On the 23rd of September the UN Security Council is slated to receive and consider Palestine’s application for membership in the United Nations. In the very unlikely event that Palestine gets nine or more affirmative votes and no NO votes from permanent members, the UN Security Council will recommend to the General Assembly that Palestine be granted membership. If Palestine’s application to the UNSC fails, then the Palestinians are likely to ask the General Assembly to upgrade the status of the PLO delegation, and the hope is that Palestine can garner a two thirds majority in the General Assembly.
Joseph Massad in an opinion piece on the al-Jazeera English site argues that regardless of the outcome the bid in UN is likely to benefit Israel. If Palestine is successful and gains recognition, then the majority of Palestinians that are presently represented by the PLO will have their rights negated in favor of the rights of the minority of Palestinians who happen to be living in the Bantustan that will be established in a fraction of the West Bank. Failure in the General Assembly will also benefit Israel. Indeed, Palestinians will emerge in a weakened position that will result in yet another round of the “peace process” with more stringent conditions. I don’t think Joseph Massad addresses the most likely outcome, which is an American No vote in the Security Council and success for Palestine in the General Assembly, but his thinking extends naturally to that case.
If we take the view that Palestinians are strategically passive, that they are decision takers and not makers, that their own actions cannot affect the strategic dynamic of the post vote reality; then indeed Joseph Massad is correct and Israel stands to benefit no matter the outcome of the vote. The Palestinians, however, need not be strategically passive and have at their disposal effective instruments to take advantage any of the three possible scenarios, success in the Security Council, success only in the General Assembly, and failure in both.
Though decidedly unstylish, I’ve grown more and more appreciative of Arafat's legacy over the years. So the overall strategy of our national liberation movement seem to me to be correctly built on the following:
- Establishing unilaterally Palestinian sovereignty. Imposed on the world by us and that is preferably not an outcome of binding (on us) negotiations
- International recognition of whatever sovereignty we are able to establish
The efficacy of any tactics or national policies ought to be measured by how they contribute in this regard. For example, if we ask ourselves the following question: Was the second intifada successful? It is arguable that the second intifada did not advance the strategy of international recognition, in fact it helped delegitimize our struggle. On balance, however, the second intifada was perhaps even more successful than the first. Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza and we now have a measure of sovereignty there that we have never enjoyed since the first years of the Lebanese civil war. Was the second intifada successful in the West Bank? To some extent the answer is could be yes. Israel was compelled to build a great wall whose legitimacy as a border is not recognized by anyone aside from the prevailing de-facto perspective that anything to its east is surely Palestinian. A wall symbolically and effectively breaking the geography of occupation, that was imposed on Israel by the intifada, and that did not arise through negotiations.
In line with the overall strategy of unilateral sovereignty and international recognition the emerging national consensus amongst Palestinians is that our aim is to establish an independent sovereign state of Palestine within the 1967 borders and without negotiating this with Israel. How do we achieve this aim?
I can’t think of anything better than breaking off bilateral negotiations with Israel, taking our case to the UN and following this up by an appropriate response to whatever transpires in the UN. If we are successful in the Security Council, then without a doubt we are done; we'll have our state quick-smart even if we need to negotiate various technicalities with Israel. If the measure is successful only in the General Assembly, then we should not go back to bilateral negotiations but follow the vote with mass intransigence that imposes a type of sovereignty in the West Bank that is similar to the sovereignty we enjoy in the Gaza strip. To me failure at the General Assembly is simply unthinkable. However, if we fail at the General Assembly, then surely Abbas and the old guard should be compelled to resign (as should the the heads of nascent professional diplomatic corp of the PLO).
In other words, we have at our disposal strategic opportunities to take advantage of all the possible outcomes of the UN vote. Of course, Joseph Massad would be correct should our only option come October be a return to bilateral negotiations. But I simply cannot see a return to negotiations being a feasible outcome following anything aside from success in the Security Council. And in such a case, why not return to negotiations empowered by UN Security Council recognition?
Finally, I need to address Massad’s argument that success at the Security Council will disenfranchise Palestinian refugees who have for decades been represented by the PLO, the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. My main concern is for the stateless refugees. Any stateless refugee will no longer be stateless should we have a recognised Palestinian state. When we achieve sovereignty these stateless refugees will gain a home and their immigration to the Palestinian state should be encouraged and facilitated. All of this will not negate their individual right to return to their original homes in Israel. All of this will not negate their right to regain properties lost in Israel. A Palestinian state, citizenship in the Palestinian state, and even residency in the Palestinian state will, in fact, facilitate their claims to their traditional lands in Israel. The Palestinian struggle will turn exclusively into a legal struggle for the legal rights of the refugees, which will be strengthened and not weakened by a recognised state supporting these rights.
I’m very uncomfortable with the notion that the emergence a Palestinian state will undermine the rights of Palestinian refugees. That seems to me to be as unconvincing an argument as the compromises in logic associated with the discourse of various sectarian factions in Lebanon against improving the lives of Palestinian refugees, by say affording them the right to work or normal residency status. There too we hear that the Palestinian refugees ought to remain living in undignified abject poverty and misery so as to guard their national rights to their homeland.