Tag Archives: Mahmoud Abbas

Pope Francis Visit to Palestine

26 May

 

 

            Pope Francis’ visit to the Holy Land raises one overwhelming question: ‘what is the nature of religious power in our world of the 21st century?’ ‘can it have transformative effects’?

 

            Media pundits and most liberal voices from the secular realm approve of this effort by Francis to seek peace through the encouragement of reconciliation, while dutifully reminding us that his impact is only ‘ceremonial’ and ‘symbolic’ and will not, and presumably should not, have any political consequences beyond a temporary cleansing of the political atmosphere.

 

            The June 6th prospect of Mahmoud Abbas and Shimon Peres praying together in the Vatican as a step toward a peaceful end of the long struggle is, I fear, an ambiguous sideshow. For one thing, Peres as President of Israel is about to leave the office, and in any event, his position exerts no discernible influence on the head of state, Benjamin Netanyahu, or the approach taken by Israel in addressing Palestinian concerns. It has long been appreciated that Peres is less than he seems, and beneath his velvet globe is a steel fist. Also, Abbas, although the formal leader of the Palestinian Authority and Chair of the PLO, is a weak and controversial leader who has yet to establish a unity government that includes Hamas, and finally provides political representation for the long suffering population of the Gaza Strip within global venues.

 

            Yet it would be a mistake to ignore the significance, symbolically and materially, of what Pope Francis’ visit to Palestine heralds. To begin with, just below the surface of what is avowed by words and style, is the contrast between the humility and sincerity of this religiously oriented initiative and the recently acknowledged breakdown of direct negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel that was the ill-advised and contrived initiative of the U.S. Government, and became the personal project of the American Secretary of State John Kerry. In effect, the Pope epitomizes the moral and spiritual dimensions of the unresolved situation in Palestine while Kerry’s muscular diplomacy called partisan Alpha attention to the political dimensions.

 

            Undoubtedly more relevant is the degree to which Francis lent his weight to fundamental Palestinian grievances. By referring to the territory under occupation since 1967 as ‘Palestine,’ Francis affirmed the status conferred by the UN General Assembly in 2012, and since then angrily rejected by Tel Aviv and Washington. In doing so, Palestinian statehood was affirmed as a moral reality that should be endorsed by people and governments of good will everywhere, thereby strengthening the call of global solidarity.

 

            Most dramatically of all, by praying at the apartheid wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem, and bowing his head prayer while touching with his hand that hated metaphor of Israeli cruelty, illegality, and oppressiveness, Pope Francis has made an indelible contribution to the Legitimacy War of nonviolent resistance and emancipation that the Palestinian National Movement has waged with increasing militancy, and is being embraced throughout the world.

 

            Such moments of moral epiphany are rare in our experience of the torments afflicting the world. We need to remind ourselves that this pope has imparted a spirit of justice and spirituality. We are responding to his call because of who he is as well as what he is: his warmth, sympathy for the poor and oppressed, and identification with those brutally victimized by war. We are responding to the concreteness of his commitments and the actualities of his performances whether he points to the atrocities of war in Syria or the ordeal that has so long confronted the Palestinian people.

 

            The Pope challenges all of us to act as citizen pilgrims, having a personal responsibility to act as best we can against bastions of flagrant injustice. The Pope, the most universally acclaimed moral and spiritual authority figure on the planet has spoken by word and deed, and now it becomes our privilege to act responsively. By this means alone can we discover the ecumenical nature of religious authority in our times.

The Gaza Ceasefire: An Early Assessment

24 Nov

 

The Gaza Ceasefire, unlike a similar ceasefire achieved after Operation Cast Lead four years ago, is an event that has a likely significance far beyond ending the violence after eight days of murderous attacks. It is just possible that it will be looked back upon as a turning point in the long struggle between Israel and Palestine. Many have talked about ‘the fog of war,’ but it pales besides the ‘the fog of truce making,’ and in our media-infected air, the outcomes along with conjectures about the future are already being spun in all possible directions. Supporters of every position give their own spin, and then proclaim ‘victory.’ But as with the violent phases of the conflict, it is clarifying to distinguish the more persuasive contentions and interpretations from those that are less persuasive. What follows is one such attempt at such clarification.

It remains too soon to tell whether the ceasefire will hold for very long, and if it does, whether its central provisions will be implemented in good faith. At this early moment, the prospects are not promising. Israel has already used excessive violence to disperse Palestinian civilians who gathered on the Gaza side of the border, with a few straying across into Israel, to celebrate what they thought was their new freedom now to venture close to the border. This so-called ‘no-go-area’ was decreed by Israel after its 2005 ‘disengagement’ has been a killing field where 213, including 17 children and 154 uninvolved, had lost their lives according to Israeli human rights organizations. Israeli security forces, after firing warning shots, killed one Palestinian civilian and wounded another 20 others with live ammunition. The Israeli explanation was that it had given warnings, and since there had been no agreement on new ground rules implementing the ceasefire, the old regime of control was still in place. It is notable that Hamas protested, but at this point has made no moves to cancel the ceasefire or to retaliate violently, but the situation remains tense, fragile, and subject to change.

Putting aside the precariousness of the current situation and the accompanying uncertainties, it remains useful to look at the process by which the ceasefire was brought about, how this sheds light on the changing dynamics of the conflict itself, as well as discloses some underlying shifts in the regional and global balances of forces.

First of all, the role and outlook of the Arab governments was far more pro-active than in past interludes of intensified Israel/Palestine violence. During attacks several leading foreign ministers from the region visited Gaza and were received by the Hamas governing authorities, thus undermining the Israeli policy of isolating Hamas and excluding it from participation in diplomacy affecting the Palestinian people. Egypt played the critical role in brokering the agreement, and despite the Muslim Brotherhood affiliation of its leaders. Mohammed Morsi, the Egyptian President, emerged as the key diplomatic figure in the process and widely praised by the West for his ‘pragmatism.’ This can be understood as recognition of Morsi’s capability as a statesman to address the concerns of both sides without intruding his own pro-Palestinian outlook. Indeed, the auspices of this brokered agreement inverted what Americans have brought to the table in past negotiations, a pretension of balance, a reality of partisanship.

Secondly, the text of the agreement implicitly acknowledged Hamas as the governing authority of Gaza, and thereby gives it, at least temporarily, a greatly enhanced status among Palestinians, regionally, and internationally. Its claim to be a (not the) legitimate representative of the Palestinian people has now become plausible, making Hamas a political actor that has for the moment been brought in from the terrorist cold. While Hamas is almost certain to remain formally ‘a terrorist organization’ in the eyes of Israel, the United States, and Europe, throughout this just concluded feverish effort to establish a ceasefire, Hamas was treated as if ‘a political actor’ with sovereign authority to speak on behalf of the people living in Gaza. Such a move represents a potential sea change, depending on whether there is an effort to build on the momentum achieved or a return to the futile and embittering Israeli/U.S. policy of excluding Hamas from diplomatic channels by insisting that no contact with a terrorist organization is permissible or politically acceptable. Correspondingly, the Palestinian Authority, and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, have been for the moment awkwardly sidelined, overshadowed, and made to appear irrelevant in the midst of this latest terrible ordeal affecting the Palestinian people. It is puzzling why such an impression was fostered by the approach taken by all the diplomatic players.

Thirdly, Israel accepted as integral conditions of the ceasefire two sets of obligations toward the people of Gaza that it would never have agreed to before it launched its Pillar of Defense Operation: (1) agreeing not to engage in “incursions and targeting of individuals” and (2) agreeing to meet so as to arrange for the “opening the crossings and facilitating the movements of people and the transfer of goods, and refraining from restricting residents free movement, and targeting residents in border areas.” If implemented in good faith by Israel, this means the end of targeted assassinations and it requires the lifting of the blockade that has tormented Gaza for more than five years. These are major setbacks for the Israeli policy, although Hamas is obligated to stop sending rockets from its territory. The political acceptance by Tel Aviv of a prohibition on targeted assassinations, if respected, renounces a favorite tactic of Israeli governments for many years, which although generally regarded as illegal was still frequently relied upon by Israel with impunity. Indeed, the most dramatic precipitating event in the recent controversial unfolding crisis timeline was the killing of Ahmed al-Jabari on 14 November, a military/political leader of Hamas, who at the very time was negotiating a truce relating to cross-border violence. Unraveling the competing claims of acting defensively should at least acknowledge this complexity that makes polemical the contention that only one side is responsible. The Obama administration, with its usual deference to Tel Aviv, misleading told the story of the sustained violence as if only Israel was entitled to claim a defensive prerogative.

Fourthly, the role of the United States, while still significant, was considerably downsized by these other factors, especially by the need to allow Egypt to play the main role as arbiter. Such a need was partly, no doubt, a consequence of Washington’s dysfunctional insistence of continuing to avoid any direct contact with Hamas officials. This Egyptian prominence suggests a trend toward the regionalization of Middle East diplomacy that diminishes the importance and seriously erodes the legitimacy of extra-regional interference. This is bad news for the Israelis and for the United States. Turkey, a state with bad relations with Israel, also played a significant role in defusing the escalating crisis.

There exists a revealing gap between the U.S. insistence all along that Israel’s use of force was fully justified because every country has the right to defend itself and the ceasefire text that placed restrictions on future violence as being applicable to both sides. After the ceasefire, the United States needs to make a defining choice: either continue its role as Israel’s unconditional enabler or itself adopt a more ‘pragmatic’ approach to the conflict in the manner of Morsi. If the United States remains primarily an enabler, its diplomatic role is likely to diminish rapidly, but if it decides to adopt a balanced approach, even if quietly, it might still be able to take the lead in establishing a real peace process that is sensitive to the rights of both sides under international law. To make such a shift credible, President Obama would have to make a major speech to the American people at some point explaining why it is necessary to choose between partisanship and diplomacy in reshaping its future relationship to the conflict. However sensible such a shift would be both for American foreign policy and the stability of the Middle East, it is highly unlikely to happen. There is nothing in Obama’s resume that suggests a willingness to go to the people to circumvent the dysfunctional outlook of special interest groups that have dominated the way the U.S. Congress and the media present the conflict.

Fifthly, the United Nations was made to appear almost irrelevant, despite the presence of the Secretary General in the region during the diplomatic endgame. Ban Ki Moon did not help matters by seeming to echo the sentiments coming from Washington, calling attention almost exclusively to Israeli defensive rights. The UN could provide more neutral auspices for future negotiations if it were to disentangle itself from Western geopolitics. To do this would probably require withdrawing from participation in the Quartet, and pledging a commitment to a sustaining and just peace for both peoples. As with United States, it is highly unlikely that the UN will make such a move, at least not without prior authorization from Washington. As with Obama, there is nothing in the performance to date of Ban Ki Moon as Secretary General that suggests either the willingness or the capacity to act independently when the geopolitical stakes are high.

Sixthly, the immediate aftermath of the ceasefire was a call from the Gaza streets for Palestinian unity, symbolized by the presence of Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine flags all flying in harmonious co-existence. As the New York Times commented, “a rainbow not visible here in years.” If Palestinian unity holds, and becomes a practical reality by being implemented at governmental levels, it could alter the political landscape in a fundamental manner. To take hold it would require open and free elections throughout Occupied Palestine. If this narrative were to unfold, it might make the ceasefire to be perceived as much more than a temporary tense truce, but as a new beginning in the long march toward Palestinian justice.

All in all, the outcome of Operation Pillar of Defense was a resounding defeat for Israel in at least three respects: despite the incessant pounding of Gaza for eight days and the threat of a ground invasion, Hamas did not give in to Israeli demands for a unilateral ceasefire; the military capabilities of Gaza rockets exhibited a far greater capacity than in the past to inflict damage throughout the whole of Israel including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, which suggests that in any future recurrence of major violence the military capabilities at the disposal of Gaza will become even greater; and the Israeli politics of promoting the Palestinian Authority as the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people while refusing to deal with Hamas was dealt a heavy, possibly fatal, blow.

There is one chilling slant being given by Israeli officials to this attack on Gaza. It is brazenly being described as ‘a war game’ designed to rehearse for an impending attack on Iran. In the words of Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, “Israel was not confronting Gaza, but Iran.” Considering that at least 160 Gazans were killed, 1000 wounded, and many more traumatized, this is, or should be, a shocking admission of a declared intent to commit crimes against humanity. It should at least prompt the UN Human Rights Council to appoint a fact-finding mission to assess the allegations of criminal conduct during the military attack. In effect, the situation demands a Goldstone 2 report, but this time with the political will to follow through, assuming that incriminating findings are reported.If the HRC does not initiate such a process, as seems a near certainty at this point, the responsibility and the opportunity is a challenge to civil society organizations committed to peace and justice. Given the tactics and disproportionate levels of violence, it would be a fresh abuse of those who died and were injured, to fail to assess this behavior from the perspective of international criminal law.

These developments will themselves be affected by the pervasive uncertainties that make it likely that the ceasefire will be a short truce rather than a dramatic turn from violence to diplomacy. Will the parties respect the ceasefire? Israel has often in the past made international commitments that are later completely abandoned, as has been the case with dismantling the numerous ‘outposts’ (that is, ‘settlements’ unlawful even under Israeli law) or in relation to the commitment to settle the ‘final status’ issues associated with the Oslo Framework within five years. It is not encouraging that Israeli officials are already cynically whispering to the media that they agreed to nothing “beyond the immediate cessation of hostilities.” The undertakings of the text are thus being minimized as ‘talking points’ rather than agreed commitments that lack only specific mechanisms for their implementation. If Israel refuses to give effect to the agreed stoppage of targeted assassinations and does not move to end the blockade in good faith, it will not be surprising to see the rockets flying again.

The Palestinian Authority is poised to regain some of its lost ground by seeking recognition by the UN General Assembly of its status as ‘a non-member state’ on November 29, 2013, a move being fiercely resisted by Tel Aviv and Washington. It is probably too much to expect a softening of this diplomacy. Any claim of Palestinian statehood, even if only of symbolic significance, seems to threaten deeply Israel’s hypocritical posture of agreeing to the creation of a Palestinian state in the abstract while doing everything in its power to oppose any Palestinian efforts to claim statehood.

Such speculations must be conditioned by the realization that as the clock ticks the international consensus solution to the conflict, an independent sovereign Palestine, is fast slipping out of the realm of the feasible, if it has not already done so. The situation of prolonged occupation has altered the demography of Occupied Palestinian and raised the expectations of most Israelis. With as many 600,000 unlawful settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem no foreseeable Israeli government would survive if it agreed to any conflict-resolving arrangement that required even a small percentage of those settlers to leave. In contrast, on the Palestinian side no arrangement would be sustainable without the substantial reversal of the settlement phenomenon. So long as this 1000 pound gorilla strides freely along the corridors of diplomacy, attaining a genuine peace based on the international consensus of two states for two peoples seems an exercise in wishful thinking.

At the same time, history has shown us over and over again that ‘the impossible’ happens, impossible in the sense that it is an outcome that informed observers rejected as ‘possible’ before it surprised them by happening. It happened when European colonialism was defeated, and again when the Soviet internal and external empire suddenly disintegrated, and then when the apartheid regime was voluntarily dissolved. Sadly, the Palestinian destiny continues to be entrapped in such a foreclosed imaginary, and yet as we have learned from history the struggles of oppressed peoples can on occasion achieve the unforeseeable. It is just barely possible that this latest display of Palestinian sumud (steadfastness) in the face of Pillar of Defense, together with the post-2011 increased responsiveness of the governments of Israel’s neighbors to the wishes of its their own citizenry, will give rise to a sequence of events that alters the equations of regional and global power enough  finally to give a just peace a chance.

What is New in the Israel/Palestine Conflict

25 May


 


           Undoubtedly transfixed by the extraordinary developments throughout the Arab world since Mohamed Boazizi’s self-immolation on December 17, 2010: from Tahrir Square to the NATO intervention in Libya to bloody confrontations in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain to the eerie quiet in Algeria to the relative and temporary calm in Morocco, there has been a widespread few have noticed that the Israeli/Palestine conflict has changed its character in fundamental respects during the last couple of years.

           

            For some the first of these transformative developments may have been realized for somewhat longer, but now almost everybody knows, except for those in high places, especially in Washington and Tel Aviv who seem to have a political need not to know. The stark fact is that both Israel and Palestine have no hope that international negotiations between governmental representatives of the two sides has any chance of reaching an agreement that will end the conflict. Israelis, especially those backing the Netanyahu government never desired or believed in the possibility of a diplomatic solution. The ‘peace process’ that started in Oslo back in 1993 has steadily deteriorated the Palestinian prospects while enhancing those of Israel; it has been worse than gridlock for the Palestinians and a smokescreen for Israelis to carry out their expansionist plans while pretending to be pursuing a political compromise based on withdrawing from land occupied in 1967. The sequel to Oslo has been a pathetic enterprise, taking the form of ‘the quartet’ (U.S., European Union, Russia, and the UN) setting forth a roadmap that was supposed to lead the Palestinians to a state of their own drawn along the borders of the green line, but in practice has been a charade that Israel has scoffed at while representatives of the Palestinian Authority seemed to believe that it was worth playing along, although working within the confines of the occupation to establish governmental institutions that could claim statehood by unilateral self-assertion. The PA did seize this option last September when President Mahmoud Abbas made his historic plea to the UN General Assembly, but was stymied by exertion of U.S. geopolitical muscle

 on Israel’s behalf. At this point even the PA seems to have abandoned its effort to challenge a supposed status quo that is more realistically comprehended as a toxic mixture of annexation and apartheid should no longer be called ‘occupation.’

 

            Apparently to please Washington, and to a lesser extent the EU, neither Tel Aviv nor the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah have openly repudiated diplomacy, and continue to give lip service to a readiness to talk yet again, although the PA has at least the dignity to insist that no further negotiations can occur until Israel agrees to halt settlement expansion in the West Bank. To demand that Israel discontinue unlawful activities that impact upon what is being discussed should be regarded as a no brainer, but it is treated by the world media as though the Palestinians were seeking a huge concession from the Israelis, and in a way it is, if we acknowledge that the Netanyahu government is essentially a regime under the control of the settlers.

 

            The second of these under observed developments in the conflict is a definite shift toward nonviolence by the Palestinians. In different sites of struggle the Palestinians have confirmed the declarations of their leaders that resistance no longer primarily refers to armed struggle and suicide bombings, but is based on a range of nonviolent undertakings that challenge the legitimacy of Israeli policies, above all its oppressive policies and structures of abuse and exploitation in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza.

 

            There are several different manifestations of this turn to nonviolence and a global solidarity movement. The following instance are illustrative, and should have been treated as major news, but because Israel refuses to be challenged, even nonviolently, the world media have been silent, and offered very little overall analysis. Among the forms of nonviolent opposition are the following: repeated village demonstrations in the West Bank against the continued building of the separation wall located on occupied Palestinian territory and held to be unlawful in 2004 by a near unanimous International Court of Justice; strong support and some impressive results for a growing worldwide Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions initiative modeled on the Anti-Apartheid global campaign that was so effective in inducing the collapse of the racist regime in South Africa; and the Freedom Flotillas in which humanitarian activists from many countries challenged the Israeli blockade of Gaza that has persisted for five years and led to the ugly confrontation in May 2010 when the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara was assaulted in international waters by Israeli naval commandos, killing 8 Turks and one Turkish-American.

 

            Most impressive of these nonviolent challenges by Palestinians civil society has been a dramatic series of hunger strikes in Israeli jails that has reignited the Palestinian moral and political imagination. These strikes were initiated in December 2011 by the bravery of a single individual, Khader Adnan, who was harshly arrested in his home in the middle of the night and placed in ‘administrative detention’ a procedure used to hold suspects without charges, evidence, and trial. Adnan defiantly continued his strike for 66 days, was on the verge of death, and only agreed to resume eating when Israel somewhat relented.

 

            These hunger strikes mobilized widespread support among Palestinians, and an enthusiasm that contrasts with the bitter disillusionment directed at the failed peace talks. The strikes against administrative detention stimulated a related mass hunger strike of more than 1600 prisoners in Israeli prisons protesting conditions of their confinement. This parallel undertaking began on Palestinian Prisoners Day, April 17, and lasted for a full month until settled when Israel agreed to meet several of the demands put forward by the strikers.

 

            Hunger strikes are not grasped by the Western mind in their full significance. Such voluntary actions are an extreme form of nonviolence. The striker sacrificially foregoes violence against the other, seeking to awaken the conscience of those accused, bearing witness to abusive behavior, and appealing for solidarity from the wider affected community. Such extended hunger strikes send a moral message to both the oppressed and the oppressor, although the latter is likely to turn away in cynical disregard as has been the case with respect to the Israeli response.

 

            It should still be shocking, despite not being entirely surprising that the Western media has taken almost no notice of these remarkable hunger strikes and how they illustrate this new face of Palestinian resistance. We have only to take note of the ceaseless coverage given to Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese activist now enjoying sanctuary in the United States. Must we believe that Palestinian behavior is only of interest to Western media when it can be presented as fanatical and takes the form of violence against civilians? Of course this Chinese dissident deserves our sympathy, but should his story be so captivating as to completely eclipse the more extreme challenges posed by Palestinian hunger strikers that seem ready to make the supreme sacrifice of their own life? Recalling that the death in 1981 of Bobby Sands, the IRA hunger striker, helped open a door that led to a kind of peace in Northern Ireland and that Mohamed Boazizi’s death sparked revolution in Tunisia, only time will tell whether these Palestinian hunger strikes, unquestionably heroic, will lead the Palestinian people closer to realizing their right of self-determination and the finality of a just peace.            

 

            The third major development is the shift in the regional balance in favor of the Palestinians. The public opinion among the Arab people is strongly supportive of the Palestinian struggle and deeply alienated by the kind of Egyptian collaboration with Israel typified by the Mubarak regime. Turkey, once a strategic ally of Israel, is now an antagonist, as well as being an avowed backer of Palestinian claims. In light of these changes, I would have supposed that Israeli realists would be devoting their utmost energies to finding ways to reach a sustainable peace agreement that is sensitive to Palestinians rights under international law. Israeli realists may have sought refuge underground to avoid humiliation or worse in an Israel so firmly under the thumb of Netanyahu extremists who refuse to read this ominous writing on the regional wall, a refusal applauded by a U.S. Congress that is ready to jeopardize American security at the alter of Israeli militarism. Such an unnatural geopolitical relationship is currently unchallengeable in the United States, which is itself sad and dangerous.

 

            My claim is that these three sets of development should lead us to reimagine the Israel/Palestine struggle, and to channel our hopes and resources accordingly. The Israeli government and its strategic think tanks are clear that they are more threatened by this turn town militant nonviolence than by armed resistance. Israel has the weaponry and the skill on the battlefield, but fortunately their formidable propaganda machine has been unable to stem the rising tide of public opinion hostile to Israel and supportive of the Palestinian struggle.  

 

 

 

Interview on the Palestinian Statehood Bid

8 Oct

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.

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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. 

Reflections on the Abbas Statehood/Membership Speech to the UN General Assembly

29 Sep

            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 Israel effort to have it rejected. Despite the high costs to American diplomacy in the Middle East at this time of regional tumult and uncertainty, the United States 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 United States 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 victimized 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 23 September to the General Assembly that received standing ovations from many of the assembled delegates. Such a favorable reception was reinforced by its contrast with the ranting polemic delivered by the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who insulted the UN by calling it ‘the theater 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 East Jerusalem settlement of Gilo. This was a bridge too far for even Hilary Clinton who called the move ‘counter-productive’ and Europeans regarded as deeply disappointing and confidence-destroying, so much so that Netanyahu was openly asked to reverse the decision. There are a variety of other indications that additional settlement expansion and ethnic cleansing initiatives will be forthcoming from Israel 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 American reliance on its ultimate right of veto to block Palestinain aspirations? Would it not be well to remind Americans across the country, including even its captive Congress, that its own Declaration of Independence wisely counseled ‘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, or 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 Organization (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 territorialize the conflict and give the Abbas and PA leadership complete representational control over the Palestinian role at the UN. The deep concern here relates to the adequacy of representation relating to the Palestinians living in refugee camps in neighboring 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 marginalized 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 1.5 million 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 universalized during the last several decades. This development implies that the governing structures of society embodied in the state must renounce any claim of ethnic or religious particularity. 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 globalizing world ethnic and religious diversity are present in every major state, and 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. Guy-Goodwin’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 Palestine 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 minimize intra-Palestinian divergencies, 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 27 December 2008 and 18 January 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 prioritization of political processes over victims’ fundamental rights; indicating acceptance of the pervasive impunity that characterizes the situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory.”

         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, 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 that 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 organization 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.

          What the future holds is more uncertain than ever. The mainstream media has tended to criticize both Israel and the PA/PLO as if their respective behavior 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 theater 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 recognized by Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

           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 showed 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 earlier had 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 the sake of others!

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