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Facing Both Ways
The UN’s Dry Run on Palestinian Statehood
by GRAHAM USHER

Two months before the real thing, on 26 July the Security Council went through the paces of the West Bank Palestinian Authority’s (PA) expected bid to seek recognition as a state at the United Nations in September.

Palestinian observer Riad Mansour said Palestine’s “admission as a full member” of the UN “on the basis of the pre-1967 borders” would “help to make the two-state solution more inevitable”.

Israel’s UN ambassador, Ron Prosor, said it would make the conflict more intractable. The Americans made it clear they would veto any bid for membership that came before the Security Council because “symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the UN… will not create an independent Palestinian state,” said Rosemary DiCarlo, US deputy permanent representative.

And while European countries like France, Britain and Germany chorused that they “supported the establishment of a Palestinian state”, few believe they will do so against the wishes of Israel and the US. “There is no viable or acceptable alternative to negotiations,” said Werner Hoyer, German minister of state, echoing both Israel and America.

All were at the Security Council monthly discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict, a debate normally as turgid as the thing itself. But this session was charged.

Not only was it the last before September. It was overarched by the uprisings, wars and revolutions collectively known as the Arab Spring: every diplomat knew that decisions taken (or not taken) at New York in September may have a material impact not only in Israel/Palestine but in a region already on fire.

“If we are to win the hearts and minds of the Arab people and support them in meeting their aspirations, we must be able to show them our collective determination towards reaching a just and viable peace in the region,” said Fazli Corman, Turkey’s deputy permanent representative, making pristine the link between the Palestinian and Arab struggles for freedom. Ankara supports the PA’s bid for full UN membership.

Does the PA? Mansour was opaque about whether the Palestinians would seek full state membership in September or a merely an upgrade on their current UN status as observer.

The first would trigger a crisis with Washington, incurring not only a veto but a threat by the US Congress to cut $500 million in aid to the PA that last month could only pay half salaries to its 150,000 employees. Israel would also surely retaliate: Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has said Tel Aviv should meet any PA bid for statehood with “revocation” of the Oslo Accords, and with them the nexus of security, financial and political ties that govern Israel-Palestinian relations.

The second may improve the PA’s international aura as a state — including possible membership of UN agencies like the International Criminal Court — but would not invest it with the sovereign powers the PA says it needs to create parity with Israel in negotiations.

So what does the PA want? The “ultimate objective” is UN membership, said Mansour, but “the road could be express or local”, meaning the PA could take their case to the UN Security Council in September or delay and seek instead an upgrade in status at the General Assembly under US, European and perhaps Arab pressure.

Mansour’s contortions are understandable. The PA in Ramallah is divided on the issue, and the Hamas authority in Gaza disinterested (Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar has described any move at the UN as a “political scam”).

Prime Minister Salam Fayyad fears US and Israeli sanctions would bankrupt the PA, ruining what remains of his state building agenda. Conditions could then be ripe less for independence than bread riots against the regime. PA president Mahmoud Abbas, on the other hand, seems to want “to go for the big solution,” according to a Western diplomat.

“We are going to the Security Council (despite the American veto),” Abbas told the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) Central Committee on 27 July. He called for “mass action” to support the bid for UN membership. “I insist on unarmed popular resistance so that nobody misunderstands us. We are inspired by the protests of the Arab Spring, all of which cry out “peaceful”, “peaceful!” he said.

Abbas’s comments are a nod to popular committees in the West Bank that are starting to plan campaigns of civil disobedience for September. They are also a response to calls by jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti for “mass rallies” to bolster the bid for UN membership as a state.

But they are disingenuous, says analyst Hani El-Masri. There is no sign as yet that Fatah or the PA is mobilising for a “mass movement for independence” in September. Instead, like the Nakba marches in May, they will likely permit some protests while preventing others, particularly if Palestinians try to march on settlements. Fatah is “capable of mobilising mass protests,” says El-Masri. “The question is whether Abbas wants this.”

The charge exposes the ambiguity at the heart of the PA strategy. For Barghouti, approaching the UN only makes sense if it is part of a new strategy that restores the Arab-Israeli conflict from a US-led haggle over real estate (which is what it has become under Oslo) to a people’s struggle for the right to self-determination rooted in UN resolutions. He has called “on our people in the homeland and Diaspora to go out in a peaceful, million-man march during the week of voting in the UN in September.”

Is this Abbas’s vision? Going to the UN is “not an alternative to negotiations” with Israel, he told the PLO Central Committee. “But if we succeed, the negotiations would take a different shape.”

In other words, the turn to the UN is not to bury Oslo but to resurrect it as part of an old/ new process in which the Palestinians will negotiate not as the PLO, but as the government of Palestine. Such an enhanced status has already proven too much for Israel and the US — and in all likelihood many European states — to countenance.

But it is also unlikely to be enough for a people who, after 20 years of negotiation, 44 of occupation and 64 of exile, believe nothing should prevent them from being free.

Graham Usher writes for Al Ahram Weekly, where this article originally appeared.