Friday, September 30, 2011

After The Festival Of Rhetoric

By Rami G. Khouri

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas
The Palestinian request last Friday for United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state in the land occupied by Israel in 1967 created quite a diplomatic stir after weeks of anticipation and guessing whether the Palestinian leadership would ask the Security Council for full UN membership, or take the more sure route of asking the General Assembly for non-member observer state status.
Now that the request for full membership has been made, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have made their speeches, and the diplomatic dust has largely settled, we can conclude several things.
I would list these as: a dramatic change of strategy by the Palestinians but with uncertain results; a continuing pro-Israel tilt by the United States; a consistent but increasingly isolated and unconvincing strategy by the Israelis; an embarrassing show of incompetence and daydreaming by the Quartet (the United States, UN, Russia and European Union) that is supposed to shepherd the two sides to conclude a permanent negotiated agreement.
In the end, all we can judge are the words of the various parties, because the past week has been a festival of rhetoric above all else. Nobody has made any substantive moves on the ground, with even the Palestinian request for UN recognition being words on paper that signal intent rather than any tangible accomplishment.
The intent that Abbas has signalled, though, is potentially a game-changer if he sticks to his position and refuses to resume the diplomatic game according to the old rules that have failed to achieve any progress since the Madrid peace talks nearly 20 years ago.
If Abbas persists in refusing to resume negotiations while the Israelis continue their settlement building, this would turn out to be the dramatic change that could have far-reaching consequences - but only if several things were to happen in the coming months and years.
Withdrawing from the negotiations is not particularly impressive if there is no alternative strategy that could realistically bring the Palestinians their national rights through some other means than American-mediated direct talks with Israel. It remains unclear what that alternative strategy might be, beyond asking the UN General Assembly to reaffirm the Palestinians’ right to sovereign statehood.
A UN vote recognising the state of Palestine is not a strategy; it is a procedural move that signals the fact that the Palestinians will not persist in the failed old diplomatic approach that brought them no real gains on the road to sovereignty. To be effective, this move must be followed up by a complete Fateh-Hamas reconciliation, rebuilding the institutions of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, reformulating the Palestinian national consensus on engaging and/or resisting Israel, and defining mechanisms by which all Palestinians around the region and the world can share in decision making and lend their ideas, support and weight to their leadership’s diplomatic moves.
The chances of this happening with the current leaders are slim, but the popular will for them to happen is huge.
If Abbas’ firm stand on rejecting negotiations under the failed old American-Israeli-dominated formula is the most significant development of the last few weeks, and the American tilt to Israel and Netanyahu’s speech are mere continuations of the stalemated and violent status quo, the most pitiful development has to be the statement issued by the Quartet during the weekend. It proposed that both sides reengage in a serious diplomatic effort that leads to concrete proposals within a few months and a Palestinian state within a year.
This is a comical and totally inept performance that is no surprise, because the Quartet has proved to be a malicious mechanism by which the United States seeks to maintain a pro-Israeli tilt in the overall diplomacy surrounding Arab-Israeli negotiations.
By merely repeating the failed formula of the past, the Quartet members show that they have totally missed the point of how the Palestinians are demanding that the diplomatic rules be rewritten, not revived.
This is not surprising, given the prominent role in the Quartet played by Dennis Ross of the United States and Tony Blair, the group’s special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Men like these - and the governments they represent - have proved many times over that they lack the honesty and trust that are needed to succeed in diplomacy. It is no surprise that at the moment of truth, they reaffirm their inability to recognise the truth and come to terms with it.
The key dynamic to watch now is within the Palestinian camp, where reconciliation, unity and national consensus will be vital for any progress beyond the drama last week in New York, where old rules were discarded, but new ones have yet to be formulated.
The historic change last week was that Palestinians stopped acting like helpless victims of history and global politics, and started acting like a self-interested party that has not only rights to demand, but also political agency and the capacity to act.
This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 30/09/2011

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