Palestine: Between Resolution 194 and the 194th State

A Palestinian protester holds a sign depicting caricatures of German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L), U.S. President Barack Obama and France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy (R) during a protest calling on the leaders to support the Palestinian bid for statehood, in the West Bank city of Ramallah September 26, 2011. (Photo: REUTERS – Mohamad Torokman)

Firas Khatib | Al Akhbar |  September 26, 2011

The Palestinians’ current recourse to the UN to acquire statehood is a move which is counter intuitive in view of recent developments in the Arab world. The Arab Spring has imposed a new reality and political culture, both of which have been absent from the region since the revolutions of the middle of the 20th century. This new politic places the region’s people at the forefront, ahead of political organizations and regimes. The people are imposing their own agendas: policies and alliances are made according to popular positions. The Egyptian people were able to ouster Hosni Mubarak and force the US to take a critical distance from the regime.

The opposite is now happening in Palestine, where the people are being leapfrogged in an attempt by political organizations to garner a UN resolution which would alter political realities on the ground. This formula has never worked historically. Since 1948, the UN has never successfully imposed a resolution on Israel. The UN, which was unable to impose resolution 194 that maintained Palestinian refugees’ right to return to their homes, is realistically unable to establish the world’s 194th state.

In 1988, when late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat declared the establishment of the Palestinian state, Palestinian politics were very different from today. At the time, the statehood declaration was a strong action both on the ground and internationally. The declaration intended to rouse the first intifada sweeping across the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The claim was also a powerful political challenge to those who viewed Palestine as “a land without a people.” The declaratoin’s roots in the struggle were its source of legitimacy. Palestinians were united on the declaration’s content and Palestinian leaders agreed on the principle, even if differing on its application. Perhaps the most symbolic difference between then and now, is that today’s declaration has a more official and institutional character. This difference is clear from a historical point of view and demonstrated symbolically by the sites chosen for the declarations. This attempt in New York will in no way resonate as did the declaration in Algiers.

There is a political logic behind the demand for recognition — it may embarrass Israel, placing it amidst a flurry of UN resolutions. Alternately, the declaration at the UN simultaneously establishes Israel as a state occupying another state. If successful, Israel would be financially responsible for the costs incurred in the international courts. The advantages would not end in Ramallah, and would contribute to Israel’s isolation and Washington’s embarrassment. These possible outcomes, though positive in their own right, have two important implications for the Palestinian struggle. It first reduces the Palestinian cause to a matter of international public opinion. Second, this approach further dissipates the role of ordinary Palestinians, who should be instrumental in the struggle. Without a hand in the process, people’s urgent concerns become less relevant than the diplomatic confrontation, leading Palestinian politics away from its authentic arena and into an international one, where the right to statehood is already more or less agreed upon. European countries have not opposed a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.

But given today’s realities, Palestinians need more than public recognition of the ‘67 borders. They need practical steps. The Palestinian Authority’s (PA) actions today reinforce their symbolic relationship with Europe, giving those countries another opportunity to ‘redeem’ themselves for their silence during the better part of the past 60 years. They might support the establishment of a Palestinian state and flout their positions as pro-Palestinian. But what is the real value of, say, Britain’s support for the September vote? Or whether its embassy is in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem? History tells us that European countries, particularly France and Britain, will not change their political stance on Israel, as long as global politics are divided by ‘East’ and ‘West.’ Quite simply, the Middle East has an Arab majority, and Israel is “a natural partner” against the war on extremism.European countries address the Israel-Palestine issue according to Israeli demands and not according to the justness of the Palestinian cause. In other words, deteriorating relations between Europe and Israel did not result from Europe’s recognition of injustices against Palestinians, as much as they are linked to the character of the Israeli government, as well as its public dealings with Palestinians on the global theater. These same Europeans did not stand against Ariel Sharon’s government when it built the wall, in an attempt to end a possible return to the ‘67 borders. Nor did they stand against Ehud Olmert’s government during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, or the damning Goldstone report that followed. European countries deal with Israeli governments instead of the political realities on the ground. Demonstrating their wavering attitude, Europeans rallied against Netanyahu because his right-wing government was unable to skillfully deal with the Palestinian issue as did previous prime ministers, like Olmert, who started two wars and still carried on negotiations with the Palestinians.

The UN turn reflects a recent process of the PA’s institutionalization. Simultaneously, Ramallah has become a place alien to Palestine, despite similar conditions of occupation. The city — which has become headquarters to civil society organizations, Palestinian institutions, and a leisure and commercial center — has created a representative elite which views politics in an insular way. This is a concept unfitting most Palestinians’ understandings of their situation. The term ‘international community’ has become so widely used that the battleground has been forgotten. Ramallah politics are now singularly focused on European aid and budgets and European foreign ministers pressuring Israel to remit tax money to Palestinians.

The US is leading the mediation between Israel and the PA, while the Quartet’s representative is British. This situation is symptomatic of the elite’s politics and political debate, which is far removed from realities on the streets. For this group, the September vote is a magic bullet that will yield satisfactory results, combining their desperation to act out against Israel and their interest in preserving the status quo — maintaining the PA’s institutional relevance and protecting the elite’s status in civil society and among international organizations.

The PA aims less to pressure Israel than to solidify its internal base through self-congratulatory gestures, ones which will likely never translate into reality. With the UN plea, the PA and its affiliates can no longer be accused of complacency or bowing to right-wing Israeli governments. And this right-wing Israeli administration is not nearly as villainous as the previous Olmert-Livni government. During the catastrophic war on Gaza, the worst against Palestinians in decades, the PA carried on negotiations with the Olmert government.The Palestinians head to the UN under the shadow of political confusion and paradox. One such paradox: The PA buys weapons from Israel, which it uses to disperse demonstrators and those who might attack Israeli checkpoints and settlements. Meanwhile, responding to the bid, Israeli officials went on the offensive. According to Israel’s Channel 2, Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz demanded that tax money due to the Palestinians should not be remitted. An army commander in attendance countered Steinitz, pointing out that the money also paid Palestinian security forces responsible for controlling public demonstrations. Other reports indicate that Israeli-PA coordination of security continues despite the present spat.

Non of the current actors have a right to decide Palestinians’ future. We cannot expect a third intifada or a first revolution, simply because revolutions always start unexpectedly. The Palestinians have lived in a state of political perdition since 1999: after the first intifada and the collapse of the Oslo Agreements and through the Israeli right-wing’s return and the second intifada, the invasion of Jenin and the disengagement from Gaza, and so on. No one expected anything from the Palestinian people and no one can engineer the future after September. But Palestine will remain a fertile ground for explosive conflicts. These may manifest today or in years. As for the September vote, it will undoubtedly yield many celebrations in Ramallah’s famous Manara roundabout.

Firas Khatib is an al-Akhbar correspondent.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect al-Akhbar’s editorial policy.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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