When Palestinian leaders decided to go to the United Nations to seek Palestinian recognition, they knew that would anger Tel Aviv and possibly Washington. But they didn’t expect the reaction that ensued.
Both the US and Israel are on record as supporting Palestinian statehood. The UN rarely has the ability to produce decisions with teeth unless the US and other Western allies are forcefully behind it.
Israel is about to declare an emergency situation in the occupied territories and the Obama administration is in emergency mode as if Palestinians were declaring war.
The idea of Palestine becoming a permanent member of the United Nations originated, say Palestinians, from none other than US President Barack Obama. Speaking at the UN General Assembly on September 23, 2010, Obama said he hoped that "when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations – an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel".
The Palestinians decided to take the US president at his word.
Obama’s efforts to rekindle the Middle East peace process was met by Israel’s refusal to carry out a temporary settlement freeze. The United States was even willing to offer a $3 billion arms deal to Israel in return for suspending building Jewish-only settlements in areas earmarked for the Palestinian state. But Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, rejected the US offer.
Nine months later, Obama made another effort to kick start peace talks.
"The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognised borders are established for both states," he said in May.
Once again Palestinians accepted Obama’s formula, while Netanyahu publicly rejected it, leaving Palestinians with no other non-violent alternative but to go to the UN to seek a state based on the 1967 borders.
In 1967, it should be recalled, Israel occupied the remainder of historic Palestine and other Arab territories following the June War. Shortly after the war, the UN Security Council declared, in the preamble to Resolution 242, that "it is inadmissible to occupy land by force".
As threats against the Palestinians failed to produce results, the US is now pressuring international countries who have already publicly recognised Palestine not to vote for it. The Obama administration wants these countries to refrain from giving a positive vote so that the US doesn’t have to veto the resolution.
So why this big fuss? Is it solely because the right-wing Israeli government and the election year in US are too fragile for any anti-Israeli UN decision. But this is not reason enough to warrant such overreaction over a toothless UN vote
A more credible answer could be found in the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians.
The decades-long occupation has given the Israelis the feeling that even in negotiations they can ram ideas down the Palestinians’ throats and that the weak Palestinians have no choice but to bite their lips and accept Israeli dictates. After all, Israel can and often delivered harsh, violent, financial blows against Palestinians, as well as further restricting movement of peoples and goods.
Israelis often wonder why Palestinians are not responsive to what they consider a benevolent attitude towards the Palestinian population.
When Arafat rejected Israel’s " generous offer", they besieged his headquarters and kept their tanks in Ramallah until his death.
The Gaza siege is another example of what happens to Palestinians when they do not toe the Israeli line, when they do not act the way they are supposed to.
What makes this situation different is the fact that the current Palestinian leader has found the right formula. His sincere and active opposition to violence has removed a major excuse Israelis often use to justify their harsh attitude. No wonder an Israeli strategists has called Mahmoud Abbas "dangerous" for Israel. But although Abbas is opposed to violence, dresses in a suit and speaks the language of a moderate, he has refused to budge on issues of national importance to Palestinians. Hence his real strength.
Furthermore, Abbas has vowed not to run for reelection, this leaving him free to act for what he believes is the interest of his people.
In his plane ride to New York, Abbas spoke to journalists about his life starting as a refugee and fighting for Palestinian rights. The report was published top of page in the wide-circulation Palestinian daily Al Quds; it reads, clearly, as a man’s last testimony. Abbas is going to the UN for history and for his personal legacy to the nation.
The Palestinian president has taken the path of UN recognition rather than continue with the charade of useless – indeed, harmful – direct talks. And, clearly, that change in tactics has hit a raw nerve with Israelis and frustrated the US.
Few Palestinians see anything wrong with the move, although many are not certain that it will produce many immediate and tangible results. Nonetheless, the Palestinian public is pleased for now with a leadership that has found the backbone to stand up to pressure from Israel and the US.
As Abbas has publicly said, the Palestinians’ desire to obtain a UN vote on statehood (in whatever form) does not mean that they cannot have direct negotiations with Israel. There is no reason why representatives of the newly recognised state cannot negotiate with representatives of Israel.
If the UN vote succeeds, however, it will not be a people talking with the occupier, but two states negotiating how to manage their relations in peace and harmony.