Netanyahu to invoke international law in relation to the captivity of a single Israel soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit; of course, international law should be observed in relation to every person, but when Israel subjects the whole of Gaza to a punitive blockade that has lasted for more than four years, imprisons thousands of Palestinians in conditions below international legal standards, and refuses to implement the near unanimous Advisory Opinion of the World Court on the unlawfulness of its annexation wall, it has lost all credibility to rely on international law on those few occasions when it works to its advantage.

Even more disturbing, because so relevant to the present posture of the conflict, was the rather bland expression of willingness on the part of the PLO to resume direct negotiations - provided that Israel imposes "a complete cessation of settlement activities". As there is no chance that this condition will be met, it may not be so important for Abbas to question the value of direct negotiations, given their repeated failure to move the parties any closer to peace during the past 18 years. In fact, Israel has cloaked settlement expansion, ethnic cleansing, and a variety of encroachments on what might have at one time become a viable Palestinian state, with the charade of periodic peace talks held under the non-neutral auspices of the United States.

What Abbas could have done more effectively, given the unlikelihood of an affirmative Security Council recommendation on UN membership, is to couple the statehood/membership bid with the demand of a new framework for future negotiations which includes both Israeli commitments to abandon settlement expansion in East Jerusalem as well as the West Bank, and more importantly, selects a state or regional organisation to provide non-partisan auspices for the talks. Such a demand would have made clear that the PLO/PA was no longer willing to play along with the Oslo game that has more than doubled the settler population and allowed Israel to invest in an expensive settler-only infrastructure that is unlikely to be ever voluntarily dismantled. It is past time to declare the Oslo framework of direct negotiations as terminally ill, futile, and illegitimate, and incapable of drafting a roadmap that leads anywhere worth going. For the UN to be one of the four Quartet members, especially given the American hegemonic control over the diplomacy on the conflict, also warranted a harsh comment by Abbas.

In Depth

More from Richard Falk:

  Statehood versus 'facts on the ground'
  Chapter VII: a loophole for imperialists?
  Why the Afghanistan war won't end soon
  Warfare and limits: a losing battle?
  Sovereignty revisited as interventions grow

What the future holds is more uncertain than ever. The mainstream media has tended to criticise both Israel and the PA/PLO asif their respective behaviour was equivalent. For instance, the Palestinian statehood/membership initiative is treated as equally provocative as the Israeli announced intention to expand the unlawful Gilo settlement. Such an attitude does belong in the "theatre of the absurd", equating a completely legal, arguably overdue plea to be given an upgraded status at the UN with a criminal encroachment on basic Palestinian rights associated with territory under occupation, as recognised by Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The equating of what is grossly unequal is a common form of misrepresentation in relation to the Israel/Palestine conflict, making Israeli violent forms defiance of international law somehow no more objectionable than Palestinian nonviolent pursuit of diplomatic options.

Whether Israel will follow through on its threats to "punish" the PA for undertaking this completely legal initiative remains to be seen. Already there is troublesome indications of widespread settler violence in the West Bank that is either unopposed or backed by Israeli military and security units. As has been observed by the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, Israel will never have a more moderate partner for peace than the Ramallah leadership, and if it undermines its viability it will be demonstrating once again that it has lost its capacity to promote its national interests. It has shown this aspect of decline most dramatically by picking a fight with a resurgent Turkey, and then missing one opportunity after another to repair the damage, which is what Ankara hoped would happen.

As regional developments move toward greater support for the Palestinian struggle, Israel is allowing what might have been a historic opportunity for a sustainable peace to slip away. An acute problem with extremism, whether of the Likud or Tea Party variety, is that it subordinates interests and rationality to the dictates of an obsessive and emotive vision that is incapable of calculating the balance of gains and losses in conflict situations, being preoccupied with all or nothing outcomes, which is the antithesis of diplomacy. This is a path that inevitably produces acute human suffering and often leads to disaster. It is time for Israelis to abandon such a path, for their own sake, and for the sake of others.

Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Research Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has authored and edited numerous publications spanning a period of five decades. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).

He is currently serving his fourth year of a six-year term as a United Nations special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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