Fragmentary Notes from the United Nations

New York.


The media huddle around a frigid United Nations Plaza. Fox has the best parking space. Rarely does one see such a sight before the UN building, where, on a sunny day, busloads of tourists from Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America descend. Occasionally a gaggle of American school children, but not often. The US pretends that the UN does not exist, or if it does, it is not relevant to its children. Few consider the UN Charter or read the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights. In June, Jimmy Carter wrote a cri de coeur in the New York Times (“A Cruel and Unusual Record,” June 24). He pointed to the Declaration, which has become a standard for human rights activists who fight against dictatorship and want to promote the rule of law. “It is disturbing,” Carter wrote, “that, instead of strengthening these principles, our government’s counterterrorism policies are now clearly violating at least 10 of the declaration’s 30 articles, including the prohibition against ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.’” The pity is that most engaged citizens and certainly most journalists would not be able to name even five of those thirty articles.

An otherwise curious reporter and I began a conversation about Palestine’s UN vote to become a Non-Member Observer State. “Washington will veto it,” he said. I tried to explain that the veto does not operate in the General Assembly, only in the Security Council, and that what he had in mind was what happened last November, not what was to take place on November 29, 2012. He was adamant. Another joined us, this one from a cable news channel. She was also sure that the US could stop anything it wanted in the UN. Fair enough, but wrong.


France voted for Palestine; the UK and Germany abstained. They would normally have stood with the US. After all, the Europeans are part of the Quartet, set up to manage the Israel-Palestine “peace process” after the Madrid meeting in 2002. The EU is one of the main sources of funds for the multilateral and Palestinian Authority institutions. Europe has old colonial obligations that it has now transformed into human rights investments. But the Europeans have their own theory for action in the region. There is great concern among European policy makers about what the right-wing calls Eurabia, the Muslim population inside Europe. Alienation of this population, they suggest, is dangerous, and an adverse position toward Palestine – one of the touchstones of global Muslim attitude to the Middle East – would cause further disaffection. That is why EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said last year that a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is “fundamental to Europe’s own security.”

An official from one of the permanent missions of Europe to the UN tells me that the EU states believe that a favorable vote in the UN would strengthen Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah to the detriment of Hamas. “This recent war by Israel on Gaza delivered legitimacy upon Hamas,” she said. “Abbas was isolated in the West Bank. It was Hamas, in Gaza, that is seen to have resisted and to have survived. It was Hamas that signed the ceasefire. If we vote against the seat today,” she said, “it will mean Abbas will be further isolated.”

I ask her about rumors of a trip by Abbas to Gaza (now confirmed), and about talks at unity between Hamas and Fatah. “Whatever unity takes place,” she said, “a weak Abbas isolated in Ramallah or a weak Abbas in a unity with Hamas is still a weak Abbas. If he gets the UN vote he will be a stronger Abbas in these unity discussions.”

A Vote for 18%

Despite immense pressure to eject them, Columbia University in New York has been a good home to voices of sanity for the Middle East. It was the redoubt of Edward Said, a clinically fierce advocate for the rights of the Palestinians, and it is now home to the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies Rashid Khalidi as well as to the political scientist Joseph Massad. In October 1998, Said wrote in al-Ahram against Yasser Arafat’s promise to declare a Palestinian state in May 1999. The demographic and geographic realities of a “Palestinian state,” eaten into by Israeli settlements and hemmed in by the security barriers of Israeli paranoia, would not allow anything close to a state with actual sovereignty to become reality. What Arafat’s declaration would do, Said argued, is to accept the social conditions of apartheid – to invalidate the tradition of liberation and self-determination and to accept the crumbs of Bantustan. Those who believed that this was a first step to true self-determination, Said cautioned, were thinking illogically. “If by declaring that what, in effect, is a theoretical abridgment of true statehood is the first step towards the realization of actual statehood, then one might as well hope to extract sunlight from a cucumber on the basis of the sun having entered the cucumber in the first place.”

After the current vote, Joseph Massad weighed in at The Guardian. Massad correctly points out that the UN vote offers the Palestinians at most 18% of historic Palestine. “The vote is essentially an update of the partition plan of 1947,” Massad argues, “whereby the UN now grants Jewish colonists and their descendants 80-90% of Palestine, leaving the rest to the native inhabitants, and it risks abrogating the refugees’ right of return.” In other words, the Palestinian political project has been reduced to possession of a statelet.

Both Said and Massad drive their analysis away from the two-state solution toward binationalism – better to create one secular state where Palestinians and Israelis can live together. Such a state would abrogate Zionism, which is a form of supremacy, and end the apartheid social conditions that would otherwise be institutionalized in the two-state arrangement.

Logically, this is an impeccable argument. But politics does not conform to the unfolding of logic. A one-state solution, a worthy goal, is far from the horizon of current possibility, with no political platform inside Israel having adopted it. The exhaustion in the neoliberal Palestine Authority has reduced its imagination. Hamas and the left groups have come to this UN process by default. It is not their politics, but they will not oppose it. They will not stand for 18%, nor will their constituencies cower before the kind of neoliberal policies enacted by Abbas and his consigliere, Salam Fayyad. Their theory is neither to accept the 18% and build a state on it, nor to believe that this is the first step toward a second step. My friends in the Palestinian Left say that the UN vote is simply part of the political arsenal – building up the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause, furthering the political isolation of the Zionist argument and of the US as enabler of its client state. The political momentum is on the side of the Palestinians. It is useful to move in all directions to build on that momentum. They recognize the Bantustan argument and acknowledge it. But that is not their destination.


In the UN General Assembly (UNGA), the US and Israel have only once been able to command a majority. In 1975, the UNGA overwhelming voted to consider Zionism as a form of Racism. With the fall of the USSR, and with US power demonstrated in the wars against Panama and Iraq, US President George Bush went to the UN to put a bit of stick about. He called for the 1975 resolution to be revoked. In December 1991, 111 nations voted to repeal the statement, with 25 voting against, thirteen abstaining and seventeen failing to show up for the vote (including Egypt). Of those who reversed themselves the most significant were the former Communist bloc and two stalwarts of the Non-Aligned Movement (India and Nigeria). It was the only time the US and Israel had their way in the UNGA.

Looking back over the past decade it is remarkable how familiar the voting pattern has become on Israel-related resolutions. The US and Israel vote to block any censure of Israel, joined by former US protectorates in the Pacific, the settler republics of Australia and Canada, some former Communist states (Czech Republic, Poland, and Romania) and the occasional European state if its ruling party leans rightward (Italy under Berlusconi, Denmark under Rasmussen). No significant country in the Non-Aligned Movement has joined ranks with this bloc.

It was the regional states (Egypt, Qatar and Turkey) that brought Israel to the ceasefire table at Cairo, states that have voted overwhelmingly to sanction Israel in the UNGA. Hamas has handled this emergent regionalism cleverly. Its break with the Syrian regime of Assad could have meant that it would have to distance itself from Iran, but that has not been the case. Hamas’ Khaled Meshal decamped for Doha, Qatar, where he is now based, and the Emir or Qatar visited Gaza in October: again signs to Tehran that Hamas, which had relied upon it for matériel, was drifting to the Gulf Arab bloc. But this is too formal a delineation of a real realignment in the region.

There is not merely a Sunni and a Shia bloc that are asserting each other, against each other. The divides are complex, and contradictory. At the Cairo ceasefire, Meshal thanked Iran for its logistical help and criticized its support of the Assad regime; he thanked Qatar, but his silence on the emirates lack of matériel support was important. Billboards in Gaza thank both Iran and Qatar. At the website Jadaliyya, Mouin Rabbani correctly points out that Qatar is more opportunistic about its politics than ideological, willing to adopt any political formation to insert itself into the politics of the region. And Iran’s role vis-à-vis the Palestinians is, as Tehran University’s Mohammed Marandi told me, going to be hard to undermine. “While Hamas is under enormous pressure to move away from Iran,” he said, “it is clear that no one can replace Iran in order to help them maintain an adequate deterrence against further Israeli aggression.” If the Gulf Arabs decide to supply weapons to the Palestinians, he points out, this will put them in a collision course with the US and Israel, and so will strengthen Iran’s position.

As the UN vote took place, the NAM members released a statement for a Middle East Nuclear Free Zone. Iran is the current chair of the NAM, and despite pressure on Tehran over its nuclear program, the government has endorsed the Nuclear Free Zone. In 2010, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review promised to hold a conference for a Middle East Nuclear Free Zone in 2012. This conference has now been indefinitely postposed. NAM expressed its “regret that Israel by not declaring its intention to participate in the Conference continues to undermine its convening.” Israel is currently the only country in the region that has not joined the NPT and it has refused to renounce possession of nuclear weapons. The NAM and the regional powers are going to use this particular political line to undermine Israel’s claim of the high ground on security matters.

Regional powers engendered the Israeli ceasefire after Egypt and Turkey sent their foreign ministers to Gaza during the bombardment. Regional powers, in the maw of immense geopolitical cynicism, attempted to form a Syrian Contact Group (Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey) to deal with the bloodbath being conducted by the Assad regime. Regional powers will increase their authority through such platforms as the Nuclear Free Zone idea. At the last Delhi meeting of the BRICS states, the general tenor was to promote regional solutions over the now discredited mode of allowing US primacy to dictate the way forward. The US and Israel have refused to come to terms with this new reality. History is against them. The UN vote underlines this new reality. It does not answer the hunger of the Palestinian political project. It simply legitimates it.

Settlements as Dowry

The day after the vote, Israel decided to extend its settler-colonial project in the moth-eaten West Bank with a pledge to build 30,000 more homes for Israeli Jews. This was its response to the vote, and it’s snub at the UN. In July, the UN set up a Fact Finding Mission (FFM), led by the French jurist Christine Chanet, to study illegal settlement activity by Israel. Israel refused to allow the FFM to enter Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory. A few days before the Israeli bombing of Gaza began, the FFM closed its operations, with Judge Chanet bemoaning their lack of access.

A few days after the vote, on December 1, eight Israeli soldiers and two settlers beat a seventy-year old farmer, Ahmed Miheimeed, who was planting seeds on his land just east of Bethlehem. They wanted him to get out of the 18%. The story is not going to be reported in the US media, just as not one periodical did a serious story on Israel’s refusal to let the FFM do its UN-mandated job. A UN vote is symbolic and limited. But it is part of a long struggle, a dialectical struggle, one that has seen many losses and few victories, and a great deal of simple, tragic human suffering.

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press). On December 8, in Boston, he will moderate the first ever meeting of Angela Davis and Noam Chomsky. For more info, http://criticalresistance.org/angela-davis-and-noam-chomsky-in-conversation-for-the-first-time-ever/.

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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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