This post consists of my responses to questions put to me by a Greek journalist, C.J Polychroniou, who long followed intellectual thought in the West, and is a keen analyst of the current European economic crisis.
1. What prompted the Palestinian Authority to seek UN recognition for Palestine at this historical juncture in the struggle for justice and the creation of an independent Palestinian state?
I think the essential motivating feature was long overdue disillusionment with the ‘peace process’ as derived from the Oslo Framework of Principles agreed upon in 1993, and looking toward the resolution of final status issues (borders, refugees, Jerusalem, settlements, security, water) within five years. More recently Obama in his 2011 speech to the UN General Assembly appeared committed to the establishment of a Palestinians a state within a year, but awkwardly backed away from this kind of assessment in 2012 when he merely declared that it was difficult to achieve peace, and that only hope was direct negotiations without any preconditions. The published Palestine Papers on confidential negotiations behind closed doors between representatives of Israel and of the Palestine Authority, leaked to Al Jazeera several months ago, reinforced the impression that the Israeli leadership was not at all interested in a negotiated end to the conflict even when offered far reaching concessions by Palestinian interlocutors. Negotiations that lead no where serve Israel’s interests far better than would a clear declaration that acknowledges Palestinian rights under international law as the necessary foundation of a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
Another line of explanation for the statehood bid relates to the efforts of the PA Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, to engage in state-building while under occupation, both to demonstrate the credibility of a viable Palestinian state able to govern effectively when Israeli withdrawal takes place and as an alternative path to statehood than that offered by direct negotiations. Several international institutions, including the IMF, have been impressed by these efforts to achieve governmentality despite the difficulties of occupation. There are varying assessments of the degree of success of this Fayyad program of action, both in relation to its approach to economic development, societal wellbeing, and Palestinian self-determination.
Finally, it is important to realize that these periodic failed negotiations have not been neutral as between the parties. They are good for Israel, bad for Palestine. Settlement building and its accompanying infrastructure encroach increasingly on the occupied remnant of historic Palestine. To continue with negotiations without a permanent freeze on settlement expansion is to put an end to any prospect of a two-state solution, and thereby threaten the PA role as providing leadership for the Palestinian struggle for self-determination. The United States has further aggravated the situation by treating the unlawful settlements as ‘subsequent developments,’ in Israeli parlance as ‘facts on the ground,’ that are to be incorporated into Israel rather than undone.
2. The US has called UN recognition of Palestine a “mistake,” with Obama apparently threatening Abbas with significant repercussions, but even some Palestinians have questioned the move, saying it would be mainly a symbolic victory and would not change the reality of the Israeli occupation. What are your views on the matter?
Threatening the PA for taking this perfectly legal initiative of seeking recognition of its statehood and gaining membership in the UN shows the extent of America’s willingness to do Israel’s bidding, however unreasonable its behavior. It is coupled with American silence in the face of blatant Israeli criminality as with the Gaza blockade and 1998-99 attacks, the flotilla incident of May 2010, and the recurring instances of excessive use of force by occupying Israeli forces.
There are complexities on all sides of these questions of why Palestinian statehood and why now. If the Abbas leadership is weakened, it increases the possibility of the extension of Hamas influence on the West Bank. Certainly the United States, and probably Israel, fears such a result. It is possible that Israel would be ambivalent in the face of such a development as it would tend to justify the ongoing dynamic of de facto annexation that has been a byproduct of the settlement phenomenon combined with the rise of Israeli extremist leadership that seems disinterested in any outcome that involves the establishment of a Palestinian sovereign state.
On the Palestinian side, there are also critics of the statehood bid. Some are concerned that the PA may be transforming the conflict into an essentially territorial dispute over land, thereby marginalizing if not abandoning the right of return of Palestinian refugees and those several million Palestinians living in exile. Closely related is the concern, especially among some respected Palestinian NGOs and throughout the Palestinian diaspora, that the PA is trying to displace the Palestinian Liberation Organization as the sole representative of the Palestinian people. The PLO, unlike the PA, gives Palestinians living outside of the occupied territories representational rights, including a majority of seats in the now dormant Palestinian National Council. It should be observed that Abbas in his speech tried to provide reassurance as to the PLO role, promising that it will remain the sole representative of the Palestinian people so long as the conflict persists. Also of concern to Palestinians is the fear that Israel will, in effect, tell the Palestinians that now they have their state, and there is nothing more to discuss. The conflict is resolved with Israel retaining control of the borders, internal security, and settlements, producing the sort of surrealistic outcome that apartheid South Africa attempted to impose on the black South African majority by creating ten Bantustans.
3. In his historic speech of September 23rd to the UN General Assembly, Mahmoud Abbas spoke of Israel’s policies as “colonial” and “ethnic cleansing” and violation of “international humanitarian laws.” Does this speech represent a change of strategy for PLO or was it for domestic consumption, i.e., in order to promote solidarity among Palestinian supporters?
The use of this appropriately strong language was the most notable feature of the Abbas speech, and a dramatic shift in tone from earlier appeals to the international community. It is this feature as much as the statehood/membership bid that made the speech ‘historic.’ It also served to enhance the legitimacy of the PA, whose reputation has been eroded by its quasi-collaborative relationship with Israel and the United States.
4. Israel has threatened PLO with “punishment” for taking the move to seek UN recognition of Palestine. What more barbaric actions can it take?
The U.S. can withhold financial assistance, a course of action that is likely to be insisted upon by the U.S. Congress in any event unless the Security Council fails to support the statehood bid by a majority of nine or more of its fifteen members, thereby sparing the U.S. the embarrassment of so inappropriately using its veto. America’s right wing Congress is gunning for the UN in any event, and it will seize upon this Palestinian challenge to demonstrate again its unconditional support for Israel’s demands, however unreasonable and cruel in their effects, and to do so at the expense of the UN will be doubly sweet for Tea Party Republicans.
5. Any intuition into what the future holds for the Palestinian question?
I think the overall regional developments are supportive of the Palestinian struggle for a just and sustainable peace. Any Arab government, especially Egypt, will now find it easier to satisfy their restive public opinion at home by confronting Israel than by enhancing the material wellbeing of their own population. In this respect, politics is easier than economics! Whether this prospect will do more than strengthen the hand of Israeli extremism is anyone’s guess.
Turkey has shown the way in these respects, and has embarrassed Arab governments that have been passive for many years in the face of Palestinian suffering and Israeli outrages, including remaining on the sidelines despite the harsh blockade imposed on the 1.6 million people of Gaza as a collective punishment for their willingness to give electoral support to Hamas in the 2006 national elections. If the international community and the Palestinian solidarity movement exerts sufficient pressure for a just solution to the conflict it may eventually give rise to an internal Israeli involving the rediscovery of Israeli realism. One of the costs of Netanyahu/Liebermann hegemony has been to make Israel unable to understand and act upon its own interests, which not only prolongs the Palestinian ordeal but severely endangers Israel’s own security and wellbeing.