Those looking for an explanation for why almost all of Europe backed the Palestinians in the recent vote to upgrade their status at the United Nations are blaming it on Israel’s decision to continue building homes in Jerusalem and its suburbs. As reporter Laura Rozen put it in a tweet, “Does Israel really not get how fed up Europe is w/ its settlement policies?” The upshot of this sort of thinking is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fanatical devotion to “Greater Israel” is isolating Israel and forcing even its friends to abandon its cause in international forums.
The problem with this thesis is that it is pure bunk. As Jonathan Schanzer and Benjamin Weinthal point out in their article in Foreign Policy (about which Rozen was commenting), there are a lot of reasons why the Europeans stabbed the Israelis in the back at the UN, among which their objections to “settlements” is by no means inconsiderable. But as I pointed out earlier, if the Europeans believe that the 1967 lines with land swaps is the formula for peace, it’s hard to understand why they are upset with Israel building in places that everyone knows they would keep under such a plan. After all, does anyone who is actually interested in peace–as opposed to those who think every Jewish home anywhere in the country is an illegal settlement–actually think Israel will abandon 40-year-old Jerusalem neighborhoods or the suburbs that are close to the green line? Far from the Israelis pushing the limits in their quest for settlements, it is the Europeans who are redefining the terms of peace.
The vote to upgrade the Palestinian Authority’s status at the United Nations today is being conducted on the world body’s annual Day of Solidarity with Palestinians. That is, as PA head Mahmoud Abbas helpfully pointed out in his speech to the General Assembly, the anniversary of the 1947 UN vote to partition Palestine. Along with other anti-Israel speakers during this debate, he noted that the Palestinian people have suffered during the intervening decades and that it was an injustice that they had been denied a state. Yet he and others who spoke on his behalf failed to explain that failure to create a Palestinian Arab state alongside Israel at that time was not due to the intransigence of the Jews, West Bank settlements, or obstruction from the West. It was the Palestinians themselves as well as their allies throughout the Arab and Muslim world that absolutely refused to contemplate a plan that would have created an Arab state next to the new Jewish one.
This is not merely a piece of historical trivia that is irrelevant to the farce that was played out in New York in which a corrupt, undemocratic and discredited Fatah regime was honored as if it were a legitimate sovereign. It is, in fact, crucial to understanding what happened during the last 65 years. The main truth about this conflict has always been guided by one fact: neither the Palestinians nor their backers were willing then to acknowledge the rights of the Jews. It is only now after decades of intransigence that the Arabs say they want a state. But the common thread from 1947 to today’s debate is the willingness of much of the world to delegitimize Jewish rights and to bypass negotiations. Just as the Arabs refused to deal with the Jews then, Abbas, as well as the leaders of Hamas who control the independent Palestinian state in Gaza, won’t negotiate with Israel. Though many of the nations that voted in favor of today’s resolution claimed they were hoping to speed up a two-state solution to the conflict, what they did was to enable a continuation of that same spirit of Arab intransigence of 1947 that made war inevitable.
Today is Mahmoud Abbas’s big day at the United Nations, as the Palestinian Authority’s Third World allies and Western sympathizers are uniting to throw the Fatah leader a bone in the form of an upgrade in the group’s status at the world body. The symbolism of this move, especially since it is timed to occur on the 65th anniversary of the 1947 UN vote to partition Palestine, is not without some value to those that think the recognition of the PA’s rights in the territory the Jewish state conquered in 1967 is a step toward forcing more Israeli withdrawals. But the talk about the PA being the government of an independent Palestinian state, even on that only exists in theory, is an escape from reality, not a look into the future. That’s because the people that already run an independent Palestinian state have their eyes on Abbas’s rotten borough in the West Bank and are planning to put it under different management.
While Abbas is taking a bow at the charade in New York where he will behave as the head of a virtual state, one of the leaders of the rival Hamas movement was talking about a merger with Fatah that would put the Islamists on course to run the West Bank. As the New York Times reports, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal spoke from his new headquarters in Doha, Qatar today and declared his intention to step up efforts to finally forge a unity agreement with Fatah. Though the two groups have been dancing around an accord for more than a year, the decision by Hamas to re-launch the effort in the wake of its missile offensive against Israel is no coincidence. Having gained ground in terms of popularity among Palestinians in the only way one can in their political culture — via violence — Hamas is about to cash in its chips and seek to win control of the West Bank by more peaceful means.
With the Palestinian Authority all but certain to have its status at the United Nations upgraded this evening to nonmember observer state, some who call themselves friends of Israel as well as some prominent Israelis are applauding the initiative. In particular, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said he does not oppose the move by his former negotiating partner, PA head Mahmoud Abbas. Olmert says the vote will promote a two-state solution and help Palestinian moderates in their quest to make peace with Israel. But Olmert, whose attempt to give Abbas pretty much everything he had asked for in 2008 resulted in the Palestinian fleeing the U.S.-sponsored talks without even responding to the offer of a state, seems more interested in vainly seeking to undermine his successor Benjamin Netanyahu than drawing conclusions from his own experience.
The show at the UN is about a number of things, but advancing the chances for peace between Israel and the Palestinians isn’t one of them.
After more than a year of campaigning for it, the Palestinian Authority will have its moment tomorrow when the General Assembly of the United Nations will vote to upgrade the PA’s status to nonvoting observer. Israel’s foes will rejoice and many of its friends will worry. Some of that will be justified, as the decision will be a symbolic triumph that the Palestinians will attempt to portray as tantamount to UN recognition of their independence in the areas Israel won in the Six-Day War. But after working hard to prevent this from happening, the Israeli government has decided to downplay the outcome. Some will interpret this as nothing more than a feeble attempt to spin a diplomatic defeat; the reaction is more than just politically astute. It is an accurate reflection of the real-world impact of the vote since it won’t change a thing on the ground in the Middle East or even at the UN itself.
The Palestinian Authority knows all too well that the victory they will win tomorrow is of minimal use to them. They can use it to create mischief for Israel in the International Criminal Court as well as bolster their already secure niche in the hearts of most UN member states and the world body’s bureaucracy. But it won’t get them one inch closer to actual independence or — more importantly — give them any credibility with Palestinians who will be quick to note that it will change nothing in the West Bank or in Gaza where the PA’s Hamas rivals rule over an independent state in all but name. Rather than seeking to punish the PA and its leader Mahmoud Abbas for effectively trashing the Oslo Accords, Israel can afford to ignore the vote since it will not move him any closer to a state or genuine international legitimacy. The only reason European nations and even some of the PA’s third-world allies are backing the move is because they know it has no significance. After all, how can any government claim to be independent when a rival group already exercises sovereignty over part of the territory it claims?
Israel is being criticized today in the world press for playing hardball with five of the 12 non-aligned nations that had hoped to gather in Ramallah to formally back the Palestinian Authority’s latest attempt to get the United Nations to back their bid for statehood. The delegations from Algeria, Bangladesh, Cuba, Indonesia and Malaysia who sought to enter the territories while sticking to their non-recognition of the Jewish state were not allowed in, effectively spiking the entire event. The collapse of what the PA had hoped would be a “Ramallah Declaration” was just the latest indication that the Palestinians’ latest UN bid might end as badly as their first try. However, the Palestinians are smart enough to know that placing your chips on the ability of a disorganized and powerless faction like the Non-Aligned Movement isn’t a good bet.
Far more significant than the posturing in Ramallah were the comments by aides of PA President Mahmoud Abbas that their UN campaign would be largely put on hold until after the U.S. presidential election. As the Times of Israel reports, Abbas is planning to soft pedal his UN effort until November because he understands that any talk about the Palestinians could hinder Obama’s re-election hopes. Though the PA has been dismayed by the president’s election year Jewish charm offensive that has seen their concerns pigeonholed in Washington, Abbas is clearly hoping for a better result once Obama is safely returned to office.