Saturday, September 3, 2011

Why Be Scared Of A Palestinian State?

By Rami G. Khouri 

Two major Middle East-related events will take place this month with their epicenter in New York City: the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States, and the expected Palestinian bid for the United Nations General Assembly to recognize a Palestinian state in the lands that Israel occupied in 1967.

These events will generate intense debate and high emotions – most of which will be highly exaggerated. I will comment on the 9/11 commemorations next week from the United States, but here will discuss the Palestinian bid for U.N. recognition of statehood; or rather the hysterical American and Israeli reactions to that bid.
We will know soon precisely what the Palestinians seek in terms of U.N. recognition. Most serious observers expect that this Palestinian initiative will get the required votes in the General Assembly and will generate another symbolic gain for the Palestinian cause – in a body that has always been fair to the Palestinians. When “the state of Palestine” in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem is officially seated or recognized in some form at the U.N., this is unlikely to lead to any practical changes, because realities on the ground are not determined by U.N. General Assembly votes. They are determined by the behavior of Palestinians and Israelis and that of the foreign governments that support them. So I remain personally ambivalent about the Palestinian move to seek U.N. recognition, given its largely rhetorical and symbolic impact.

Much more interesting, though, are the extreme Israeli and American reactions to the move. The American executive and legislative branches of government have forcefully condemned it, including threatening punitive cut-offs in aid in some cases. The Israeli government has used all its diplomatic weapons to try and blunt the Palestinian initiative, but is resigned to the vote passing. The argument that Israelis and Americans make most often against the U.N. move is that it would detract from attempts to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict through direct bilateral negotiations. They say this with a straight face, and seem to be serious, though their incredulous argument flies forcefully in the face of history and reality.
The fact is that the United States and Israel have largely had their way in defining how Palestinian-Israeli negotiations proceed since the 1991 Madrid conference and the subsequent Oslo accords of 2003. Israel has dominated diplomatic engagements because it controls events on the ground with its occupation army, siege tactics, and settler-colonizers, and holds the Palestinians hostage via its controls of their land, water, air, trade, security and financial resources.

The United States, in turn, has dominated the mediating role in the on-and-off bilateral negotiations, and has generated a track record of consecutive and cumulative failures that must go down in history as among humankind’s greatest examples of diplomatic incompetence. Historians will one day recount whether this is due to amateurism or to the severe pro-Israel bias negating the U.S. mediator’s role.
In either case, bilateral negotiations as we have known them have no chance of success on the basis of current power balances and with American mediation favoring Israel so sharply. I suspect the real reason the United States and Israel so vehemently oppose the Palestinian move at the U.N. is that it represents a rare move to seek political movement on the Arab-Israeli issue that is not totally controlled by Israelis and Americans, but instead uses international law and the global consensus of nations as a reference point for diplomacy. This would be such a worrying precedent for Israel and the U.S. that they are using all possible tools and threats to kill it before it moves ahead any further.

This is also why the same U.S. and Israel reacted with equal hysteria to the Goldstone Report process when that happened last year. They simply cannot allow political deliberation or diplomatic processes related to Israel and Palestine to occur outside the context of Israeli priorities and the obsequious American response to all that Israel wishes, which is enforced through the formidable powers of the pro-Israel groups in Washington and at local levels across the United States (as the current “I love Zion” jamboree by most Republican presidential candidates and the U.S. Congress attests again).
So let us not be fooled by the diversionary debates about the largely symbolic September vote on Palestinian statehood at the U.N. The real issue is whether the history of Palestine and Israel will be shaped by law and the determination of the global community of nations to treat both sides equally; or by the muscle of a robust Zionism and its American diplomatic partner who resembles a ventriloquist’s dummy more than an independent actor, let alone an impartial mediator.

This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 03/09/2011

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