The Palestinian statehood show at the UN is finally on the road. With his application this week to the UN secretary general and address to the general assembly, the Palestinian president formally launched the statehood process. In so doing Mahmoud Abbas has shown astonishing resolve against a formidable array of Israeli, US and European pressures to force him into retracting his position. Whatever else, this newfound determination will ensure a fresh lease of life for a leadership considered by many Palestinians, still shocked by the Palestine papers‘ revelations of subservience to Israel, to be unrepresentative, discredited and illegitimate. Israeli-US threats and frantic last-minute manoeuvring by the Quartet powers to halt the statehood process have only lent further credence to the Palestinian position.
Admitting “Palestine” as a full member state would undoubtedly provide some advantages. Statehood would change the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem from occupied territories to an occupied state, which could then request international help to end the occupation, as happened with Kuwait in 1990. Israel’s borders would be defined by law for the first time since the 1949 armistice and its expansion potentially halted.
However, given US determination to use its veto in the security council to prevent Palestine gaining full UN membership, it will not happen. But, with a two-thirds majority vote in the general assembly for Palestinian statehood almost assured, the Palestinians would be upgraded to non-member observer state status, like the Vatican. That would admit them to membership of several UN bodies hitherto barred, and could enable them to pursue cases against Israel at the international criminal court.
Public opinion seems to be widely in favour. A recent BBC survey found majority support for the Palestinian bid in most of 19 countries, especially in Egypt. Another recent opinion poll showed popular majorities for Palestinian statehood in Germany, France and Britain, even though European governments are divided, with Germany actively opposed, and Britain undecided.
Much of this popular support doubtless arises from a genuine desire to see the Palestinians gain freedom. But such sentiments, though admirable, are misguided. They ignore the realities of history, geography, and what justice for the Palestinians actually entails.
Historically, the current statehood initiative is a replay of December 1988, when the UN general assembly recognised the “proclamation of the state of Palestine” by more than 100 votes. Palestine acquired de facto state recognition in many international forums, and gained the status of a UN observer body. PLO representatives became quasi-ambassadors in western states. “Palestine” had already been a member of the Arab League and the Islamic Conference Organisation for a decade. But on the ground, where it really mattered, these diplomatic privileges never halted one inch of Israel’s encroachment on Palestinian land, and are unlikely to do so now Israel currently controls more than 60% of the West Bank and all Jerusalem. In 2010 there were 518,974 Jewish settlers and 144 settlements dotted all over the West Bank and East Jerusalem, with 1,600 more housing units planned and an apparently unstoppable settlement expansion. Unless this changes dramatically, no viable Palestinian state is possible while settlement expansion goes unchecked.
The Palestinian position on statehood is not unified. The Hamas government in Gaza is generally opposed to it, and ordinary Palestinians, whom no one has bothered to consult about this important initiative, are uncertain and divided, with many seduced by the dream of freedom it promises.
But the UN drama now unfolding is no more than a dangerous sideshow detracting from the real issue. The statehood debate has hijacked the historical facts and created a new reality: that the Israeli-Palestinian problem is about the 1967 Israeli occupation, and dividing historic Palestine into two states is the solution. This is the reality the international community has been encouraged to accept. In fact the conflict dates from the 1948 expulsion of the majority of Palestine’s inhabitants to accommodate Israel’s creation, as today’s 6.5 million Palestinian refugees can attest. Redressing that terrible injustice is the only durable solution. While Palestinian statehood in a fifth of the original homeland might seem attractive given the power imbalance between both sidesand Israel’s obduracy in peace negotiations, this was the worst historical moment to push for such a paltry aim which Palestinians may live to regret.
The Arab revolution sweeping the region should have been an object lesson for Palestinians. The new Arab revolutionaries have not fought just to attain a few of their rights; they have demanded a totally new order. Israel’s growing global isolation and enfeeblement should have been another spur to Palestinian action. Rather than seizing this unprecedented historic opportunity, the Palestinian leadership has pulled out the stops for a minimal political arrangement, ignoring the rights of refugees and legitimising Israel’s 1948 occupation of almost 80% of the original Palestine, including its post-1967 illegal settlements under cover of the “land swap” device. This misreading of the zeitgeist was a massive blunder and an inexcusable failure of leadership.
The vigorous campaign to enlist world support for this pathetic arrangement, as if it were the acme of Palestinian ambition, should have been fought instead for basic Palestinian rights. If limited statehood had been an interim stage in a longer-term strategy to attain those rights, it could have been acceptable.
As things stand, the danger is that international endorsement of the current statehood proposal will make it the benchmark for all future peace negotiators, and entrench the idea that partitioning Palestine unequally means justice. True friends of the Palestinians should oppose this application and support their struggle for real justice.
By Ghada Karmi, a leading Palestinian activist, academic and writer.