Five lessons learned from Palestinian UN bid

The statehood bid didn’t change the occupation, but it did force international players to show their cards.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has refused to stop building illegal settlements [GALLO/GETTY]

Editor’s note: In light of the recent show-down at the UN, analyst Yousef Munayyer makes some observations on the state of the Palestinian struggle.

1. Washington is broken and won’t be fixed any time soon

The Palestinians came to the United Nations in the hopes of putting forward a membership application because they had come to understand that domestic dynamics in the United States made it impossible for Washington to be an even-handed broker. If the Obama administration can’t get Netanyahu’s right-wing government to halt settlement expansion – an Israeli obligation under international law and the US-initiated Road Map for Peace – how could they possibly press Netanyahu to dismantle settlements, divide Jerusalem and admit refugees when the time came to get serious?

The United States is an exceptional place and it is a country that believes in its exceptionalism. Washington likes to believe it can do anything, and it can do and has done many things. But there is one thing it simply cannot do and that is even-handedly broker a deal between Israel and Palestinians. This has to do almost entirely with US domestic politics. Whether you blame the Israel lobby or accept the narrative that Americans en masse have a special connection with Israel, there is no doubt that America is solidly in Israel’s corner.

The Israelis have long since recognised this; that is why they insist no other state or alliance of states mediates this conflict. Most Palestinians have long since recognised this and now, after 20 years of failed negotiations, even those among the Palestinians which have been most committed to a US-led peace process have come to the same conclusion.

If there was any doubt about how Washington’s domestic politics handicaps its ability to broker, it was erased by President Obama’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly. Without even a modicum of recognition of Palestinians’ suffering and without one word of condemnation for Israeli colonialism, President Obama rang in the US election season.

Might this change in the future? Sure. There are certainly signs that indicate that Americans in general are becoming more educated about the Palestinian plight and are becoming more hesitant to automatically support Israel’s every move. Yet this nascent change has not transcended into the level of America’s political elite, and lawmakers are probably as solidly pro-Israel today as they have ever been. Continued Israeli intransigence, colonisation and massacres such as the 2008-2009 war on Gaza might expedite this process, but Palestinians cannot afford to wait until American policy actually changes. For Palestinians, there is already too little of Palestine left to wait another day.

Every credible Republican candidate for president in 2012 is hammering Obama for being too hard on Israel when in reality he has defended Israel at every critical juncture and made military aid to Israel the single largest expenditure in the 2010 foreign aid budget. Obama, who came to Cairo backed with the “hope and change” momentum that put him in office, was at the same time secretly providing Israel with one-tonne bombs months after the war on Gaza. Can you imagine the political storm Obama would be embroiled in if he actually exerted any real pressure on Israel?

Because of these domestic politics, the Palestinians have realised what the Israelis have long sought after: the reality that Washington won’t make Israel do what is necessary to create a Palestinian state. Frankly, it’s about time.

2. Palestinian unity is a necessity

Many people might put the beginning of divisions in the Palestinian polity at 2006 when the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) routed Fatah in Legislative Council elections. In reality, divisions have been developing for decades – in large part due to the decaying of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and its unofficial marriage to the Palestinian Authority.

For months, PLO Chairman and Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas travelled the world in the hopes of securing votes and recognition for Palestinian statehood. The PLO leadership executed a series of complex and calculated diplomatic manoeuvres to bring Palestine’s case for statehood to the United Nations. Indeed, this was planned for some time and required a significant investment of time from the leadership. Yet, when the moment of truth arrived and when Palestine’s case was brought before the UN, despite dramatic pressure from the United States and its allies, the Palestinians, who needed more than ever to be united, were split on this critical issue.

Palestinians carry a chair, representing their seat at the United Nations, during a rally in the West Bank city of Ramallah [REUTERS]

Hamas refused to endorse the statehood bid and much of the Palestinian diaspora, as well as advocates on behalf of Palestinian refugees, did not back the endeavour because they either believed it would leave them disenfranchised or that it would fail to change the status quo. In the mere weeks prior to the confrontation in New York, an intense legal debate was taking place over whether or not this statehood bid would jeopardise various Palestinian rights.

Regardless of what one’s position or political affiliation is, it is hard to deny that the UN bid underscores the significant challenge facing Palestinians: the desperate need for reformed and representative institutions to speak for them. As Palestinians brace for what is to come and formulate strategy on how best to achieve their goals, there has never been a better or more urgent moment for Palestinian leaders and advocates of all stripes to unite in the face of Israeli occupation.

Mahmoud Abbas made important strides toward aligning himself with Palestinian public opinion and popular regional sentiments by standing up to the United States under pressure and delivering a strong speech at the UNGA. This is the kind of stance that most Palestinians can unite behind as they have grown tired of the failed strategy of negotiations. He could be doing himself and Palestinians a favour if he takes this opportunity to create a broad and representative coalition of allies, based on confronting the Israeli occupation despite its main sponsor the United States. Of course, his words must be followed by actions.

3. Security collaboration is very valuable to Israel

The extremely pro-Israel Chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, did her best impression of the big, bad wolf when she convened a hearing the week before the UN General Assembly and invited some of the most right-wing analysts on this issue to testify on the question of cutting aid to the Palestinian Authority in the wake of the UN bid. But as much as the Chairwoman, her pro-Israel colleagues and the witnesses huffed and puffed, no one was ready to blow the PA house down.

Why? Well, as a number of the witness pointed out, the prospect of cutting aid to the PA meant the likely collapse of the US-funded and trained PA security apparatus which is in close and consistent communication with the IDF on security.

A Palestinian woman holds up a sticker which reads: “UN 194 Palestinian State” during a rally in support of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas [REUTERS]

At a time when the Palestinians were moving to further isolate Israel in the international community by requesting statehood at the UN, the Israel-friendly US Congress was hog-tied. They couldn’t use PA funding as leverage because of the risk it posed to Israel, and if there was any doubt, one only had to read a report from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs supporting continued aid to the PA despite the UN bid. Ultimately, Congress may have passed non-binding resolutions on the PA aid issue, but it’s unlikely they will use the power of the purse in ways that might indirectly cost Israel.

What this means is that the Palestinians have gained a better understanding of the precise value of security collaboration with the Israelis. It is clear that Israel would rather risk further isolation than risk losing PA security collaboration. One of the main reasons why the occupation persists is because Israel reaps the benefits of the occupation including land and water resources, but pays minimal costs in exchange.

Completely disbanding Palestinian security so that chaos ensues will not help anyone, especially not the Palestinians, but there is also no sense in the Palestinians providing Israel with cost-free security and getting nothing in return – except continued settlement expansion. Now that it is clear just how valuable this security coordination with the Israelis is, the Palestinians should use it for leverage and halt all coordination.

4. Israel is vulnerable to international isolation, but so is Washington

Remember in February when the US Ambassador to the United Nations essentially vetoed US policy on Israeli settlements when she cast the lone “no” vote in a UN Security Council session? Fourteen states voted for the resolution and only the United States voted against, even though the resolution was actually pieced together from statements made by US officials. It was not an unfamiliar position for the United States. In fact, before that veto, the United States has been the sole veto on 41 previous UN Security Council resolutions condemning Israeli violations of international law since 1972.

But something was different this time. The United States was furiously lobbying to secure “no” votes on the Security Council, precisely because it did not want to be seen as the primary obstacle to Palestinian statehood. Why do the optics suddenly matter after decades of automatic and contempt-free American vetoes for Israel’s sake?

Simply put, the world is a different place today than it was a mere eight months ago. When Susan Rice had last raised her hand alone, Hosni Mubarak was one week out of power and the United States was still trying to figure out what was happening in a region where they have traditionally held sway. Egypt has since demonstrated that public opinion is likely to play a much greater role in policy toward Israel. Turkey, another major regional player and long time NATO ally, has all but terminated relations with Israel after the travesty of justice called the Palmer Report.

This is yet another sign of America’s waning influence in the region. But it is also another important signal to the Palestinians. Yes, America may continue to support Israel blindly because of its domestic politics, but at the same time the costs for doing so continue to increase. Going forward, Palestinian strategies that further expose the incongruence between US policy vis-à-vis Israel and its interests in the region will only force more American elites to ask the all important questions that too few are asking today.

5Real – not symbolic – changes alone will alter the status quo

The UN General Assembly came and went and, just as most serious observers expected, there is little change on the ground. The Israeli occupation – the status quo – still persists. The reason the status quo has continued is because there are entrenched interests on both sides which make it difficult for either party to make game-changing decisions. The Israeli occupation will only end when the costs of maintaining it exceed the benefits of further entrenching it. Right now, the costs of the Israeli occupation to the Israelis are minimal. It benefits from usurping land and resources and avoids the politically costly move of dismantling settlements.

The statehood bid bolstered support for the PLO [EPA]

For its part, the Palestinian Authority is assisting in alleviating the costs of occupation through extensive security collaboration with Israel. International donors are largely footing the bill for the PA’s security apparatus.

The Ramallah-based Authority’s most significant challenge to this, thus far, has been in the form of the statehood bid. While further international isolation will raise the costs of occupation for the Israelis, it won’t have an immediate impact.

Palestinians must recognise that shifting the dynamic that perpetuates the status quo involves real changes on the ground and not simply symbolic gestures. If the statehood bid results in the ability to redress grievances with Israel in the International Criminal Court than that might raise the costs of occupation in the long term, so long as other states are compliant in enforcing legal decisions. But that’s the long term, and in the long term we will all be dead, and given the rate of Israeli settlement expansion, aiming for the long term means there will not be anything of Palestine left for the Palestinians.

The shift away from the cost-free occupation dynamic has to happen immediately and Palestinians can begin to do this in the way their counterparts across the Arab world made revolutionary change happen. Through mass mobilisation, ending no-strings-attached security collaboration and encouraging sanctions on the state and popular level against Israel until it meets it obligations, the Palestinians can begin to do to the Israelis what the so-called broker Washington failed to do: make them realise the occupation has to end.
The UN statehood bid didn’t change the world – it didn’t even change things on the ground in occupied Palestine – but what it did do is to make a number of international players show their cards. The Palestinians would be remiss if they did not use this information to build strategies for the future.

Yousef Munayyer is a writer and political analyst based in Washington, DC. He is currently the Executive Director of the The Jerusalem Fund for Education and Community Development.

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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