UN showdown over Palestinian statehood fails to address issue of sovereignty

Developing Just Leadership

Zainab Cheema

Sha'ban 14, 1436 2011-10-01

Main Stories

by Zainab Cheema (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 40, No. 8, Sha'ban, 1436)

Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen) addressed the UN General Assembly on September 23, making an emotional plea for Palestinian statehood. The moment was made for TV — “Abbas brings Tahrir Square to New York,” declared one observer, noting CNN’s broadcast of the speech spliced with scenes of flag-waving crowds in Palestine.

Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen) addressed the UN General Assembly on September 23, making an emotional plea for Palestinian statehood. The moment was made for TV — “Abbas brings Tahrir Square to New York,” declared one observer, noting CNN’s broadcast of the speech spliced with scenes of flag-waving crowds in Palestine. Devoid of the charisma of a Yasser Arafat, Abbas’s speech nonetheless had resonance by invoking the motifs of Palestinians’ historical grief over their dispossession.

The time has come for our men, women and children to live normal lives, for them to be able to sleep without waiting for the worst that the next day will bring; for mothers to be assured that their children will return home without fear of suffering, killing, arrest or humiliation; for students to be able to go to their schools and universities without checkpoints obstructing them,” said Abbas. “The time has come for sick people to be able to reach hospitals normally, and for our farmers to be able to take care of their good land without fear of the occupation seizing the land and its water.” He referred to the pathos of 100 year-old olive trees uprooted, and of 1948’s refugees escaping from their homes with their keys and mementos.

The other two speeches, Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama’s, did not fare so well in global reviews. Even Jewish liberals admitted to embarrassment at the surly Netanyahu, who took to the podium to deliver a lecture on Jewish exceptionalism interspersed with insults of the UN and praises of his own magnanimity in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Secure in Obama’s obeisance before the elusive US Jewish vote, Netanyahu called the United Nations “a theatre of the absurd” and “a house of many lies.” “The truth is that we cannot achieve peace through UN resolutions, but only through direct negotiations between the parties,” declared Netanyahu, willfully ignoring how Israel itself was declared a nation by a UN General Assembly vote rather than by “direct negotiation” with the Palestinians or Arabian countries.

Perhaps of all the speeches, the one with the most pathos was Obama’s, as he attempted to shore up the twilight of US empire, play nice to the Arab street while justifying military interventions in the Muslim East, and package himself as a die-hard Zionist to US Jewish voters, all at the same time. One might wonder how his speechwriters attempted to keep a straight face in scripting the tragic document. “The Empire wants governments in Syria and Yemen gone, so they are told to surrender to the protesters — or else,” noted Nebojsa Malic of Antiwar.com on Obama’s doublespeak. “Yet in Bahrain, a major US naval base, the Empire prefers ‘a meaningful dialogue that brings peaceful change that is responsive to the people.’”

Obama went on to balance sympathy for the “Palestinians [who] have seen their vision [for statehood] delayed for too long,” with the meat and potatoes of US foreign policy. “But understand this as well: America’s commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable,” he declared. “Our friendship with Israel is deep and enduring. And so we believe that any lasting peace must acknowledge the very real security concerns that Israel faces every single day.”

Obama also didn’t hesitate to remind the audience that the UN came from US initiatives. He congratulated himself on military interventions in Pakistan (la affair bin Laden), Cote d’Ivoire, Sudan and others, but ended his penny oration on a heartfelt quote, “The United Nations is essentially an expression of the moral nature of man’s aspirations.” But then again, since the quote is from Harry Truman, the US president who authorized the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was perhaps appropriate. Peace and morality in the US Empire’s play-book, always comes at the end of a gun barrel (or missile carrier).

Obama shared a number of thematic similarities with Netanyahu, painting Iran as Public Enemy No. 1 to the world order, and massaging post-WWII narrative of Jews “deserving” Palestine because of their historic chronicles of suffering (at the hands of Europeans — a detail he thought fit to gloss over). The Democratic Party has, in fact, publicized Obama’s speech as iron-clad proof of his support for Israel. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: “The National Jewish Democratic Council, which recently launched a new website explaining Obama’s support for Israel, took the speech as an opportunity to claim that all the ‘political chatter’ doubting the president’s support for Israel should be ‘put to bed once and for all.’” Obama even held a conference call with 900 rabbis on September 22, to assure them that the US-Israel alliance is stronger than ever.

As it happens, there are reasons for Obama’s stress: recent US polls have indicated that Jewish affiliation for the Democrats has dropped and that Jews will not be voting for the party in near unanimous numbers, as before. The recent win of a Republican congressman in the election to replace disgraced NY Democrat Anthony Weiner was taken as message about Jewish disaffection with Obama. “This Republican win in an overwhelmingly Democrat district is a significant indicator of the problem that President Obama has in the Jewish community,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. Thus, the Cairo-speech romancing is at an end, and the Urdu-ghazal spouting Obama has been replaced by Baruch Obama, as he once characterized himself to a political funder in Chicago’s upper-crust Jewish circles.

The television cameras have stopped rolling and the operative question is, of course, what now? The UN vote is rather meaningless. The power of the Palestinian narrative doesn’t derive from UN resolutions — the UN, in fact, has already ruled ad infinitum on the imperative of protecting Palestinian human rights, all of which have been flagrantly ignored by Israel and the US over the years. Israel’s track record in this respect is quite impressive: it is implicated in flouting the most UN resolutions — more than any other member state — helping to shore up the UN’s image as a lame-duck body.

In fact, Hamas’ Ismail Haniya sharply criticized Abbas for agreeing to accept a state based on 22% of historic Palestine and also for seeking a political solution without laying the groundwork for sustainability (the liberal Israeli press is already speculating about pressuring Netanyahu to agree to a “demilitarized” Palestinian state and so help bring Israel out of the globe’s dog-house). “States liberate their land first and then the political body can be established,” said Haniya. “The Palestinian people do not beg the world for a state, and the state can’t be created through decisions and initiatives.” He points to the fact that viable states — which Israel has never been, requiring the umbrella of US power from its infancy — coalesce on the ground and are not solutions imposed from the outside.

Abbas, of course, is aware of all this. However, he politically benefits from the upsurge of his popularity with the Palestinians, helping to erase his image as a corrupt, hapless collaborator with Israel a la the Palestinians Papers scandal. Certainly, Abu Mazen has the capacity to inspire the Israeli media, which has scolded Netanyahu for his intransigence, but bestowed effusive praise-words on him as the “most reasonable” Palestinian official Israel has ever dealt with. This also allows him to elbow out Hamas and enable the PLO to claim a monopoly on Palestine’s leadership: he applies for statehood “on behalf of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, which will remain so until the end of the conflict in all its aspects.”

But while US Inc. allowed Abbas his time in the sun and provided him with the cameras and lights through which political theater seeks to rival Hollywood, behind the scenes negotiations are making his application to statehood a moot point. The US and Israel will not be swayed — peace must come through “discussions” with Israel, that is to say, any gesture towards Palestinian sovereignty is completely at Israel’s discretion. Given Israel’s rush toward settlement building all across the West Bank, even in the midst of this crisis, we can take this to its logical conclusion — Palestinian statehood via US-led peace processes is an endlessly-deferred utopia.

The word is that the Quartet on the Muslim East — diplomatic speak for the US, EU, UN and Russia, which have anointed themselves the supreme arbiter of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis — are working fast behind the scenes to stymie Abbas’ application. According to Haaretz, “[t]he Quartet proposed on Friday [September 23] that Israel and the Palestinians should meet within one month to agree on an agenda for new peace talks with a goal of a deal by the end of 2012.” It is impossible not to hear the ellipses in that statement. The article notes that the Quartet has also demanded “comprehensive proposals within three months on territory and security” — that is, proposals on how Israel can feel more secure while lunching on more sections of the West Bank, as opposed to Abbas’ UN proposal for Palestinian sovereignty. Abbas himself has hopefully stated that he expects the UN Security Council to finish debating on Palestinian statehood “within weeks, not months.”

Meanwhile, the US is using its leverage behind the scenes to make sure that individual countries do not vote in favor of Abbas’ proposal: according to UK newspaper The Guardian, “Palestinian sources say they believe Washington has bullied several Security Council members into withdrawing their support for the Palestinian move,” including Bosnia, Nigeria, and Portugal. Depending on how long the process drags out, the list can conceivably grow quite lengthy. One senior Palestinian official described the Americans as “playing a really nasty game”.

It is possible that the US-Zionist nexus will listen to the voice of the alarmed liberals that have become anxious over both the US’ and Israel’s growing isolation in the world, and begin the process to create a Palestinian state. It is unlikely, but as they say: never say never. But when Obama and Netanyahu decide to do so, they will be hamstrung by the uber-conservative demographics that have become the political center of their respective nations. Even if it had no other political value, Abbas’ trip to the UN would have brought about a rather intriguing situation: Obama in a double bind, caught between his need to rhetorically smooth over relations with a Muslim world funding US opulence, and the imperative to don the Crusader Shield to win over neo-conservatives and Zionists filling the vacuum in the next US presidential election.

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