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PORTSIDE  September 2011, Week 3

PORTSIDE September 2011, Week 3

Subject:

Palestine Comes to the UN

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Wed, 21 Sep 2011 22:23:29 -0400

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Palestine Comes to the UN

By Phyllis Bennis 
Alternet 
September 21, 2011

http://www.alternet.org/world/152483/say_goodbye_to_the_failed_%22peace_process%22_as_palestine_goes_to_the_un

Take away the crass political motives, and what is left
in the U.S. plan to veto Palestinian membership in the
UN can be summed up in one word: chutzpah. The U.S. is
threatening to veto a resolution aimed at achieving
something Washington claims it supports - a Palestinian
state [truncated, still-occupied, demilitarized and
divided but nominally independent] side by side with
Israel - because they don't like the venue where this
particular step towards statehood is underway. It's
hardly news that the U.S. only supports a Palestinian
state created under its own control, within the
parameters of its own U.S.-dominated "peace process,"
whose 20 painful years have achieved only failure - and
worse. The U.S. only supports a Palestinian "state"
shaped by the realities of U.S. and Israeli power, not
one based on human rights and international law.

The debate over Palestinian statehood and UN membership
at this year's General Assembly meeting has brought the
usually staid opening debate to a fever pitch of U.S.
pressure, Israeli threats, European division, and
Palestinian ambiguity. (It shouldn't be so fraught -
according to the Guardian, countries that recognize
Palestine represent about 80 percent of the global
population, while the ones who don't have 75 percent of
the world's cash.) Pretty much everyone agrees there's
not a chance that the decision, whatever it might be,
will actually change anything on the ground. So why the
near-hysteria in the diplomatic world?

The answer lies in three separate but interlocking
realities: the changing U.S. policy towards the Middle
East in the midst of the Arab Spring; the UN unchanging
U.S. policy towards Israel in the midst of election
politicking; the divided opinion among Palestinians
about the wisdom and significance of the initiative.

THE ARAB SPRING AND PALESTINE

The challenge to, and overthrow of, U.S.-backed
dictators across the Arab world is changing landscapes
across the region and in countries far from the Middle
East. The notion now spreading throughout the Arab
Spring, that a revolutionary process could contain
within it both an internal focus (the shaking up of old
social hierarchies) and an external focus (aimed at
shaking out old leaders and old ideas), had its roots
in the first Palestinian uprising, the socially
inclusive, grassroots-based and non-violent intifada
that began a generation ago in 1987. So it should not
surprise anyone that Palestinians are still engaged in
nonviolent mobilization that aims both to end Israeli
occupation, settlement, and apartheid, and to
democratize and hold accountable its own internal
leadership.

For the U.S., the Arab Spring has transformed the
diplomatic/political landscape in the region. For the
first time since before World War II, the U.S. cannot
rely on sycophantic Arab dictators willing to viciously
suppress their own people in order to sign friendly oil
contracts and make nice to Israel, while maintaining
the good ties to Washington that keep the stream of
arms sales and foreign aid flowing. For the first time,
some Arab regimes are being forced to at least partly
take into account popular opinion. So this time, in
such a heated and high-profile atmosphere, a U.S. veto
will almost certainly lead to significant diplomatic
challenges for Washington's military, resource,
economic and political relations.

THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION, ISRAEL AND ELECTIONS

What makes navigating these treacherous new waters even
more difficult for the Obama administration is the
usual problem often facing U.S. policy towards the
Middle East: U.S. strategic interests (supporting
Palestine's UN bid would go far to win over skeptical
Arab populations and their nervous governments) are
constrained by domestic political interests. That is,
the spurious but widely accepted view in the pro-Israel
lobby, that Obama is somehow "too tough on Israel,"
means that fear is on the rise in the White House about
the possible loss of Jewish organizing support and
especially Jewish campaign contributions in the 2012
election.

If not so dangerous, it would be almost funny to see
the right-wing pro-Israel organizations, on the
defensive, desperate to figure out how to attack the
president for not being pro-Israel enough. On the eve
of President Obama's UN speech, for instance, in a
full-page New York Times ad, the neo-con-led Emergency
Committee for Israel was reduced to demanding changes
in what the president says (he should "refrain from
criticizing Israel"), without even hinting at the need
for any change in what the president does. They are
fine with Obama providing $30 billion in U.S. military
aid to Israel over these ten years, delighted at Obama
escalating joint U.S. military exercises with Israel,
thrilled with Obama protecting Israel from being held
accountable for its war crimes. But somehow the word is
still out: Obama just isn't pro-Israel enough.
Recognizing there's just not much more President Obama
can do to support Israel, that he's already walking
their walk, the influential core of those pro-Israel
organizations is reduced to just demanding he talk more
of their talk.

Ironically, if the Palestinians do begin their
statehood initiative in the Security Council, and the
U.S., as promised, vetoes the resolution, the
international negative repercussions will be huge, but
the political advantage for Obama's 2012 election
prospects won't amount to much more than a hill of
beans. It will never be enough for Israel's hardest-
core supporters. (The other possibility, of course, is
that a Security Council move may not result in an
immediate vote-and-veto at all, but rather burial of
the resolution for months or longer in the endless
morass of UN bureaucracy. That would allow the
Palestinian leadership to avoid embarrassing the U.S.,
and would allow the Obama administration to deflect the
issue altogether - perhaps till after the 2012
election.)

PALESTINE 194 AND 194 FOR PALESTINIANS

But if the U.S. and Israel are so determined to derail
this initiative one way or another, why is Palestinian
support for it so uncertain and uneven? Part of the
reason this month's Palestinian UN initiative is so
confusing has to do with competing Palestinian claims
to the number 194. For the Palestinian Authority (whose
leaders are running the Palestinian diplomatic
campaign) and for many Palestinian supporters in the
Occupied Territory, the significance is visible on
balloons, bumper stickers, working papers and online
logos: "Palestine 194" - articulating the goal of
establishing the State of Palestine as the 194th Member
State of the United Nations. For others in the
territories and for many of the millions of Palestinian
refugees and exiles throughout the worldwide diaspora,
the importance of 194 is less about UN membership than
about implementation of the UN resolution of that same
number. Resolution 194 guarantees the right of
Palestinian refugees to return to the homes from which
they were dispossessed in the 1947-48 war that resulted
in the creation of the state of Israel.

From the vantage point of international law and human
rights, Palestinians could win at least two significant
gains from the current UN statehood initiative, and
confront at least two potential dangers.

The most important gain is the challenge - the first in
twenty years - to Washington's stranglehold on
Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy. That alone is huge. As
Robert Fisk wrote in the Independent, with this UN vote
"never again can the United States and Israel snap
their fingers and expect the Arabs to click their
heels. The US has lost its purchase on the Middle East.
It's over: the `peace process,' the `road map,' the
`Oslo agreement;' the whole fandango is history." The
break - finally! - from the U.S.-backed "peace process"
in favor of a UN-centered diplomatic initiative,
whatever its particularities, represents a shift of
historic proportions.

More specifically, UN recognition of a Palestinian
state, whether a Member State in the unlikely event of
Security Council approval, or the far more likely
Observer State authorized by the General Assembly,
means that the State of Palestine can participate in
other kinds of global engagement. Perhaps the most
important possibility will be the opportunity to sign
on to the International Criminal Court. That would
enable Palestine to call for ICC prosecution of Israeli
war crimes committed in what would by then be the
territory of a State Party to the ICC's Rome Treaty.
There are no guarantees, of course. ICC prosecution,
like UN membership, is a thoroughly political process.
And for the same reason that George W. Bush and Dick
Cheney have so far avoided jail cells in The Hague, it
is certainly possible that Israeli war criminals might
escape as well. But the presence of the State of
Palestine within the ICC still transforms the potential
for international accountability and a small modicum of
justice.

Then there are the dangers.

Since the mid-1970s, Palestinians have been represented
at the UN by an Observer Mission of the Palestine
Liberation Organization. The PLO, deemed the "sole
legitimate representative of the Palestinian people" by
the UN itself, historically embodied the interests of
all three sectors of the Palestinian people: those
living under occupation in the West Bank, Gaza, and
East Jerusalem; those living as second-class citizens
of Israel; and crucially, those millions of Palestinian
refugees whose right to return to their homes remains
unfulfilled. There is great fear that replacing the PLO
at the UN with the "government" of an inchoate "state"
of Palestine could lead to the disenfranchisement of
all Palestinians outside of the 1967 Occupied
Territory.

The related danger is the potential loss of advocacy
for the right of return, guaranteed by UN Resolution
194 and committed to by Israel when it was allowed to
join the UN in 1949, but never implemented. The fear is
that a government of Palestine would not have the
authority - nor, more importantly, the political will -
to fight for recognition and implementation of that
right. Certainly there is no UN prohibition on any
government that wants to defend the rights of any
people. The Government of South Africa, or, of course,
the new Government of Palestine, could in theory take
up the cause of Palestinian refugees and the need to
implement Resolution 194. But political will remains a
problematic reality. Given that the PLO's own advocacy
for the right of return over the years has been
limited, the fear looms large that a government of
Palestine focused on realizing its official yet non-
existent state, would see refugee rights as a much
lower priority.

So there are clear differences among Palestinians in
how this process is moving forward. But for people in
the U.S., the real outrage is watching U.S. officials
who still believe they have the right to accept or
reject Palestinian decisions about how and in what
venue to struggle for their own freedom.

It is outrageous that Washington is threatening the
Palestinians, threatening other Member States, and
threatening the UN itself with dire consequences if a
move is made towards UN recognition of statehood. The
Palestinians are being threatened with loss of all U.S.
humanitarian aid, Congressmembers are urging that any
country voting for statehood should lose U.S. aid, and
UN agencies are being told directly that they will lose
U.S. funding if they welcome Palestine to their work.
It's an old story; in the run-up to the war in Iraq in
2003, the U.S. sent threatening letters to most
governments in an effort to prevent the UN from moving
against the looming war. The U.S. embassy in Pretoria
wrote to the South African government that "[g]iven the
current highly charged atmosphere, the United States
would regard a General Assembly session on Iraq as
unhelpful and as directed against the United States.
Please know that this question as well as your position
on it is important to the U.S."

It remains unclear how and whether this particular
initiative will succeed. But after 20 years of failed
U.S. diplomacy based on protecting Israel's occupation
and apartheid policies, some means of moving out of
Washington and into the United Nations for the creation
of a new diplomacy rooted in international law and
human rights remains a vital necessity.
_________________________

Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy
Studies and of the Transnational Institute in
Amsterdam. Her books include "Calling the Shots: How
Washington Dominates Today's UN," and "Understanding
the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer."

___________________________________________

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