The Palestinian Authority (PA) is finally set to present an official demand for United Nations membership on September 20.
The five weeks that separate us from that “historic” moment will unquestionably witness reinvigorated debate on whether the Palestinians should proceed with their UN move or submit to intense American and Israeli pressure, demanding return to negotiations instead.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas knows quite well that neither negotiations nor a UN vote would effect any meaningful change on the ground that could lead to the creation of a Palestinian state.
The PA, like the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) before, have emptied the quest for statehood from any real content, transforming it into an empty slogan, through years of misdirection, absence of strategy and squandering of Palestinian rights.
For Abbas the choice therefore is not between statehood by a UN vote and statehood by negotiations, it is rather a choice between prolonging a sterile peace process of which endless negotiations are a major part, and/or taking his case to the UN. Clearly Abbas prefers negotiations. They indeed are sterile and have proved totally counterproductive - allowing Israel to buy time to complete its theft and colonisation of Palestinian land under cover of the “peace process”.
Abbas and his entourage know this, of course, but the great advantage of continued negotiations is that they win the PA international favour, money, and therefore ensure its wretched survival. The UN move, on the other hand, may lead to both political and financial strangulation of the PA.
For Abbas, the UN option was meant to be more of a threat than a genuine strategy and he made no secret of that. He started talking about “other options” when Washington declared its failure in convincing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accept a partial, temporary settlement construction freeze. That left Abbas stuck and exposed just how dependent he was on the Americans to deliver Israel for him and how lacking he was in independent options.
Probably he must have also believed that the UN card would compel Israel to offer him the fig leaf he needed to continue with expedient, though sterile, negotiations.
At a meeting of Palestinian diplomats in Istanbul last July, Abbas announced that the bid for UN membership was forced upon the Palestinians by Israel’s refusal to halt settlement building and to end its occupation.
“We are going to the United Nations because we are forced to,” Abbas told the Istanbul meeting, adding: “Our first, second and third choice is to return to negotiations.”
Israel’s objections to the PA bid instantly generated similar American and European objections. Israel’s claim that the PA UN bid is a “unilateral action” is wrong and baseless.
The United Nations, by virtue of the provisions of its charter, is unquestionably the right place for handling the question of Palestine. The Palestinian people can and should demand that the UN fulfil its obligations to them to help them recover their usurped land and rights. But Abbas’ apologetic approach has been more undermining of the UN Palestinian move than the Israeli counter-campaign.
A legitimate Palestinian leadership representing all Palestinians should indeed return the case to the UN, following the complete failure and counterproductive results of two decades of “peace process”.
For such a bid to be real, and to cover legal ground, it has to be part of a revised comprehensive Arab/Palestinian strategy reflecting a totally new approach, not a desperate option of last resort intended to secure resumption of more fake negotiations within the same failed peace process.
Instead of constantly panting behind the hope that some American cover would be extended at the last minute to enable the PA to return to negotiations, Abbas should abandon the “peace process” and allow a legitimate Palestinian leadership to take the cause of Palestine back to the UN.
It is far too late to consider a settlement construction freeze as an appropriate condition for resuming talks. The issue is the existing settlements, and the whole system of Israeli occupation, colonisation and racism, not merely the “expansion” of settlements.
Under the circumstances, the half-hearted Palestinian UN move, even if successful, will make no difference on the ground where Israeli settlement construction plans are surging ahead. Nor will it mean very much in practice if the current observer status of the PLO is transformed into full membership of a non-existing “state”.
It may, in fact, provide Israel with additional pretext for more annexation and colonisation of Palestinian land, while the rest of the hypocritical world blames the Palestinians for abandoning the negotiation table in favour of an unapproved “unilateral” action.
“Membership in the United Nations is open to all other peace loving states,” says Article 42 of the UN Charter. But any such admission requires a UN General Assembly decision upon recommendation from the Security Council.
The United States has already threatened to block any favourable Security Council decision by veto. What the Palestinians be left with in such case would be a General Assembly resolution upgrading the PLO observer status to a “non-member state observer”, a cosmetic and insignificant procedural change that in effect means very little.
But if the UN does, by some miracle, admit the “state of Palestine”, it could even damage Palestinian rights: whereas the PLO - at least legally speaking - represents the entire Palestinian people, including the refugees, the “state” would presumably only represent residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Thus, the majority of the Palestinians would be disenfranchised not only of their rights, but even of their representation and ability to pursue those rights.
This is not what Palestinians should do. They should move with solid Arab support to demand a comprehensive revision of the entire Palestinian file and the enforcement of all the standing UN resolutions which Israel, with American cover, has violated for decades with impunity. Demanding that the UN live up to its word should be only one part of a comprehensive national strategy that mobilises all people to achieve Palestinian rights. But that is not what Abbas has in mind. Neither, indeed, is the general Arab situation conducive to such drastic action, unfortunately.
Abbas may continue to be subjected to pressures, as well as “friendly” Arab advice, to abandon the UN bid, and in the end he may yield. That will not be a great loss for the Palestinian cause, neither will it be a great victory for Israel. Rather than a break from the failed peace process, the empty drama at the UN this September may be its final act.
Published in the Jordan Times on August 17, 2011.