September 2011, Week 3


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Fri, 16 Sep 2011 22:51:52 -0400
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Can Palestine's Bid for UN Statehood Revive the National

Graham Usher
September 14, 2011
October 3, 2011 edition of The Nation.

The PA's appeal to the world body arises from the
collapse of a two-decade Oslo "peace process" that has
brought the Palestinians neither peace nor a state. But
there is confusion at the heart of the move: is it an
elaborate ruse to strengthen the PA's hand in
negotiations, or is it a new diplomatic strategy
grounded in international law and political mobilization
but born of the opportunities opened by the Arab

It's certainly a risk. Any bid before the Security
Council will incur not only a US veto but Congressional
sanctions and Israeli retaliation, including a possible
ban on transfer of PA revenues to pay its 180,000
employees. Even an upgrade, which carries a lesser
status, could incur Israeli reprisals. And both could
trigger violence in the occupied territories and beyond.
UN membership is said to be the preference of PA
president Mahmoud Abbas, his Fatah movement, most
Palestinians and the Arab League. The upgrade already
has the support of most nations at the General Assembly,
including several European states. The EU's official
position as a bloc, however, is to support a return to

The Obama administration sees both a veto and a no vote
as a train wreck. Either action would deepen-at a time
of revolutionary upheaval-the already widespread Arab
perception of America as Israel's defender and
Palestine's enemy. Embassies in Cairo and Damascus have
been burned for less. Former Saudi US ambassador Turki
al-Faisal has warned that if Washington vetoes a
Palestinian state, it will lose Saudi Arabia,
historically its closest Arab ally.

The PA's turn to the UN is an act of last resort. Since
Obama was elected there have been just two weeks of PA-
Israeli negotiations. Obama's last throw on the PA's
part was a plea last year for Israel to obey a partial
freeze on settlement construction. Israel refused, for
the third time. Obama later vetoed a unanimous Security
Council resolution calling for a freeze, something that
had been Washington policy.

UN membership would strengthen the PA legally and
politically. Even an upgrade may allow it to join bodies
like the International Criminal Court; there, say legal
experts, it could potentially prosecute Israel for grave
breaches of the Geneva Conventions, including the
illegal transfer of settlers into occupied territory.
The PA also knows that an overwhelming show of support
for nonmember observer state status would not only
strengthen its claim to eventual statehood. It would
expose the United States and Israel as the real holdouts
in the conflict, and "finally extract a price for US
shameless pandering to Israel," says Palestinian analyst
Rashid Khalidi.

It could also help revive mass grassroots activism,
which had largely vanished from the Palestinian
struggle. In May refugees from Syria, Lebanon, Israel
and the territories marched in protests commemorating
the Nakba, the dispossession and exile caused by
Israel's creation. Similar marches are planned around
the UN bid. Activists say the aim is not simply to
endorse "a last chance for a two-state solution," as PA
slogans put it. Indeed, some activists worry that the UN
move could weaken the Palestine Liberation
Organization's status as the representative of the
Palestinian people as a whole, and especially the
refugees' right of return. But others see the bid as a
potential mobilizer to unite a people that during the
Oslo era became "un-nationed" into its fragments: West
Bankers, Gazans, East Jerusalemites, Israeli
Palestinians and stateless refugees. To them, the UN
move is part of a new strategy that replaces the Oslo
paradigm of unequal and bilateral negotiations with
international law, popular protest, regional solidarity
and national unity.

Is this the PA's vision? For many in the current
leadership, the UN bid is not about the death of Oslo
but its resurrection. Abbas has said he would scrap the
UN move if only Washington would compel Israel to return
to negotiations based on 1967 lines and a settlement
freeze. He has also said he will return to negotiations
no matter what happens at the UN.

More seriously, he has stalled reconciliation talks with
Hamas for fear they would harm international (read US
and European) support at the UN. For many Palestinians,
the rapprochement with the Islamists not only ended the
conflict between rival authorities; it paved the way for
new PA elections in the territories, and the hope of a
democratically reconstituted PLO beyond them. The
partial collapse in unity talks has aroused suspicions
among some Palestinians that Abbas's UN move is less
about reinvigorating the national cause than retaining
political control.

Likening the PA's UN bid to the Arab revolutions is
attractive but facile. Palestinians' primary enemy is
not autocracy; it is occupation. And their primary goal
is not democracy; it is freedom. Where their struggle
chimes with those of their kin in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya
and Syria is in the fact that no change will come via
leaderships or alliances that remain wedded to the
ancien régime. If the UN bid really marks a break with a
negotiating paradigm based on US control, Israeli
domination and Palestinian retreat, then it may be the
start of a new strategy. But if it is only brinkmanship
meant to force a US-guided return to negotiations on
slightly better terms, then it is the ancien régime
dressed in new UN clothes. That paradigm was tried for
twenty years, and the only thing it delivered was US-
guaranteed impunity for Israel to colonize another
people's country. It's as over as Oslo.


Graham Usher is a writer and journalist who has written
extensively about the Arab world and South Asia.


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