Whether Palestine

By: Dr. Aref Assaf

First published in the Record’s  Sunday Print Edition, 9/25/11

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“What Is A Man Worth
If He Has No Homeland
And He Has No Flag
And No Address?
What Is A Man”
Mahmoud Darwish, Palestinian Poet

The formal birth of the state of Palestine, albeit metaphysical, is certain to entail challenges and opportunities for the world community. It is not certain a decision will be made at this year’s gathering of world leaders. For me and a thousand supporters who gathered under intense soaking rain across from the UN, it was a history in the making to finally seek statehood recognition from the world body. After over 63 years struggling for global recognition, it was moving to see the countries of the world represented in the UN general assembly give President Abbas a rousing standing ovation when he announced the formal application for statehood was submitted to Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary-General.

2011 seems so much like 1947 when the fate of Palestinians and the Middle East underwent a historic development. Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin announced to the British parliament that his government was no longer able to bridge irreconcilable differences of Jews and Arabs in Palestine, and had therefore decided to relay the “Palestine question” to the United Nations. There is no chance of resolving the dispute via negotiations between the sides, Bevin declared. Nine months later, following a complex, trying diplomatic struggle, the UN authorized the partitioning of the country into two states; this resolution led to the establishment of the State of Israel. The ‘state’ of Palestine, which failed to materialize, is now turning to the UN for recognition.

For the Palestinians, however, the march for full recognition is irreversible. More than 130 states already recognize the state of Palestine, first declared in 1988. The United Nations is now being asked to formally affirm the right of the Palestinian people to a state of their own based on the 1967 borders. By doing so, the world community is again reaffirming its commitment to all previous UN Resolutions that call for the end of Israel’s military occupation of Arab lands and the rights of the Palestinians to sovereignty and self-determination. The recognition, however, will not end the 43-year-old Israeli occupation. That task has been the elusive goal of nearly twenty years of negotiations.

The Palestinians view their decision to apply for full United Nations membership at the Security Council is the most viable of the options. The options being: surrender, return to violence or appeal to the international community. The demand for statehood does not contradict the spirit and intent of the so-called Oslo Accords and the subsequent agreements between. After all, the US-backed peace process had one goal: to end Israeli’s military occupation, not the recognition of the Palestine state- a privilege only the United Nations, can now bestow.

Arguably, The UN bid is an acknowledgment of the failure of a twenty-year peace process from Madrid to Camp David. It acknowledges Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure of imagination and lack of a vision, an intransigence that seems anachronistic in today’s world especially when some of Israel’s most hard-bitten former security and defense chiefs have publicly called for more active diplomacy toward a two-state solution.

More specifically, it acknowledges the failure of President Barack Obama, a man whose election engendered nearly as much hope in the international arena as it did at home. However, Mr. Obama has found both at home and abroad that soaring rhetoric is not enough to change the most stubborn facts on the ground. One of which has been Mr. Netanyahu’s unwillingness to rein in the expansion of settlements in the West Bank.

It is time for a dramatic shift away from a futile peace process and on to a new path for progress. While the Israeli and US governments are calling the Palestinian initiative ‘unilateral’ and dangerous, in fact, the world’s nations to support this diplomatic move away from violence. Global recognition of Palestine could crush extremists who argue violence is the only solution and foster a growing non-violent Palestinian-Israeli movement in step with the democratic momentum across the region. Most importantly, it will rescue a path to a negotiated settlement; allow the Palestinians access to a variety of international institutions that can help advance Palestinian freedom, sending a clear signal to Israel’s pro-settler government that the world will no longer accept their impunity and intransigence.

Sadly, since the Palestinians announced their decision for recognition of their state, the American response has been characterized by threats focusing mainly on using their veto in the Security Council and cutting off aid to the Palestinian National Authority.

The US should abandon its current approach and instead make an offer that addresses the Palestinians’ needs in the context of the changing region, a context the President in his UN address completely disconnected from the Israel-Palestine conflict. The speech could have been given by Israel’s Prime Minister. While the world was reminded about Jewish suffering and yearning for peace, no mention was made of the daily suffering of Palestinians under Israeli military occupation or their deeply felt desire for freedom and normal life. As a long-time Palestinian activist, Hanan Ashrawi, said: “listening to the Obama’s speech, one would have thought it is Israel that is under the occupation of the Palestinians.” President Obama, speaking at the UN on Wednesday, Obama lauded the Arab Spring—but rejected the Palestinian Autumn. The president retreated from his earlier positions that demanded Israeli accountability for its military occupation, and he did not acknowledge the ongoing role of the U.S. in maintaining that imbalance through its extraordinary economic, military, and diplomatic support for Israel, even when its actions violate international law, human rights, and U.S. policy. And he did not acknowledge that twenty years of the “peace process” has brought only a more entrenched occupation. Instead, Obama merely said that both sides should “sit down together, to listen to each other, and to understand each other’s hopes and fears.”

The Palestinians have waited 63 years to attain their independence; that can hardly be called shortcuts. Returning to endless negotiations and a lackluster peace process under past conditions is no longer an option. The US has failed the test of honest and effective mediation. For those who argue the Palestine initiative derails the peace process, I ask what peace process? There is no peace because the terms of reference were never agreed to by Israel.

President Obama should keep in mind that the Palestinian appeal to the international community might very well be the last chance for salvaging the two-state solution. The Palestinians have spoken. Now it is up to Israel and its patron the United States to make their intentions clear. If the Palestinian demand for recognition falls through due to a US veto, then the necessary conditions for a paradigm shift will be in place: The two-state solution will be even less feasible, and the one-state formula will emerge as the only alternative.

The Palestinian leadership has maintained its willingness to consider what they called a ‘credible’ alternative to the UN approach. In a recent speech to a New Jersey audience of community leaders, Husam Zomlot, a member of the Palestinian UN delegation, said, “The intention behind Palestinian request to the Security Council move was to break the deadlock in the peace process, which may now be happening… We are seeking this to provide any future bilateral process with sufficient multilateral cover where we don’t waste another 20 years,” he said.

A banner at a recent pro-Palestine demonstration at the UN summed it up: “We have a dream too: a place to call a homeland”.

Related: The official Palestinian position on the UN vote bid is contained in a 35-page booklet that was given to every United Nations delegation. Titled “Recognizing Palestine: An Investment in Peace” it lists four reasons the Palestinians have taken this course: acts by Israel that undermine peace, international responsibility toward the Palestinians, the growth of Jewish settlements and intensifying Israeli designs on East Jerusalem.