Monday, July 11, 2011

A New State Of Affairs As UN Nears A Vote On Palestine

By Charles Glass

On Saturday, the world welcomed a new country into the community of nations. South Sudan has achieved independence from the northern half of the country, as Sudan itself did in 1956 when Egypt surrendered control of what had been known as Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. However, "independence" is not synonymous with "freedom", as the presence of the Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe at the independence celebrations in the capital, Juba, should remind South Sudan's eight million new citizens. The hard part is just beginning.

South Sudan is entitled to govern itself, although it faces residual hostility from its former governors in Khartoum, unimaginable poverty, massive illiteracy and heartbreaking infant mortality. The UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, who attended the Juba jamboree, wrote in The New York Times that the UN has a duty to its newest member: "Our purpose is to do more than celebrate this milestone. It is to stand by the people of South Sudan as they seek to build a stable, strong and ultimately prosperous nation."

In September, the United Nations General Assembly is expected to vote whether to recognise the independence of another state that has been long in the making. That state, as we all know, is Palestine. The United States and Israel are resisting Palestinian recognition with every means at their disposal, threatening the Palestinian Authority with new sanctions and vowing to withdraw American funding of the UN itself.

The US and Israel protest too much. Palestine, although not yet independent of Israeli occupation or freed from Israeli land seizure, is a fact acknowledged by at least 130 countries. While it has no vote in the General Assembly, its representatives participate in most UN agencies. Palestinian diplomats have a status akin to that of ambassadors even in western Europe, and Palestinian delegations to most developing countries are regarded as full embassies. Palestine has greater international recognition and legitimacy now than Israel had when it declared its statehood in May 1948.

Why the fear? First, the West Bank and Gaza would cease in international law to be occupied territories and become an occupied state. That is equivalent to Kuwait's occupation by Iraq in 1990, which took a war to end. Second, Palestine's voice would be heard in international forums on an equal plane to Israel's. No longer would the Palestinian representatives speak on sufferance, while an Israeli ambassador dismisses them as representing nothing. Third, Palestinians would have citizenship and passports recognised by most of the world. Fourth, the state of Palestine would have the right to demand help to achieve what all states expect: no foreign occupation. Fifth, Israeli isolation in the world will increase until it too recognises and withdraws from Palestine.

The stakes are high for both Israelis and Palestinians, and both are manoeuvring for the UN General Assembly to see the issue their way. Israel, however, has more to gain than to lose in the long run by welcoming the state of Palestine. Israel itself became a state courtesy of UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947 that called for the creation of two states, one Jewish and one Arab.

Statehood for Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza, roughly along the lines of the 1949 armistice accords between Israel and the neighbouring Arab states, means Palestinian recognition and acceptance of the other state beside it. That recognition, as long as this September's resolution is tied to the Resolution 181, would be irreversible. That resolution was Israel's birth certificate, and at long last it would serve the same purpose for the Palestinian state. It would be the end in fact and in law of any claim by Palestinian Arabs on territory lost in 1948.

The 1947 resolution proposed a transitional phase under UN trusteeship to oversee full independence for both states. Within that legal framework, the new state of Palestine could enjoy a period of UN trusteeship to end the daily confrontations between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians, build trust between the people of the two states and create cooperative institutions of the kind the original resolution called for - a customs union, shared currency and major services undertaken jointly by the two states. Cooperation and trust would be necessary for mutual survival.

International recognition of Palestine would be the world's signal that it will no longer tolerate this conflict. It will give hope to the Israeli peace camp, which has suffered more reversals at the polls than liberal white South Africans did during the death throes of apartheid. The potential ramifications of Palestinian statehood have already galvanised sectors of Israel's business community to revisit negotiating the Geneva Accord. They have also brought back discussion of the compromises, including full recognition of Israel by all Arab states, that the Saudi government passed through the Arab League in 2002.

The Palestinian Authority, an elected administration denied power so long as the occupation continues, has offered to withdraw its support of a statehood resolution at the UN if Israel will stop building settlements and accepts the notion of a second state. Israel's government is unlikely to do either, making a vote in the General Assembly inevitable. If two thirds of the members give their approval, the Palestinians will have a state on paper.

If the document becomes reality, as with South Sudan, Palestine's leaders owe their people a country worth living in. That means a state in which rule of law prevails over the will of despots, where freedoms are guaranteed and where all are equal. When asked what kind of state they would like to achieve, most Palestinians responded in polls taken before Israel's repression of the second intifada, a democracy like Israel's. That is a healthy start for both countries.

-This commentary was published in The National on 11/07/2011
-Charles Glass is the author of several books on the Middle East, including Tribes with Flags and The Northern Front: An Iraq War Diary. He is also a publisher under the London imprint Charles Glass Books

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