Mahmoud Abbas’s address to the United Nations General Assembly on 23 September fell considerably short of Yasir Arafat’s electrifying 1974 speech from the same podium. Nor did it compare with Haidar Abdul Shafi’s dignified – and unanswerable – call for justice at the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference. Yet it may come to be seen as a historic turning point in the fortunes of the Palestinian people.
Abbas’s agenda was transparent. He was sending the Americans a message: grow a spine, stop appeasing Israel and launch credible negotiations – because if you don’t, my next failure will be my last. There are several problems with his approach. For one, the so-called peace process is working precisely as designed, to give political cover to Israeli colonisation and maintain America’s diplomatic monopoly. Second, the US has become even more extreme than Israel. Obama’s speech delighted Avigdor Lieberman but was denounced by American politicians as a betrayal of Israel. Third, there is nothing to negotiate about with Israel’s current rulers, who refuse even to acknowledge the occupation, let alone commit to ending it.
That the Palestinian application for full membership of the UN is certain to fail, thanks to the US, is neither here nor there. The point, rather, is that the Palestinians have taken the essential first step towards internationalising their struggle and reviving the rights codified in UN resolutions and international law as the framework for resolving the conflict. With Washington so out of step with the rest of the world, it is imperative for the Palestinians to break free of the American orbit.
In its most recent manoeuvre, Washington sank the Quartet’s attempts to devise a framework for renewed negotiations by insisting that they begin without preconditions (such as a settlement freeze) and that the Palestinians submit to Netanyahu’s demand that they recognise Israel as a Jewish state. With countries such as Holland blocking an EU consensus that deviates from Israel’s position, Europe, too, is in no position to offer Abbas a dignified path back to negotiations.
If Abbas cannot backtrack and survive, he also cannot remain still for long and remain in place. There are growing signs that Palestinians won’t tolerate Oslo for much longer. In practice this means that Abbas – or, should he prove unable or unwilling, his successor – has no choice but further initiatives towards the internationalisation of the Palestine question.
Internationalisation can only be part of a new Palestinian strategy, however. There is a need, too, for real inter-Palestinian reconciliation, leading to a rejuvenated national movement in which all constituencies are properly represented. Palestinians must also break free of the notion that inalienable rights have somehow to be earned or negotiated, or obtained through collaboration with an occupier. And while it would be foolish for the Palestinians to renounce their right to defend themselves with armed force, they should unambiguously commit to the principles of warfare laid down in international law. Perhaps more to the point, present circumstances suggest Palestinians can achieve more, and more rapidly, through a combination of popular mobilisation, legal and political advocacy, and formal and popular international solidarity than through armed struggle.
Apart from the almost complete absence of preparatory dialogue and consensus, many of the objections Palestinians have raised to the UN initiative don’t make much sense. Fears that UN membership would somehow dilute either the representational claims of the PLO or refugee rights were misplaced for the simple reason that the application never had a chance of success to begin with. Such criticisms made even less sense when the posited alternative was to remain mired in Oslo or the movement promoting boycott, divestment and sanctions. BDS is a tactic rather than a national programme, and its sponsors and activists are no substitute for a national movement in urgent need of rejuvenation.
More coherent are the objections raised by advocates of a one-state solution, for the simple reason that the international consensus and recognised rights of the Palestinian people point inevitably towards a two-state approach. In this respect, those promoting a one-state framework in response to Israel’s deepening colonisation of the occupied territories have yet to explain how failure to overcome the lesser challenge of ending the 1967 occupation justifies the exponentially more ambitious objective of a secular democratic state throughout historic Palestine. For the moment, however, arguments about the relative merits of a one or two-state solution bring to a mind a convict the night before his execution agonising over which pension plan to join.
[This article was published in the London Review of Books]