Although UN speeches are rarely signifiers of political realities, the presentations by Mahmoud Abbas on behalf of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and of Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, contained some elements worth noticing.
These speeches came as the conflict enters yet another stage, underscored by the recent vicious attack on Gaza that persisted for 50 days, but also by some fundamental developments that set the stage for Operation Protective Edge. It is something of a weather vane of the global view of the conflict that when Abbas spoke he received thunderous applause, while Netanyahu addressed a solemn half empty UN chamber.
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Above all, the growing indication that the Israeli leadership believes that it can impose a unilateral solution by incorporating all or most of the West Bank within Israel, as well as further implementing policies of ethnic cleansing in East Jerusalem. As such, there is no further need to engage in the diplomatic charades initiated by the Oslo peace process in 1993. That phase seems over, having been helpful to the expansionist designs of Israel and harmful to those on the Palestinian side ready as early as 1988 to settle for a sovereign state within the 1967 borders, the supposed international consensus view of how to end the conflict. The last attempt to engage in Oslo diplomacy was muscled into being by the strong-arm tactics of US Secretary of State John Kerry.
The regional context also brought about some new political manoeuvring that became evident during the Israeli assault on Gaza, and its acknowledgement was the sole innovative feature of Netanyahu’s UN speech. The negative development from Netanyahu’s perspective was his anxiety that pressure on Iran would be relaxed in the context of an agreement about the Iranian nuclear programme that had acquired added political relevance in connection with Washington’s effort to cobble together the strongest possible coalition to fight ISIL.
It is something of a weather vane of the global view of the conflict that when Abbas spoke he received thunderous applause, while Netanyahu addressed a solemn half empty UN chamber.
This turn in western thinking clearly bothered Netanyahu who insisted that the more moderate face of the Iranian government since Rouhani’s election as president in 2013, was an illusion fostered by Tehran public relations efforts.
In his speech, Netanyahu called attention to the regional shifts in the Arab world towards an acknowledgement of “shared interests” with Israel in the defeat of militant Islam in all of its manifestations, which of course included Hamas – identified by Netanyahu as a branch on the same “poisonous tree as ISIL”.
What has become evident in recent years is that Saudi Arabia, and some of the Gulf countries, are far more threatened by political Islam that aspires to power by democratic means and on the basis of its grassroots strength than it is either by Israel’s military dominance in the region or even its bitter sectarian rivalry throughout the region with Shia Iran. This Gulf priority was clearly expressed by siding with the 2013 military coup in Egypt despite the massacres perpetrated against Sunni Muslim followers of the Muslim Brotherhood after the Morsi-led government was overthrown. This surprising new alignment was vividly exhibited during Protective Edge.
UN membership for Palestine?
Speaking on behalf of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas naturally expressed a different view of the situation. He placed great stress on the extent to which the Israeli intensive settlement process had destroyed any prospect of resolving the conflict through diplomacy. Abbas seemed to finally recognise what had been long evident to many Palestinians, that participating in Washington’s peace process operated mainly as a facilitator of Israeli settlement building plans, and was contrary to Palestine’s interest. He didn’t repudiate the Oslo approach altogether, but he did insist that direct negotiations could only be resumed if Israel unconditionally stopped further expansions of the settlements.
Abbas’ diplomacy moved in new directions: He submitted a formal request to the Secretary-General to forward to the Security Council for action on Palestine’s request for full membership in the organisation and an end to Israeli occupation in three years. This move undoubtedly irritates Washington as it may force the US to use its veto, unless its diplomatic pressure can avoid nine affirmative votes in favour of the resolution.
More important than this bid for membership in the UN, was the willingness of Abbas to associate the Palestinian national struggle with a heightened discourse of denunciation. For the first time, Abbas raised the spectre of genocide: Israel was accused of a “new war of genocide perpetrated against the Palestinian people”. And while doing so, affirmed the Palestinian right of resistance against Israel’s occupation.
What may be most significant here is that the formal authority structure representing the Palestinian people on the global stage seemed to be in temporary sync with pro-Palestinian civil society activists around the world. For instance, the Russell Tribunal (RT) at an Extraordinary Session held in Brussels on September 24, focused on charges of genocide directed against Israel in connection with Protective Edge. RT found Israel guilty of the distinct crime of “incitement to genocide” under the 1948 Genocide Convention as well as aggravated crimes against humanity. The testimony at Brussels established strong circumstantial evidence of a genocidal intent on Israel’s part. Nevertheless, this evidence failed to convince the jury that Israel’s leaders possessed the specific intent required to establish the crime of genocide.
For genocide to enter into the discourse of the Palestinian movement is a bold development that responded to the ravaging of Palestinian civilian society during this third orchestrated massacre by Israel carried out against the people of Gaza in the last six years. It is not only that more than 70 percent of the Palestinian casualties were civilians. It needs to be understood that the entire Gaza population was locked into the combat zone during the 50-day onslaught, resulting in collective traumatisation. The civilian population was denied the possibility of escaping the war zone by crossing the border to become refugees, usually the option of desperate last resort in conflicts of this character.
As is currently evident in Syria and Iraq, tens of thousands have been seeking sanctuary by leaving the country. It is this most minimal form of humanitarian assistance that has been denied to all Gazans ever since Hamas started governing in mid-2007.
These UN speeches, notable for several reasons, avoided mentioning the most dramatic development: the new phase of the conflict. Israel is now openly moving towards a one-state solution that will involve incorporating the West Bank and consolidating control in East Jerusalem. Palestine is continuing its state-building project on the West Bank coupled with the realisation that the political energy of its national movement has shifted to a combination of civil society activism and Hamas resilience and resistance. Whether this new phase will bring the two peoples any closer to a sustainable peace with justice seems highly unlikely.
Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies. He is also former UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.