What does UN membership mean for Palestine and is choosing to go this route in the best interests of the people?
How effective will prolonged negotiations and a UN membership for Palestine be in achieving statehood?
Since Mahmoud Abbas, the beleaguered head of the Palestinian Authority, made clear his intention to unilaterally seek recognition and membership of the United Nations for the state of Palestine, he has faced an unceasing uproar from almost every direction. His American allies, along with the Israelis, insist that UN membership and recognition of a Palestinian state would never have any practical meaning and that peace and statehood can only come through direct negotiations.
Of course, they are correct. UN membership would not translate into any tangible changes for the Palestin- ians. The West Bank would carry on under Israeli military occupation and Israeli settlers would continue to illegally build and expand their colonies on the very land that the UN would supposedly recognize as rightfully belonging to the Palestinians. Additionally, the request for UN member- ship carries significant risks for the Palestinian Authority. Israel and the US have already threatened to halt Israeli transfers of Palestinian import taxes and block valuable international aid. This aid, amounting to a billion dollars annually, is crucial to the PA’S ability to pay salaries and provide basic services in the West Bank. In the face of such strong intimidation and unclear benefits, one cannot help but wonder why the Palestinians so adamantly insist on pushing for UN membership? Many commentators in the US and Israel have focused on Mahmoud Abbas and have painted his UN push as reckless political ma-
neuvering. While Abbas has surely exploited the situation in order to resurrect his political legacy, dismissing the significance of UN membership purely on the political ambitions of one man, results in a very superficial reading of the current Palestinian situation. Independently seeking UN membership instead of continuing engagement in direct negotiations, may signal acceptance by the leadership in Ramallah of a fact that ordinary Palestinians have known for quite some time: negotiations in their current setup have not worked and inspire little hope to ever deliver a Palestinian state.
Anyone who has spent time in the Palestinian territories is keenly aware of the stark imbalance of power between the two parties. With complete military and political control on the ground, the Israelis dominate direct negotiations by controlling the land in question and therefore being the ultimate arbitrators in its division. The Palestinian Authority, with a limited administrative mandate, is powerless to address key issues such as settlement growth and must seek the permission of the Israeli military to even issue a Palestinian identity card. American mediation further strengthens Israel’s dominant position in direct negotiations. As exemplified by its threat to veto Palestinian membership in the Security Council, the US has consistently demonstrated its favoritism towards the interests of Israel at the expense of those of the Palestinians.
Prolonged negotiations not only leave the Palestinians in a weaker diplomatic position but also buy the Israelis time to predetermine the borders by “changing the facts on the ground” through increased Jewish settlement of contested Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and key areas of the West Bank. The announcement of the construction of 1100 new homes in occupied East Jerusalem by the Netanyahu administration shortly after the UN meeting underscores the unwillingness of the current government to take any of the steps required for the creation of a Palestinian state. For many Palestinians, the peace process has become a mere international cover for Israel as it gobbles up their land.
The current diplomatic formula leaves the Palestinians fighting for the few crumbs that may remain of the West Bank at the time of an eventual accord. But after 30 years of negotiations, the likely result of a Palestinian state looks less and less appealing. The effect of growing settlements, with accompanying settler-only roads and checkpoints, will likely be a somewhat shattered and sliced version of the 1967 West Bank that Israel originally seized. This is without even considering what portion, if any, of East Jerusalem will be left by the time the Israeli administration finishes its loop of settlements in and around the few remaining Arab neighborhoods of the city, which no Israeli government plans to deconstruct.
Additionally, the Netanyahu government already states that any Palestinian state must be demilitarized, should not control its airspace and borders, and be accompanied by an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley. A Palestinian state also would probably have very little claim over the water in reservoirs beneath the West Bank or those of the Jordan River. The end result will be a state that will lack true sovereignty and will in all likelihood not be able to sustain itself far into the future. This will leave any state born through the current diplomatic formula open to the continued domination and control of Israel, which could lead to a renewed cycle of violence and possibly negate the entire process.
With all the aforementioned disadvantages inherent in any negotiation under the present framework, it is clear that continued participation in a peace process dominated by the US and Israel is not in the best interests of the Palestinian people. While requests to the United Nations will not provide any immediate improvements on the ground, 30 years of failure in addressing any of the main concerns of the Palestinians have shown that negotiations won’t either. Yet the UN bid can be a first step in a new strategy that seeks to relieve the suffering of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation by mobilizing regional and international support to make a strategic push for greater accountability of Israel’s actions. This will require increased utilization of international law and institutions, and less dependence on the United States. If the Palestinian leadership wishes to gain statehood, dignity and peace for their people, they cannot depend on the same broken process of the past. They will need to chart a new course, and the application submitted by Mahmoud Abbas will hopefully illustrate a first step in that direction.
The end result will be a state that will lack true sovereignty and
will in all likelihood not be able to sustain itself far into the
The writer is a research assistant on issues of non-discrimination, religious freedom and legal reform for a human rights group in Cairo, Egypt.
Quest for recognition.