When I agreed to write something for this blog, I was frankly astonished by the divisions among activists and rather pallid support for Palestinian rights in some quarters. Expressions of nihilism, lack of hope, or insistence that statehood must be obtained in a different manner or sequence have made it doubly heartening to hear measures of symbolic support from the Egyptian masses, the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and in alternative media.
With resignation, I read the consistently pro-Israel pieces in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times as well as the Republican media about the dangers of allowing Palestinian statehood and stated plans by the United States and Israel to punish the Palestinian people for such audacity. When I was employed at the Army War College, I used to have to fight tooth and nail about any article written – especially on my own time, that is, outside the purview of the College – that was critical of the U.S. stance on Palestinians, the blockade of Gaza, or that even mentioned the conditions the Palestinian people were living in. When threatened consistently with firing over such “misstatements of US policy” (mine) I would quickly clip and paste onto each article draft numerous media statements “proving” whatever it was I had asserted. It never did any good. I recently read that Talal Asad, the anthropologist ignores the media because he says it interrupts his own thought processes. If one existed on a diet of mainstream English-language media, one might think the Arab Spring has no relationship whatsoever to the quest for Palestinian sovereignty and human rights. Just as most Americans think that the quest for Palestinian statehood is unconnected or dangerous in some way. And we would be wrong.
There is no one best path forward, and no single argument that will convince the detractors of Palestinian statehood. It does not matter that excellent works of history, economics, sociology, anthropology, and human rights reports have “proven” that Palestinians have historical rights to their land, evolved their own unique identity, and that occupation has been harmful to them as to Israelis. It’s true, as Rex Brynen wrote recently that achieving statehood would allow the Palestinian Authority to obtain economic assistance in a different status http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com//articles/9990/the-economics-of-palestinian-statehood and thus create more stability. Equally possible is Israel’s devising means to block this assistance or create u-meetable prerequisites and requirements. About two years ago, I was asked to make an argument for Palestinian “rights to Palestine” (notice the subtly different language) for ABC-Clio’s teaching library. Naturally, an Israeli wrote the opposing essay. Although the essays were presented in a zero-sum manner, mine – which does not depend on zero-sum reasoning, as I do not see any reasons that two peoples cannot both possess sovereignty — was so problematic that a third essay “an American (as if I am not American) solution” had to be included.
Empowering Americans to be the neutral voice or peacemakers has not worked out so well. We lack dedication to the task. A real failing came when Palestinians held democratic elections and chose Hamas as their leaders. In what other country in the world have Americans inserted themselves in the process and demanded non-recognition of elected leaders, throwing money and military support to opponents? Well, this was meant as a rhetorical question, but in fact, we’ve done it before and it didn’t work out well. The Mitchell Commission never really perceived the power asymmetry between the two sides – it is not as if Palestinians possess what Israelis do, they do not and living under occupation is simply not like having the run of your own country. Following the Commissions dubious achievements, the process towards negotiations under Mitchell have been come a cause unto themselves, stymied again by treating Palestinians as if they are equal partners to Israelis who not only will not abandon settlement building, but have granted permanent status and special rights to settlers. The settlers as Netanyahu notes, are increasing in numbers. Still, they must be accommodated, and consistently at the expense of Palestinians. So this is the process of Byzantine sawi bazaar (bargaining) that will eventually bring about some negotiations” that is more important than a Palestinian-led declaration of statehood.
Obama’s administration is apparently too concerned about his Jewish voters to let him (and he apparently does not want to) break ranks with them on the issue of Palestinian statehood. As I worked for his campaign hoping for progress in America’s Middle East policies, I am furious and disappointed by this stance, and I don’t think the Palestinians should wait for some ephemeral chance in his second term in office.
The abhorrent, stubborn and fundamentally arrogant plan by Bibi Netanyahu to argue before the UN General Assembly that he will offer “negotiations” instead of statehood (and no negotiations, if statehood is declared) is perhaps the best argument in the end for the pursuit of statehood. Yes, declaring statehood is a symbolic act. No, Israeli officials will not jump up and kiss the Palestinian leaders. Yes, many members of the U.N. General Assembly will support Palestinian rights but some are too beholden to, or fearful of the United States’ displeasure, or are expressing their own anti-immigrant anti-Muslim policies. No, not all internal Palestinian divisions will be healed. But statehood is a demand at the level of the street, the villas, the offices, the camps, cities and exile communities. It is a simple, basic visceral demand as authentic as the one still echoing through the Arab world “ash-sha`b yurid isqat an-nizam!” (the people want an end to the regime). Those who made this latter demand in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, Morocco, Saudi Arabia etc. possess a state and rights as citizens as do nations like Turkey, Indonesia, Iran, even if they want to change its behavior and structure. Palestinians do not possess that basic right of citizenship, nor freedom of movement, assembly, free speech, control over their persons, property and rights to life and liberty and 63 years (I count from 1948, not 1967) has been a very lengthy and destructive waiting period.
Palestinians and those who support them are watching and wondering if Libyans received NATO’s support at removing their cruel and oppressive leader, and if European nations will boycott Syrian oil, and if the U.S. finally got around to asking Mubarak, Ben Ali and even Assad to stop firing on innocent demonstrators, then why is there such a bias against the Palestinian people? Why are their demonstrations on behalf of sovereignty acts of terrorism? Why is their history of militant resistance not understood as a quest for sovereignty similar to that of the Transitional National Authority in Libya? Why was it acceptable for the United States to bring down Saddam Hussein and establish an entirely new government, but then brand the Iraqi prime minister as being irresponsible when he dared to support Palestinian rights?
What role have Arab leaders played in blocking Palestinian’s progress toward statehood? This is an ugly and dark aspect of regional history, overshadowed by Israel’s actions, but not unimportant. In the heyday of radical (non-Islamist) politics, Dr. George Habash, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine proclaimed that the road to Palestine lay through the Arab capitals. In other words, only when Arab leaders were overthrown and their stranglehold on resources and politics undone, could Palestinians be victorious. For many long years, it looked as if shunning such radicalism, and diplomatic efforts on the part of Palestinians, plus ever so many concessions to Israel would eventually result in statehood. But Israel has stubbornly refused, even in the sunniest period of relations post-Oslo (not sunny for all, of course) to ever articulate this outcome. That is why the Israeli media machine had to go into triple gear and knock out the Jimmy Carters, the Noam Chomskys, the Norman Finklesteins, the John Mearsheimers and Stephen Walts and many Arabs and pro-Arabs (not only pro-Palestinians) teaching in U.S., French, UK and other universities. This is the reason that a complex web of relationships was fostered. Lebanese, Jordanian, Egyptian, even Syrian aspirations were manipulated against Palestinian needs and rights. The pursuit of separate peace treaties instead of a comprehensive regional settlement was always the preference of Israel and the U.S., its ally, because, that way, no territorial concession would ever be made to Palestinians except to let them patrol their own ghettos in Area As (never more than 2.7% of the land to be allocated), without an army, airports, or other national necessities. That is why the Israelis never acknowledged the peace agreement offered by then Crown-Prince (and now King) Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and will dodge any future effort at a comprehensive agreement unless the world community acts.
Netanyahu is not operating without logic. Israeli military and political leaders have for decades written, believed and predicted that the Palestinians could be isolated from their Arab supporters in surrounding nations and once they were isolated and divided, tortured, punished, appeased, or co-opted, their resistance would never amount to much. The reasons this has not already happened — whilst the Palestinians assented without recourse to Israeli corporations grabbing more and more land of the West Bank, and the reduction of their territorial claim to a small percentage of what had existed – were threefold. The development of alternative media allowed the world to see how Palestinians were treated and the course of two popular uprisings (uprisings that were never supposed to take place according to the Israeli political vision). The third factor concerned Palestinian factionalism which led in turn to a renewal of active resistance – wise or unwise, you can judge.
Just as Golda Meir claimed that the Palestinians did not exist, Netanyahu must assert that Palestine cannot and never should exist. This is precisely why the symbolism of statehood is so essential to any future achievement of justice, human rights and sovereignty for the Palestinians.
The Arab Spring may not be the best name for what we have witnessed, maybe it is an Arab resurgence of populism. There is an undeniable relationship to the Palestinian cause even if the peoples of each recognized State – Tunisia, Egypt, Libya have put their own political rights first. They have long supported the Palestinians even when their political leaders made backdoor deals and concessions to the United States and Israel. There was wide-scale popular opposition to peace treaties in Egypt and Jordan and now the youth movements and others want to see a different kind of foreign policy asserted – at least in Egypt.
I don’t know what my neighbors will do when I begin flying a Palestinian flag at my house. But I’m about to find out. Maybe they’ll throw trash on my lawn. Perhaps I’ll fly an American flag next to it. Maybe I’ll look at the one worldly possession that my Palestinian mother-in-law took from the “homeland” when she fled, a round brooch, engraved with the name, “Jerusalem.”
What is more important — the deplorable situation of the Palestinians was always a lament, an “if only” sentence construction. And now we’ve gone beyond the “what if?” constructions to the brink of “now that Palestine has been declared . . . ” It’s about time!
Sherifa Zuhur (find my personal page on Facebook or see the Institute’s)
Director, Institute of Middle Eastern, Islamic, and Strategic Studies
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East
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