Saturday, September 17, 2011

The U.S. prepares to thwart Palestinians once again

I was listening to the BBC last night, and I heard Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, explaining to a BBC interviewer why the U.S. is preparing to veto a Palestinian request to the Security for full membership for a Palestinian state. 

We all know that Israel isn’t keen on this passing, to say the least.  The Israeli government has promised “harsh and grave consequences”, and added its hopes “that common sense will prevail in all decisions taken in order to allow co-existence and progress with negotiations”.  Israel is essentially asking Palestinians to accept the existing unequal relationship in which one party lives the existence of second-class, colonised citizens.  Some of these people live in siege-like conditions, blockaded, periodically bombed, their infrastructure destroyed by Israeli military campaigns.  And negotiations have stalled and broken down so often over so many years that it is hard to imagine that Israel is negotiating in good faith. 

The Israeli government’s position is that Palestinians in Gaza are “prisoners of Hamas”, and the presence of the militant political party is constantly used as an excuse by Israel, the United States and others as a barrier to substantive negotiations.  But however objectionable some of the elected Hamas’ activities might be (they are certainly not more so than those of the Israeli military), the position that they are in control of Gaza and responsible for all ills in Palestine, but also must not be party to talks, is absurd.  The Israeli government has granted Hamas all of the responsibility for conditions in Gaza without allowing them any of the power that should come with such a responsibility to take part in the solution.

Israel can persist in this moronic mode of argumentation (which, as the late-historian Tony Judt points out, is to Israel’s long-term detriment) because it has the apparently unconditional support of the United States.

On the BBC, Susan Rice argued that while the United States has “been very clear that we share the aspiration for the creation of a Palestinian state, that can only be accomplished as a practical matter through direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.  There’s no shortcut wherein we pass a resolution in the General Assembly or the Security Council that in the real world in fact creates a Palestinian state.  The issues that divide them—issues of borders, of security, the status of Jerusalem, of refugees, etc—can only be resolved through direct negotiations at the negotiating table, and that’s why we view the Palestinian potential drive to come to the Security Council or the General Assembly as counter-productive”.

“What they need”, she went on, “is a state and what they want is a state”.  But, she assured us, “as frustrating as the lack of progress on negotiations may be for the Palestinians, for the Israelis, for the United States and the rest of the world, there’s no shortcut”.  She suggested that a resolution in New York would actually create foster false expectations on the part of Palestinians.

The same kind of false expectations, presumably, that come each time a new round of negotiations begin, at which the Israeli government shows up at the table with the unconditional backing of the United States and the overwhelming advantage of military force—a brutal card it has proven its willingness to use time and time again.  Ambassador Rice’s response (and through her, that of President Obama) is not only disgusting, immoral and disingenuous; her characterisation of the reasons why the UN route is wrong exhibits an ignorance of history.

Because the moment in which the state of Israel emerged bears an uncanny similarity to what she describes as the impossible route for the Palestinians.  In 1947, beset by armed resistance on the part of Jewish settlers (labelled ‘terrorists’), the occupying power, Britain, threw up its hands and announced its plan to withdraw from the Mandate Territory of Palestine.  In 1948 it made good on that plan, the United Nations having moved to settle the question of Palestine.  The settlement received the approval of one party (the Jewish community), but not the other (the Palestinians).  It went ahead anyway.  In the war that followed, the new state of Israel emerged through the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

This is a perfect example (though not a happy one), of how a series of moves at the UN can drastically change the situation on the ground.  A recognition of a Palestinian nation could not, today I think, lead to a similar explosion of violence.  Instead, if it came with U.S. support, it would signal to Israel that this game of endlessly sabotaging negotiations (the Palestinian leadership has, at a few points, done the same), of refusing to negotiate with Palestinian representatives, and of presiding over an impious, unjust and destructive military occupation, is up.

I suspect that all parties could quickly overcome their unwillingness to negotiate with Hamas.  After all, Israel itself, Northern Ireland, Kenya, South Africa, and many, many other countries were led to independence and uhuru by those once labelled as terrorists.

Then, the real negotiations could begin.

But there is one other factor behind the unconditional support of the U.S. for Israel, and that is the shallow, pandering electoral calculus that the Obama Administration has, from almost day one, substituted for the clear-eyed, morally-aware agenda it promised its supporters.  The President’s most tentative criticisms of Israel have been taken as a declaration of war by the slightly unbalanced Israeli lobby in the United States, and the Democratic Party’s defeats in a New York Congressional race last week are being read as a referendum on Obama’s Middle Eastern policy.  Scenting blood, Republican Party Presidential candidates are castigating the President for imperiling Israel when, in fact, their unthinking support for that country's militancy is doing Israel incalculable harm in the long-term.

I place little hope in the willingness of the Obama administration to do the right thing here and support Abbas’ campaign at the UN.  But it should know that it cannot continue to thwart Palestinian aspirations, justice, and a lasting solution to the region’s most intractable moral, political and social problem, without some serious consequences for the people involved on the ground.

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