A century later, the tide turns on Palestine

Israel’s leverage in Western states is isolated among a few institutions that are out of sync with wider society.

Barricades on Palestinian roads, April 30, 1948, Palestine, Israel, Washington, National Archives [Getty]
Barricades on Palestinian roads, April 30, 1948, Palestine, Israel, Washington, National Archives [Getty]

This week’s dual commemoration of the May 1948 Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe of expulsion, exile, and occupation) and Israel’s independence day sees important signs of change in the balance of political power in this enduring national struggle.

Public sentiments and incremental political advances around the world may be creating a global context that is more fair to both sides in the conflict, thus reducing the modern legacy in favour of the Zionist movement and the state of Israel.

A century ago, around 1916-1921, the Zionism-Arabism conflict was incubated in the context of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), the Balfour Declaration (1917), and other post-WWI big power agreements on a new state order in the Middle East that favoured Zionists and disenfranchised Palestinians.

Al Jazeera World – Born in ’48

Ever since, Zionist and Israeli expansion into Arab lands have continued unchecked, in the form of settlements, land expropriations, and evictions and expulsions of Palestinians.

Recent trends this decade, however, indicate some rebalancing in the West. Just this week, for example, a Pew Research Center poll of 2,000 Americans revealed that liberal Democrats sympathise more with Palestinians than with Israel (40 percent versus 33 percent), an almost unprecedented tilt towards Palestinian rights.

US partisan politics

Though a small majority of all Americans as always still favours Israel’s position, and a majority of Hillary Clinton’s supporters took Israel’s side, Bernie Sanders’ supporters backed the Palestinians by a 39-33 margin. 

The Pew analysis said, “There are good reasons, rooted in American partisan politics, to believe this may actually be part of a longer-term trend.”

ALSO READ: The Six-Day War, 48 years on

This follows insights nearly two years ago by the respected political analyst Shibley Telhami at the University of Maryland, who noted after a national poll he conducted with PhD student Katayoun Kishi that, “about two-thirds of Americans tend to want the US government to lean toward neither side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict … [but] differences across party lines are wide: 51 percent of Republican respondents want the United States to lean toward Israel, compared to 17 percent of Democrats. While most Democratic and independent respondents want the United States to lean toward neither side [77 percent and 73 percent, respectively]”.

State of siege, inhabitants running to buy provisions, 1948, Palestine, National Archives, Washington [Getty]

They also found that among Democratic and independent respondents, “82 percent and 81 percent, respectively, think that the United States should either abstain from voting on a proposed Palestinian resolution at the United Nations to recognise a state of Palestine, or vote in favour of endorsing the establishment of a Palestinian state, compared with 52 percent of Republicans who would favour these approaches”.

Similar trends defined young and Hispanic voters, who are increasingly pivotal in national elections, and who want Washington to remain largely neutral in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

On another level where gains were made recently, the State of Palestine achieved “non-member observer state” status at the United Nations in 2012, in a 138-9 vote in the General Assembly.

Some Western states like Sweden and Iceland have “recognised” Palestine, and others are likely to follow suit, adding to the 136 countries that have established diplomatic relations with Palestine.

The conflict also continues to shift away from military confrontation in Palestine to political, legal, and civic engagements around the world anchored in popular action.

There is new interest among Western powers, like France, to use the United Nations or specially designated conferences under UN Security Council auspices to negotiate a permanent and just resolution of the conflict. The US government is reportedly considering supporting a resolution in the UN Security Council laying out the parameters for a permanent Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement, which Israel vehemently rejects.

If the Palestinian leadership makes use of opportunities in UN forums to hold Israel accountable for illegal acts like building settlements or blockading Gaza, and Western powers do shift the peace-making quest to international councils, this would mark a major shift in the context of how this century-long conflict is being managed or resolved.

The universal rule of law, rather than the Israeli- and US-dominated military balance of power on the ground, would then define how a peace agreement was achieved.

BDS movement

The conflict also continues to shift away from military confrontation in Palestine to political, legal, and civic engagements around the world anchored in popular action.

The cutting edge of this is the 10-year-old Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement of Palestinian civil society that has captured plenty of popular attention and support around the world, to Israel’s great worry.

ALSO READ: Israel-Palestine: Is it even relevant anymore?

Support for the non-violent BDS movement has seen Israel increasingly equated around the world with South African Apartheid, to the point where mainstream churches, labour unions, investment groups, and academic associations in the US and Europe are selectively refusing to deal with Israeli institutions based in, or taking advantage of, the occupied Palestinian territories.

Even more troubling for Israel is the trend of attitudes among young people under the age of 45 being more even-handed than older people, signalling continuing popular political pressure on Israel to refrain from its occupation and subjugation of Palestinians.

Israel’s traditional strength and political leverage in Western states, especially the US, is increasingly isolated among a few institutions that are out of sync with their wider societies, like the US Congress.

Even here, though, last year some 60 members of Congress stayed away from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech in Washington to argue against the US government’s negotiations with Iran over the nuclear issue. Israel lost that battle, which it saw as an existential one.

The fragmented and moribund Palestinian leadership cannot take advantage of this slow worldwide shift towards more balanced positions on Israeli-Palestinian national rights.

So we should expect global political action on Palestine to keep shifting towards political, civic, public, and law-based activities, especially BDS activity and Western-driven attempts to replace the US monopoly on diplomacy with a more equitable and effective negotiating mechanism that respects the rights of all concerned.

Rami G Khouri is a senior public policy fellow at the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut and a nonresident senior fellow at Harward Univeristy Kennedy School. 

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


More from Author
Most Read