On November 29, the UN will recognize a Palestinian state for the second time. Once again this will be recognition on paper alone – a forlorn effort to bring an end to this tragedy. In light of the results of the Likud primaries (the internal party vote which determines the ranking of party leaders in the Knesset list), and in light of polls predicting greater support for the rightwing bloc, this recognition is unlikely to have much effect on the ground. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza will not be dancing Dabke (Palestinian folk dance) in celebration, and they don’t expect much from President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), whose status has plummeted.
It seems that the UN bid is calculated more to shore up the president than to solve the suffering of the Palestinian people. Years of hollow negotiations, plus four more years without any talks at all, were sufficient to persuade Palestinians that negotiating with Israel is nothing but a smokescreen for further Israeli settlement in the occupied territories. And to rub salt into the wound, Hamas has now shown that firing rockets at Tel Aviv can force Israel to the table for some give-and-take – particularly give. What Abu Mazen has failed to achieve in 20 years, Hamas managed in its own six-day war. All this is in appearances alone, of course – Gaza is not really free of Israel’s control, and any point won by Hamas is not deducted from Israel’s score sheet but from Abu Mazen’s.
In a show of victor’s magnanimity, Hamas leader Khaled Mashal gave his blessing to Abu Mazen’s efforts at the UN. In the past, he attacked such overtures as empty gestures, but now that Abu Mazen is on his last legs, he is willing to accept the move as “harmless” – and indeed, why not? If Palestinians can obtain UN recognition, it can only be a good thing… But good for whom? Perhaps for Hamas. Though it’s fighting Abu Mazen, Hamas has no wish to bring down the Palestinian Authority (PA), because it provides official cover for Hamas’ government in Gaza and will provide the same cover for any future Hamas regime in the West Bank too. In the past, Hamas opposed the Oslo Accords, but then, so did Netanyahu. Today, the Accords benefit them both: Hamas gains legitimacy without having to recognize Israel and the Likud gets a cover for continued settlement expansion.
Thus, encouraged by Mashal and 150 states, Abu Mazen sets off to try his luck. But it must be remembered that the PLO obtained observer status at the UN 40 years ago. Arafat waved a pistol in one hand and an olive branch in the other, Israel felt the cool breath of isolation, Zionism was equated with racism, Israel’s UN ambassador Chaim Herzog ostentatiously tore up the decision, and despite the blood since spilled, endless negotiations and the signing of countless agreements, the PLO continues to observe – only this time as a “state.” At that time Palestinians celebrated because the PLO was granted recognition as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. They then celebrated when a Palestinian state was declared in Algiers in 1988 following the outbreak of the first intifada. Mahmoud Darwish wrote the words of the national anthem, and Mikis Theodorakis composed the music. When the Oslo Accords were signed on September 13, 1993, the Palestinians once again took to the streets in jubilation, and then again when Arafat entered Gaza. But now they are no longer so quick to celebrate.
Palestinians understand the celebrations were premature. The return of the “national symbol” doesn’t necessarily lead to a sovereign state. On the contrary: while Arafat established his regime in Ramallah and Gaza, Israel built settlements. And when this sorry state of affairs became clear to all, and the talks at Camp David between Arafat and Barak reached a dead-end, Hamas stepped up. In October 2000, the second intifada broke out. The political response was the “Clinton parameters,” which determine that blocs of settlements will remain under Israeli sovereignty in any future agreement. In a show of “even-handedness,” alternative territory was offered to the Palestinians. And now, 12 years after the “parameters” strangled the possibility of a viable Palestinian state, Ariel (the largest of Israel’s settlements) has become part of the new consensus within Israel – and splits the West Bank in two.
The Palestinian state with its observer status and borders along the pre-1967 line exists only on paper. In this, it is like the Jewish state that was declared on November 29, 1947, which the Arabs saw as the theft of their land, and rightly so, and which the Jews saw as a base for further seizure of land. Since then, the conflict has only deepened. Palestine is in fact a state of cantons, a Bantustan subject to the whims of the occupier. As they did during the Oslo Accords, supporters of Abu Mazen’s current bid try once again to prettify reality and create an impression of progress towards a real solution. But the 150 states backing Palestine have not yet succeeded in dismantling a single Israeli settlement outpost – not even those considered “illegal” by Israel itself. They have failed to compel Israel to negotiate in good faith, and they have stood firmly by Israel in support of its “right to defend itself” in the face of rockets from Gaza.
Recognition of Palestine’s status as observer is compensation for the complete failure to compel Israel to put an end to the Occupation and grant the Palestinians a sovereign state. At first, Israel threatened to bring down the PA if Abu Mazen approached the UN, but it rapidly back-pedaled when it understood via the US that this could well happen. Instead, it has recently belittled the importance of the move. Israel has learned that declarations don’t count for much – what really makes a difference is facts on the ground. Under its present leadership, the Palestinians have no way of implementing what the UN aims to grant them. Moreover, the UN won’t do anything to implement its own decision. The more declarations, decisions and peace ceremonies, the more the conflict appears insoluble. The best we can hope for is a “hudna” (truce) until the next outbreak of violence and the hudna that will follow. This suits both the Likud and Hamas very nicely.
So no salvation will be forthcoming from the UN. In Israel, extreme right-winger Moshe Feiglin has been appended to Netanyahu, and the “price tag” settler youth leave their mark on the Palestinians. The Palestinian people has no choice but to follow the path of Egypt, Tunisia and Syria. The Palestinian leadership has failed. It is internally divided and disconnected from the people’s suffering, and has no way of contending with the Occupation. The coming of the Palestinian Spring is just a matter of time, and the UN declaration may well accelerate the outbreak of a third, civil, non-violent intifada.
The advantage of recognizing Palestine as a state is not the one often cited, namely that it gives Palestinians the chance to use the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The advantage is rather the legitimacy which recognition grants the Palestinian people in their struggle against the Occupation. The world recognizes Palestine – now the Palestinians must fill this recognition with content. Nobody will do this for them – freedom is rarely granted, it must be fought for.
UN recognition is also a warning to Israeli society, a reminder that the Occupation has not ended. Thus, all those in Israel trying to separate the “economic struggle” from the “political struggle” not only play into the hands of the rightwing, but also deepen the conflict, strengthening fascist elements which are rising to the highest levels of government. Anyone concerned about the nature of Israeli society must grasp the UN declaration as an opportunity for self-reflection. Palestine is observing at the UN, but the world is observing us, and it sees what many good people in Israel refuse to see: there will be no Jewish state unless a Palestinian state is created alongside. Thus the options get narrower: either Israel re-conquers the territories directly, or it withdraws to the pre-1967 borders. We cannot have democracy and social justice in the shadow of Occupation.
– Translated by Yonatan Preminger