Two cheers for Palestinian statehood-recognition

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It’s true that the nauseatingly labeled state building endeavor, measured by institutional, economic and security functions and “performance” criteria that the “international community” demands of the Palestinians while coercing them into a fictitious “peace process,” long ago became little more than delaying tactics allowing ever more time for Israeli expansion/colonization. It’s true too that the Palestinian security and police forces will more likely be used to oppress rather than defend their people. The PA leadership and the socio-economic elite, increasingly one and the same, are captive to outside interests and whose self-enrichment depends on the American imposed neo-liberal political economy. And it requires no great leap of insight or understanding to conclude that a declaration of statehood will not result in Israeli withdrawal from the OPT and Palestinian self-determination. No territorial continuity, no sovereignty, no control over the entire occupied territories– all make the idea of declaring a state apparently absurd.

For Palestinians and other supporters of Palestine who argue that seeking, much less declaring, statehood is a mirage and farce, their agenda is a single democratic or bi-national state and the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, which, to be sure, is at the heart of the meaning and spirit of Palestinian self-determination. Declaring a state in 1967 borders, they fear, will have the effect of legally reconfirming that the Palestinians have no claims on their historic rights including return of refugees. For others, including liberal Jews who anxiously support such a move, their agenda’s logic is that support of Palestinian political-legal claims and statehood in the 1967 lines saves Israel from itself, maintains it as a “Jewish state,” and leads to end of conflict including dropping the demand of refugee return.

What if we think of a multifaceted strategy that includes declaration of statehood in pursuit of a sovereign state in the 1967 borders, already legally supported; a campaign of non-violent resistance calling for freedom, rights, equality; and acceptance, in principle, of a negotiated settlement? After all, the 2005 Palestinian civil society call for BDS declared the following principles:

1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall
2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

By demanding an end to the occupation and equality for Palestino-Israelis and the right of return, the civil society call neither affirms nor denies a Palestinian state but certainly implies it, as it does its logical concomitant, two states.

The question is, Must Palestinian strategy consist of either a state declaration or a non-violent campaign that demands freedom, human rights, and equality complemented by and contextualized in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement?

My answer is a contingent no, especially now that negotiations are moribund and Abbas/Fayyad are not adhering to the US-Israeli scheme of coercing the Palestinian people into a settlement of surrender. Before explaining, let me say this: statehood declaration, as a goal by itself or embedded in a more inclusive strategic context as I will suggest, is dependent on one critical element: it is meaningless if not accompanied by de jure UN recognition/membership.

Broadly speaking, years ago the PA leadership should have pulled out from negotiations, unified its people, insisted on an end to the occupation and colonial expansion based on international law and UN resolutions, demanded Palestinian rights, freedom, equality, self-determination, pursued a political and diplomatic offensive, gone to the UN/declared a state. In the abstract, such a strategy would be inclusive, not merely to manage conflict nor a permanent, comprehensive solution; not a temporary, provisional, transitional or partial solution, nor a one- or two-state solution. It is all of them and none of them. The Palestinians must play by their own rules and be flexibly prepared. What would it tangibly look like?

The Palestinians would develop a multifaceted strategy that includes three elements: seeking de jure UN membership, accepting in principle two states based on international law and UNSC resolutions, and struggling for freedom, human rights, equality in a non-violent campaign of resistance to end the occupation and that affirms peace, coexistence, and life. Each strategy will have its own constituent tactical elements (one at UN, the other peace conference/negotiations, the third mass organizing). Together they have a better chance of ending the occupation than the current state of collaboration with the occupiers in an interminable “peace process.”

The Palestinians will make clear their acceptance of negotiations in principle but insist on an UN-internationally sponsored conference. If the US gets its way against the Europeans and Arab states and obstructs this option, then maintain a reserve option that accepts bilateral negotiations in principle but formulate a set of clear conditions only under which negotiations can resume. Taking a leaf from the Israeli book, the Palestinians can manage the “peace process” indefinitely without capitulation to Israel’s expansionist fait accompli while also engaging the UN.

Yes, a multi-pronged strategy, because of its diffuseness and ambiguity contains potential complexity, contradiction, and unpredictability. But it is predicated on pragmatism and flexibility: change tactics and emphases as events unfold. The Israelis have done little else for decades.

The insistence by some on mutual exclusivity of Palestinian strategies—no two states, no UN statehood, yes non-violent one state campaign—is scary if one thinks of Palestinian history. Palestinian leaders, beginning in the Mandate, seem forever mired in factional and personal struggles for power, their political goals thwarted by their divisions, swinging between principle and pragmatism and unable to find a balance between the two. Progressive shrinkage of Palestine, loss of Palestinian freedom, and remoteness of Palestinian self-determination are the ineluctable consequences. Historically, the lack of a state or its acceptance until 1988 contributed to Palestinian legal/sovereign weakness, for a powerful argument in support of a UN membership is its legal insulation against others’ claims and aggressions. Albeit, as colonists, they were compromising nothing because they were not Palestine’s owners, and strategically used a state as a springboard for further territorial expansion, the Zionists understood the paramount importance of obtaining de jure international recognition and legitimacy.

US money may stop, perhaps also European, though this is unlikely if the Palestinians insist they accept in principle a negotiated settlement. Israel may escalate its violence, and the American press may generally vilify the Palestinians, who must focus, through the BDS structures, on mobilizing NGOs, global civil society, Arab and Western public opinion.

A Palestinian state that acquires de jure recognition by admission into the UN as a full member powerfully reaffirms the principle and reality that Israel is an illegal trespasser in the OPT. As I previously wrote, such a state can proceed to ask for protection, exercise its right to defense, request UN supervision, initiate an international peace conference, etc. Actually, the US-Israeli position is legally and morally false, for withdrawing from the occupied territories is a precondition to a negotiated solution, not the other way round. Why not have a legally recognized state in place?

Declaration of statehood/UN membership can potentially reposition the way a negotiated solution is approached. Palestine would be negotiating as an already established legal fact whose lawful and moral goal is the withdrawal of Israeli forces from all of the OPT. Furthermore, declaring a state will allow the Palestinians to postpone, hence not forfeit, the right of return and Jerusalem, including if they subsequently (or ever) achieve a negotiated settlement for two states.

Just as with the comparison between the South African and Palestine realities, the comparison of a state in the West Bank and Gaza to the South African Bantustan experience is overstated, certainly if it actually means complete Israeli withdrawal from the OPT and leads to authentic sovereignty. Also, just because a government, i.e., the PA, is needed to declare statehood and seek UN membership, the current government and leadership are not destined for permanency; they can be changed and Palestinian institutions democratically reformed with time.

Israelis’ and Americans’ scurrying and warnings against state declaration and Netanyahu’s coming scheme to preempt, and blame, the Palestinians, tells us they see it as a real “threat” to their plans for unchallenged hegemony in support of the status quo. Netanyahu’s violence in Gaza, supported by the US, is of course a (US-Israeli) attempt to prevent Hamas-PA reconciliation. The last thing they want is true Palestinian democracy and unity. So I suppose, judging by this measure, a Palestinian state cannot be the worst thing that can happen, and it may test how far the American-imposed regional order has weakened. The EU seems to be encouraging the Palestinians and committing more aid.

I am not delusional over the PA elite’s determination to stay in power, about its authoritarianism-light and American-inspired “securitization.” Yet, the Palestinian public in the OPT is relatively quiet, almost lethargic, permitting the PA to continue with business as usual including plans for a declared state. Perhaps, like the Syrians, they fear widespread disorder and more hardship. Perhaps it’s because they are watching to see how matters unfold, for there seems to actually be an expectation, a desire, of achieving de jure statehood and on whose success the PA’s public support hangs.

Ideally, national reconciliation and unity through any mechanism, including elections (but not before agreement with Hamas), national manifesto, or national congress would first, before declaration, take place. Abbas may yet salvage what’s left of the PNA by cleaning house and immediately calling a conference of all factions and civil society groups in Palestinian society. Regardless, even if the Fatah dominated PA forges ahead without first achieving national reconciliation and unity, just declaring/seeking de jure statehood puts it more on the side of the Palestinians and not on that of the US and Israel, and may even push it, whether it likes it or not and for the sake of survival, into national unity.

At one time, before the Oslo process and the arrival of Arafat in the OPT corrupted, divided and dispossessed the Palestinians even more, the goal of self-determination through two states as a pragmatic option in place of a secular democratic state, seemed a positive thing, based on the vision of coexistence, equality and sharing of historic Palestine. Why not resurrect this vision and use statehood as the absolute beginning in fulfilling it? We know the Zionists’/Israelis’ century old master plan is eradicating the Palestinian national presence in Palestine, that Israel’s annexations/colonization are virtually irreversible, and that they will not withdraw from even half of the West Bank, much less every inch of the OPT. We know, too, that, even with Palestine membership, effective UN action to protect the Palestinians or realize their rights will be blocked. This does not mean, however, that a multifaceted plan that includes de jure statehood to deal with this dismal reality constitutes escapism or nonsensical or wishful thinking; instead, it may begin a rejuvenation of Palestinian energies towards a new vision, unity, leaders, and program.

In the end, the hubbub may be much ado about nothing for military power determines outcomes, and it’s unclear who or what can pry loose and eject the morally bankrupt Israeli albatross. In that case, why the concern, for nothing changes except one important thing: the UN would have reaffirmed that all the OPT are Palestine’s. Israel and its US partner in duplicity will have come under international pressure and embarrassment—that’s assuming the PA, soon to be under immense US-induced stress and Congressional threats as Netanyahu hits the Washington circuit, goes through with it and, secondly, actually succeeds in gaining UN membership.

For those deeply concerned that statehood may undermine historic rights and the vision of a single state, one must remember that the PLO already recognized Israel in its pre-1967 borders. In any case, little is set in stone, certainly for the Zionists. Technically speaking, pre-1967 Israel is illegal, having expanded through aggression beyond the UN partition resolution of 1947, and it still, by design, refuses to define its borders. Once de jure status is actually achieved—far from a guaranteed outcome—and even if Netanyahu, in response, executes a semblance of withdrawal and declares unilateral borders (not a certainty because of Zionist greed), these expanded borders will remain illegal, as they are in Syria and Lebanon, and thus, really, little changes. The occupation remains an occupation. Perhaps it makes sense, then, that the powerless Palestinians at this historical juncture legally protect their last remaining territory (the OPT) from Israeli claims based on nothing more than power and violence. It’s like a Palestinian guarantee of claim and right in an uncertain, dangerous future.

(15 April 2011)

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