The significance of the United Nations General Assembly vote to recognize Palestine as a non-member observer state has been exaggerated by opponents and proponents alike. It has no consequences for the status of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, nor does it undermine the rights of Palestinian refugees living in exile, the occupied territories, or indeed Israel as codified in international law and particularly UNGA Resolution 194 of 1948. By the same token, and as demonstrated by Israel’s subsequent decision to build several thousand new settlement units, it does not make the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip any less occupied or colonized, nor does it confer any additional powers upon either the PLO or Palestinian Authority (PA) that can be exercized within Palestinian territory.
Although it essentially changes nothing, it nevertheless has the capacity to contribute to a strategic transformation in Palestinian fortunes. This will depend primarily on how it is utilized by the Palestinians – all Palestinians – but also the actions of others.
To take the most obvious aspect, the United Nations initiative was strenuously opposed by Israel and the United States. For good reason, because it forms a flagrant violation of the Oslo framework pursuant to which they alone are empowered to answer the Question of Palestine, without heed to either the international community or the corpus of resolutions and laws that collectively represent the will of that community with respect to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The question for Palestinians is therefore whether the initiative is a first step towards referring the Question of Palestine back to the United Nations – which after all created it and remains responsible for its resolution – or merely a tactical maneouver to resume bilateral negotiations with Israel under American supervision.
To point out that Mahmoud Abbas went to New York in an attempt to shore up his domestic standing and that he has every intention of rushing back to the negotiating table is in this context almost irrelevant. Abbas similarly wanted to host Shaul Mofaz in the center of Ramallah several months ago. Yet popular revulsion at the prospect of a war criminal being feted at the scene of his crime put paid to the planned rendezvous. Similarly, in the wake of Israel’s latest assault on the Gaza Strip, Palestinians across the political and geographic spectrum are with renewed vigour demanding the formulation of a meaningful national strategy and its implementation by a genuinely representative national movement. Ensuring that the UN initiative serves the internationalization of the struggle for Palestinian self-determination, rather than being a prelude to more negotiations that are but a fig leaf for deepening colonization, can hardly be considered an impossible task. It will require serious effort, and won’t succeed overnight, but it can and therefore should be done. To dismiss and miss this opportunity strikes me as a dereliction of duty.
The first step in this direction must be to end the Palestinian schism on the basis of a rejuvenated PLO, particularly since the political programs of Fatah and Hamas are today all but indistinguishable and they are primarily engaged in a power struggle more about factional interest than ideology. Accusing either or both of these parties of having sold out their people is all well and good, but detractors need to get used to the fact that there can be no national movement without both of them, and that the most effective restraint on the excesses of either leadership is not Hamas but rather a rejuvenated Fatah. It may be too late for the latter, but the left and Islamic Jihad presently lack the capacity to play this role, and it will be years before a credible and sufficiently powerful alternative emerges from today’s otherwise inspirational youth movements. Civil society, particularly that large swathe of it dependent on foreign funding, cannot substitute for a national liberation movement.
The UN vote taught us not only that Canada and the Czech Republic today have the most fanatically pro-Israel governments on the planet, and that there are a few more rocks in the Pacific than we thought, but also that Israel’s position in Europe – and Europe’s subservience to Washington on matters Palestinian – are in a state of flux. Here again, things are not going to develop of their own accord, and will be reversed if they are not actively promoted to their logical conclusion. For Palestinians not to capitalize on these opportunities – for at present they are only opportunities – and work to ensure that the EU policies and those of its member governments begin to more faithfully reflect Palestinian rights and European public opinion would be tantamount to criminal negligence.
The time is ripe, for example, to put an end to decades of effort to ensure that settlement products are properly labeled and taxed, and seek to have them defined as contraband and prohibited from the European market altogether. Similarly, there is no reason why European arms sales to Israel are not now prominently on the agenda of every European parliament. In the context of decades of growing Arab disengagement from the conflict with Israel, the regional upheaval that commenced in late 2010 presents an almost unique opportunity to re-mobilize official Arab influence in support of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, particularly in Europe.
The one concrete achievement resulting from Palestine’s elevated status at the United Nations is the ability to join subsidiary organizations. Given credible US threats of sanctions against such institutions, Palestinians would do well to first join those, such as the World Intellectual Property Organisation, that mean most to Washington and least to the Palestinians. Make those knaves on Capitol Hill publicly proclaim that their loyalty to Avigdor Lieberman precedes the interests of their constituents and corporate sponsors. The same principle applies to the International Criminal Court (ICC). But joining the latter and ending the African monopoly on its interests makes little sense if existing legal instruments, such as the 2004 International Court of Justice (ICJ) Advisory Opinion on the West Bank Wall, are not activated without further delay.
Indeed, using existing mechanisms to confront the massive settlement scheme Israel proclaimed the day after the UN vote, and which once implemented completes the encirclement of East Jerusalem through its isolation from the rest of the West Bank and effectively bisects the latter, should be considered an urgent priority. Sufficiently urgent to override and invalidate initial Palestinian statements that further recourse to international law is not imminent, and would be assessed in light of Israeli and US conduct in the coming weeks and months. With the Obama administration today enabling an Israeli plan George W. Bush for eight years consistently opposed, the immediate priority for Palestinians is to compel their leaders to show no consideration towards American sensitivities – or threats - when it comes to defending and promoting Palestinian rights.
[A shorter version of this article initially appeared as “UN Vote is Symbolic – Unless the Palestinians Take Advantage” in The National (UAE).]