By Dana Moss
Tuesday 4 October 2011
When Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, landed in New York to attend the UN General Assembly, he promised the Israeli public that he would “defend a people under assault from those who oppose [Israel’s] very existence”.
The government’s sound bites are sending the average Israeli into panic wondering about the exact nature of the existential threat, which Netanyahu alludes to, posed by the Palestinian quest to join the UN.
Yet behind the smoke and mirrors, Netanyahu is trying to prevent the very step that would save Israel – the recognition of a Palestinian state on the borders of 4 June, 1967.
The current government bluster about the implications of the Palestinian UN bid is partly intended to distract mainstream Israeli society from recognising that this a line that the Israeli left has been pushing for the past few decades.
The left – composed of various political parties and a small, though active, civil society scene – encompasses a spectrum of opinion that is both Zionist and non-Zionist. At bottom, however, it possesses the belief that a two-state solution and a division of the land is necessary to enable Israel to live up to its claims of having a demographic Jewish majority and adhering to a democratic system in which one people do not rule over another.
While it is true that, in the past, left-wing governments contributed to settlement building, in recent years this constellation of left-wing Israeli groupings have taken active steps to oppose such policies.
As a member of the left wing of Israeli society, I want to say loud and clear that we do not buy into Netanyahu’s scare tactics. A Palestinian state next to Israel will be a win-win situation for both our peoples. The lengthy occupation has harmed Israel, endangered its future as a homeland for the Jewish people and eroded the fabric of its society – it is time for it to end.
While opinions are divided as to the real-life utility of the UN bid in effecting change on the ground, it is clear that this Palestinian attempt to seize the initiative is an innovative step to break the current apathy over negotiations which have lasted over 18 years but have not yet culminated in an independent Palestinian state.
The specifics of the current Israeli government’s opposition to Abu Mazen’s initiative smacks of hypocrisy. At bottom, the Palestinian initiative mirrors Israel’s own history and its own attempts to gain recognition at the very same arena in 1948. Much like the Jewish people, the Palestinian are a people with a culture and a history, and they deserve their own state – this should not be patronisingly bestowed by Israel, but is an inherent right.
Moreover, other than the specific arena in which this Palestinian bid is being aired, nothing suggested therein is new. This initiative asks the UN to focus on the territorial aspects of the conflict according to parameters that have, in theory, been agreed to by previous Israeli governments.
The intangibles of the conflict, its more complicated and emotional aspects – the future of Jerusalem and the status of Palestinian refugees – will, as Mahmoud Abbas made clear, be dealt with in direct negotiations. The UN bid will not replace these negotiations.
As a result, this initiative is not intended to demonise Israel as a whole, but, in the words of Abbas, to delegitimise Israel’s occupation. There is little divergence here with the stance of the Israeli left, which has long viewed the occupation as illegitimate.
Netanyahu’s stated opposition to the Palestinian UN bid is based on the straw man argument that it is a unilateral step that bypasses bilateral negotiations. Yet the Israeli left has spent the past two years of Netanyahu’s reign as prime minister opposing his various initiatives to expand settlements, or create facts on the ground – for how can negotiations take place when, simultaneously, the Israeli government continues to expand settlements in East Jerusalem, which has been ear-marked as Palestine’s future capital?
It is clear to a vocal sector of Israel’s society that Netanyahu is not sincere about reaching a peaceful resolution with our neighbours. Were a different government in place, Israel could have built on the momentum of this declaration to thresh out the remaining issues with the Palestinian Authority. Instead, Netanyahu is busy undermining Abu Mazen – with grave consequences for Israel’s security, as Israel is unlikely to find a more willing partner.
Instead of securing Israel’s future, Netanyahu would rather maintain the support of his own domestic right-wing base and prevent his own political eclipse by Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s racist and reckless foreign minister. Yet this right-wing base does not represent the whole country.
Other voices are speaking up. These voices strongly oppose foolhardy steps by the US congress to block funds to the Palestinian Authority should it succeed in its bid for UN recognition of a Palestinian state.
That is why, instead of greeting this initiative with the doom and gloom heralded by the government, some Israelis chose to welcome this event with joint celebrations. These include the Israeli-Palestinian group Combatants for Peace and the Israeli branch of the One Voice movement.
Earlier in September, demonstrations took place in front of the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem, held by the Meretz Political party. Meanwhile, demonstratons took place at major traffic intersections across the country on the day of the UN speeches.
Veteran Israeli political analysts are speaking up in the Israeli media, with voices such as Zvi Barel proposing further steps for the international community, such as establishing embassies in the West Bank and recognising Palestinian passports.
Polls continuously show that mainstream Israeli society does, at bottom, believe in a two-state solution to the conflict. Netanyahu’s legacy at the UN will be to blind the silent Israeli majority to the reality that Palestine’s bid for recognition at the UN could bring closer those wishes.
As the government won’t say it, I will say it instead: Palestine, alf mabrouk, congratulations. I look forward to living side by side with you.
An Arabic version of this article appeared in al-Sharq al-Awsat on 2 October 2011. Published here with the author’s consent.