Which comes first: Palestine or the Palestinians?

 
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By Khaled Diab

Rather than grant them statehood, Palestinian plans to go to the UN could backfire. Instead, come September, the Palestinians should formally hand over control of the Occupied Territories to Israel and demand full citizenship.

Tuesday 28 June 2011

On Sunday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reaffirmed that, with no prospects of renewed peace talks in sight, he still plans to go to the United Nations in September to demand formal recognition of an independent Palestinian state on the pre-1967 borders. 

“I say that if negotiations have failed, we will go to the United Nations for membership,” Abu Mazen told a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. “Until now there have been no new incentives to return to negotiations.”

It strikes me that Palestinians, disillusioned, demoralised and desperate are, through this latest bid, screaming out to the international community, and particularly the United Nations: “You got us into this mess. Now get us out of it.” But I can’t help thinking that, rather than grant them the statehood they desire, the unilateral UN option could backfire by ending in failure or resulting in a virtual but hollow state that enjoys the sheen of international legitimacy but does not actually exist on the ground.

There are parallels to be drawn between this bid and the 1947 UN partition plan which paved the way, despite Arab rejection, to the creation of the state of Israel. However, this time around it is unlikely to serve the Palestinians as well because they are too weak, the Israelis too powerful and the international community lacks the wherewithal to impose a solution on the two parties. Besides, if we are to learn anything from the tragic past, it is that UN involvement with only one side’s support was disastrous, and there is no reason to think it won’t be again.

Nevertheless, at one level, the plan is commendable because it is attempting to inject a new dynamic and a sense of urgency into the stagnant swamp of the so-called peace process. And the idea has garnered a lot of international support – particularly among Arab states, in the developing world and some parts of Europe

That said, some countries which already recognise Palestine bilaterally, such as in Latin America, might actually not do so at the UN.  Moreover, the Palestinian bid lacks US support, which is vital given how the United Nations operates. For a country to gain membership to the world body, the UN Security Council must first recommend statehood to the General Assembly. And judging by previous and current form, Washington is very likely to veto any such proposal. In fact, some US officials have warned that Washington could withdraw its funding for the UN, if the proposed vote goes ahead.

Of course, there is a chance that Abbas and the Palestinian leadership are actually not seriously contemplating going to the UN and are using this as a bluff to focus Israeli minds, lure Israel back to the negotiating table and force it to offer the Palestinians a viable state along the pre-1967 borders. But what if Israel calls their bluff?

The Israeli reaction to possible UN recognition of Palestinian statehood is difficult to gauge but it is unlikely to be positive. The UN option enjoys the backing of some Israelis who see in it a ‘win-win’ solution for both sides. But such an enlightened Israeli view is a minority one, and the Israeli government and much of the public interpret the plan as an act of hostility. 

Some Palestinians I have spoken to fear that it might lead Israel to accelerate its unilateral border carve-up started by Ariel Sharon with his wall but possibly, as punishment, leave the Palestinians with even less land than Sharon, not known for his generosity towards the Palestinians, had foreseen. Alternatively, Israel could simply use UN recognition as a smokescreen to continue its occupation and settlement building as before while arguing that Palestinians already have their internationally sanctioned state. 

Worse still, the Israeli government, under the hard line Binyamin Netanyahu, could, in an interesting but bloody historical parallel, interpret the move as an ‘act of war’, as the Arabs did towards the original 1947 partition plan, and launch an armed campaign against the Palestinians and/or tighten its military grip on the Palestinian territories.

Some Palestinian advocates of the idea will counter that gaining international legitimacy for their national project, even if not immediately, will eventually bring the prospects of statehood that bit closer. This is possible but unlikely under the current crop of rightwing ideologues running the Israeli government. 

Besides, previous declarations of statehood achieved little. Palestine, which has existed as a virtual state for decades, and is currently recognised bilaterally by over 110 countries, still remains a state-in-waiting. For example, the 1988 unilateral Palestinian Declaration of Independence, which was made in exile by the PLO in Algiers, was little more than an exercise in symbolism.

The real gains for the Palestinian cause were being made, a quarter of a century before the ‘Arab spring’, by the ordinary Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza who rose up in the largely peaceful and leaderless first intifada, paving the way to the peace process and the two-state solution.

So it is not in the hallowed corridors of international power, which consistently failed in brokering a just and lasting solution, that the Palestinian leadership needs to look for a new dynamic to resolve their people’s predicament and improve their plight but to their own grassroots.  

One young Palestinian I know who works for an NGO suggested a radical proposal that deserves the full attention of the Palestinian leadership. Come September, if no concrete progress towards the creation of an independent Palestinian state on the pre-1967 borders has been made, he suggests that the Palestinian Authority, Legislative Council and security services should inform Israel that they plan to disband themselves and invite the Israelis back to take full control of the territories, thereby ending the “outsourcing” of the occupation.

This, he argues, will lay the full moral, human and material burden of the occupation back on Israeli shoulders, drawing Israeli public attention to how costly in both human and financial terms the occupation, which Israel has been “getting on the cheap” thanks to international support for the PA, actually is.

In parallel with this, the Palestinians should launch a massive grassroots civil movement in which they demand from Israel, since it insists on continuing its occupation of their future state, to grant them Israeli nationality and full civil rights, including the right of free movement everywhere in the Occupied Territories and Israel proper; the right to use Israeli highways and byways; the right to live and work everywhere, including in the settlements; and, above all, the right to vote.

This will leave Israelis with two clear choices: do they want the land to be Jewish or its people to be? If it wishes to maintain a Jewish majority in Israel, then it will have to make way for an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital. If it wishes to maintain control of the land, then it will have to accept a new identity as a multiethnic, multicultural melting-pot in which Jews, though they will never be a tiny minority, will nonetheless soon be outnumbered by Muslims and Christians.

For Palestinians, though giving up the dream of an independent homeland to call their very own will be unacceptable to many, the time has arrived to decide whether Palestine is more important than the Palestinians, or whether people’s well-being should take priority over questions of who controls the soil.

 

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