Palestine’s moment of truth — I

Published: September 25, 2011

The writer was foreign secretary from 1989-90 and is a former chairman of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad

Exactly a year ago, President Barack Obama used the opening session of the UN General Assembly to express his hope that “when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the UN — an independent, sovereign state of Palestine”. He returned to the same podium on September 21 to do the opposite i.e. to voice uncompromising opposition to Mahmoud Abbas’s decision, succinctly set out in an article published by the New York Times on May 16, 2011 that he would come to UN to “request international recognition of the state of Palestine on the 1967 border and that our state be admitted as a full member of the United Nations.” Palestinians, Obama now said, must make peace with Israel before gaining statehood themselves; the international community should continue to push Israelis and Palestinians toward talks on the four intractable ‘final status’ issues that have vexed peace negotiations since 1979: the borders of a Palestinian state, security for Israel, the status of Palestinian refugees who left or were forced to leave their homes in Israel, and the fate of Jerusalem, which both sides claim for their capital. In short, Abbas should first seek negotiations from the same position of utter helplessness as before.

Behind this polarisation of postures lie two remarkable transformations. Once elected, American presidents accommodate to the realities of power which are heavily linked to the mighty Jewish electoral and financial machine. Obama has been no different. In fact, he has deployed worldwide diplomacy to stop Abbas from pursuing the request for statehood, including a categorical threat to veto it in the Security Council. In bowing to this machine, he is willing to take the risk of losing Arab goodwill when the United States badly needs it to be on the right side of the Arab Spring.

The other transformation is that of Mahmoud Abbas. No other Palestinian leader has kept his faith in a peaceful negotiated settlement in the face of impossible odds. Most objective observers of the slowly dying 20-year-old Oslo process concluded years ago that Israel would never allow a viable Palestinian state even in what Abbas describes, with a touch of pathos, as “the remaining 22 per cent of our historic homeland”. The Oslo process only facilitated Jewish colonisation of occupied lands to a point where a Palestinian state became a geographical absurdity. Obama began by opposing more settlements but had by 2009 muted this idealism.

Abbas has come to the UN, evidently because he has run out of options. He does not even have a Palestinian consensus behind him. Hamas has not obstructed the UN initiative but without any optimism. More Palestinians than ever before despair of a two-state solution and are ready to wage a protracted, if romantic, struggle for a single state where Arab demographic advantage would eventually tame Zionist militarism. Abbas has already faced considerable internal criticism that his request for statehood is tantamount to reneging on the refugees’ right of return.

He knows that full membership is impossible even if nine members of the Security Council defy intense pressure and vote for it; Washington would simply veto it. Obama can limit the damage of an instant veto for US by delaying the vote through procedural stratagems that Abbas may not or cannot circumvent. Defeated in the Security Council, Abbas could still win a majority in the General Assembly to achieve the scaled-down objective of a ‘non-member observer state’ that would upgrade Palestine from being an observer “entity”; it would open more doors including the one that Israel and the United States fear most, namely, the International Court of Justice. Given the western pressure, the UN General Assembly cannot confer full membership on Palestine by invoking the procedure “uniting for peace”.

The consensus of independent opinion in the West is that the US should follow up the UN episode with a vigorous initiative to bring about a final status settlement in a year or so. Without it, Abbas’s barely patched-up tent would be buffeted by contrary winds and Obama would face a fierce wave of anti-Americanism in the Arab-Islamic world. It is a moment of truth for all the parties.

(To be continued)

Published in The Express Tribune, September 26th,  2011.

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Reader Comments (4)

  • Sep 25, 2011 - 9:29PM

    A well-written and honest article, without doubt. I would be surprised if the events took any other course than what you predict, alas.

    What truly beggars belief is the short-sightedness of the Obama administration and general US foreign policy in alienating Palestine further (and more broadly most Arab countries) in blocking and threatening a very moderate and largely diplomatic request for statehood. The power of Israel and indeed the U.S. have surely reached, if not passed their peak on the world stage, hence one can only presume that bridges are being burnt beyond repair here. It is almost as if the US is encouraging extremism from the Middle East by its own lack of moderation in its actions.

    I can only suppose that Palestine must look to the somewhat less bigoted stance of some European nations and China, and hope they prevail in time.

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  • Zalim Singh
    Sep 26, 2011 - 12:23AM

    A Palestine nation will be one more basket case. Palestine people will be taken care well under Israeli rule.

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  • Noor Nabi
    Sep 26, 2011 - 1:24AM

    The Palestinian lands have been under occupation for more than 44 years; this is grossly immoral and totally unacceptable. Those being held hostage by the Zionist lobby will have to give in. Netanhayu is not a peace-loving person and he seems set to lead Israel into deep isolation. Well done Mahmoud Abbas!

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  • sharifL
    Sep 26, 2011 - 11:41AM

    Good article I personally agree that Palestinians and israel must negotiate a peace deal, but the problem is that such contacts have yielded no results since last 30 years. As long as Israel carries on building settlements when agreeing to ‘talk’, such talks makes no sense. It is like two persons discussing how to share a cake while one is eating it before the any agreement.
    Many think that Abbas has no base and sooner or later hamas will take over and they will create more problems for Israel. It is true that any negotiation must be based on the reality that Israel exists and must be recognized, but we should look at the reasons why hamas gained popularity. It is simple. Palestinians have seen that the moderate leaders have achieved nothing by peaceful means and many have taken laws in their own hands. Just like after the first world war, the allied put such harsh conditions on defeated Germany, people got fed up with moderate parties and followed Adof Hitler who promised them to tear apart the agreements of Versoy. Exactly the same is happening in gaza. If Israel gives concessions, these radicals will become insignificant. But Israel must move in exchange for pre 1967 borders and recognition by all Arab states. Obama has disappointed us. He promised a lot and delivered nothing. And Palestine will carry on bleeding. a Sad story indeed.

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