Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Achieving Palestinian statehood

[I'm on a roll today: two pieces after months of little action here.  That said, the following consists of some thoughts that have been brewing in my head over the last couple of months, so it was fairly easy to put them down.

UPDATE: An edited version of the article below has gone up at the Ideas blog here.]

In just over a month the question of whether a Palestinian state is recognised by the international community will be put before the UN. Despite the fact that there has been plenty of time to prepare and anticipate for this moment, it still seems uncertain how this is to be achieved in practice. Several factors are in play here – and they are outside the control of the Palestinians themselves.

The international route: through the UN

At the end of July I spoke to someone closely involved in the Palestinian president’s office regarding the international lobbying process to achieve statehood. He said that there the Palestinians face two options at the UN. They can go to the UN Security Council (UNSC), whose decisions are binding, or to the UN General Assembly.

Currently the Palestinian preference is to go for the UNSC rather than the General Assembly. However, the US has already made it clear that it is committed to the Oslo process and that it would veto any attempt to push a Palestinian state through it. Meanwhile, if the Palestinians decide to go to the UN General Assembly, they are certain to get the necessary votes in order to claim a moral victory, even if the decision cannot be implemented. At the same time, my contact also noted that there is the potential for any member state to appeal the item on the agenda and request that the matter be deferred for discussion to a later date. In other words, the question of Palestinian statehood could be kicked into touch for a couple of years.

The domestic route: state-building and its limits

Would a UN decision to defer a decision on Palestinian statehood put an end to the matter? Not necessarily. Over the past two years the PA prime minister, Salam Fayyad, has been engaged in a process of state-building. This was set out in the Ending the Occupation, Establishing the State programme in August 2009, also known as the Fayyad Plan. At its core the programme has sought to build and reform the PA’s institutions, including its administrative, fiscal and judicial apparatus while both building up and streamlining the security forces. The donor community has been active in its support of the plan for at least two reasons. First, it echoes its own agenda as set out in the donor conference in December 2007. Second, it offers a counterweight to the Hamas administration in the Gaza strip, by showering the PA in the West Bank with money and showing what Palestinians can expect if they would only turn away from the Islamists.

In April the World Bank reported to the donor community in the form of the (ironically named) Ad Hoc Liaison Committee (ALHC) reported that the PA had effectively met the criteria for statehood. Notwithstanding the conceptual problem associated with this statement – that statehood is earned rather than the national right of a people (maybe someone might tell the South Sudanese that) – this does pose the question of how the countries making up the ALHC will respond if the UN General Assembly does indeed recognise Palestine as the world’s newest independent country in September. Might there be pressure to change the way that donors currently do business, perhaps by disregarding Israeli formal military and administrative control in certain parts of the West Bank, especially Area C?

That is unlikely to happen. Donors tend to support the Oslo process and the current setup, which means tacit acceptance of the status quo. Yet even if donors do not drastically change their approach, it will certainly be the case that the dynamic will change. If Israel continues to stonewall then it risks being seen as even more of a pariah state than it does already. But it is not enough to assume that either moral suasion or international law will be sufficient to get Israel to concede to the Palestinians sovereignty over the occupied territory of the West Bank and the besieged land of Gaza. Indeed, while many Palestinians are prone to recite chapter and verse the various international laws and codes that Israel has violated, I only note that it has been 44 years since Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza; if international law was insufficient to either constrain the Israelis then or contain their actions now, why should this now happen?

The Israeli route: international or domestic pressure

As I presently see it, there appear to be two main ways of pressuring Israel to leave the occupied territory, regardless of a vote at the UN. Either there is demand from below, in Israeli civil society for a change of policy or Israel faces pressure from its international sponsors to withdraw.

Pressure from without

Given Obama’s retreat from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the past year, I think it extremely unlikely that there will be any significant pressure on the Israeli government. The US decision to veto Palestinian statehood if it comes before the UNSC only shows how comprehensively the Americans appear to have given up. But this is only the culmination of an ongoing process which has seen Obama try and kick start the moribund Oslo process, resulting in a few days of talks between Israelis and Palestinians in September last year and which were subsequently ended when Israel’s moratorium on building new settlements (although those already accepted on paper and in Jerusalem were exempt) ran out. American desperation was such that the administration even offered Israel up to $3bn in defence aid if it would only continue the (limited) moratorium for three more months, before realising the excessiveness of the offer and hastily withdrawing it.

Obama’s weakness on Israel highlights the considerable power of the pro-Israel lobby in the US. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have documented this in their book, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy. In addition to the substantial resources it has at its disposal, the lobby has also been extremely successful in cultivating links with both key legislators and administration officials to promote Israeli concerns, sometimes to the detriment of the US itself. That the book was controversial on its publication (and indeed continues to be seen so) is striking, given that Mearsheimer and Walt framed the lobby as one of several other similar special interest groups in Washington. With regard to the current situation, the strength of the pro-Israel lobby means that for American veto power to be dissipated will require considerable and counter-lobbying and activism in Washington if a contrary approach is to be achieved. That said, the capacity to achieve this in the short term – and especially over the next few months is unlikely to be achieved. Instead, any contrary lobbying must be seen as a long term objective and set of activities.

Pressure from within

So where does this leave domestic pressure on Israel? Before the summer I was fairly sceptical that anything might come from Israeli civil society. I still maintain that position, although with less confidence than before. Why? For supporters of Oslo, the current Netanyahu government has been one of the most obstinate imaginable. The coalition includes a number of rightwing parties, including those close to the settler movement. The settlers have no desire to give up the West Bank (which the more religious identify to be the historic Jewish homeland of Judea and Samara). Indeed, by the middle of last year, a number of them were toying with the idea of abandoning the generally accepted two-state solution in favour of one state. But whereas the left (both Palestinian and Israeli) has been most vocal in its support of one binational state, settlers’ supporters advocate one state that largely looks like the current set-up, but one in which the occupied territory is formally annexed, with Israelis having full citizenship and Palestinians becoming Israeli Arabs, whose rights are curtailed.

Meanwhile the Israeli left has largely become a shell of its former self. From my limited perspective, it has become extremely marginalised, speaking mainly to itself rather than engaging the wider public. But this is not the left and peace camp’s fault; my impression is that Israeli society has become increasingly disconnected from the occupation. Here the separation wall, which was begun under the Ariel Sharon government (2001-06) to divide Israel from the Palestinians, constitutes something much more than a metaphor. Rather it is literal evidence of an Israeli desire for complete separation from the Palestinian ‘problem’ in their midst. The idea is that if building a wall solves the problem by keeping Palestinians on the other side, backed up by occasional incursions in order to discourage efforts to infiltrate Israel.

The Israeli disconnect from the occupation has also been notable in the current wave of protests against the government. These began in early July as a reaction against the rising cost of living, initially with regard to cottage cheese prices and then against high rents. To make the point young protestors made themselves and their protest tangible by putting up and living in tents alongside some of the most affluent streets in Tel Aviv. Initially the demonstrators were shrugged off as middle class complainers, both by the government and their settler supporters. However, rather than defuse the anger, such comments only served to intensify them, increasing the number of protestors over successive weekends, resulting in around 300,000 taking to the street across the country on the first Saturday in August. The number at the most recent marches constitute perhaps the largest the country has seen, eventually prompting the government to backtrack and begin a process of review.

Despite the social movement’s diversity, it is striking that it has studiously avoided tackling the occupation. While this has disappointed many activists concerned with social justice, especially on the left, there have been strategic reasons for this. First, the protestors do not have a common position on Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and its treatment of Palestinians within Israel proper. Second, although many of the protesters’ sentiments may lie with the left and the peace camp and want to talk about an eventual agreement with the Palestinians, they fear the label that the government may try to tar them with should it become explicit. The government’s aggressive stance means that it might delegitimize the protestors in the eyes of mainstream Israelis, by claiming that they are undermining Israel’s security. The effect of adopting a more explicit position regarding Israel’s need to end its occupation and engage with the Palestinians to achieve a final settlement might therefore raise the prospect of a fracturing of support for the protestors – from within its ranks as well as from wider Israeli society.

In sum then, that Israel’s largest and most significant social movement is either unable or unwilling to address the occupation highlights the virtual absence of domestic pressure on the government. Yet at the same time, there may be a slight glimmer. It is notable that having misjudged the situation, some settler groups have sought space within the protest movement. Realising that public opinion is behind the protestors, they have moved away from disparagement to expressing support and solidarity for them. In part that support reflects not only their realisation of a shared national identity with the protestors, but may also be due to more cynical and self-interested reasons. According to Eyal Clyne, an Israeli researcher, between 2004 and 2009 half of the settlements constructed in the West Bank depended on government funds, compared to 21% in Israel and the occupied territory as a whole and 3% in Tel Aviv. In addition, the government subsidises settlers over other Israelis, spending 40,000 shekels per capita on the average Israeli and 93,000 shekels per capita on a settler each year. It is unsurprising then that settlers may want to deflect both attention and criticism by wrapping themselves in the flag.

Looking beyond September

There has been considerable diplomatic effort on the part of the Palestinians to circumvent the deadlock presented by Israel’s unwillingness to abide by the Oslo process. Evidence of this intransigence spills off every page of the Palestine Papers which the Al Jazeera network exposed at the start of the year. As the stronger party, Israel had the capacity to shape the process. That it refused to accede to even the smallest Palestinian request shows the bankruptcy of the current approach. Given this fact, it therefore does seem bizarre that the international community continues to subscribe to Oslo.

At the same time, the Palestine Papers showed the failure of the US to act as an honest broker between the two sides. That, coupled with the absence of any significant pressure for change within Israeli society (although the current tent protest may be worth watching to see whether the call for social justice will eventually move to incorporate discussion about the occupation) means that Israel unlikely to moved by a decision in favour of a Palestinian state at the UN.

Furthermore, for Palestinian statehood to be accepted next month will be only a partial victory. There remains the risk that it may not get through the UN system and be referred back for consideration at a later date. Yet even assuming that the Palestinians are successful, what then? Palestinian statehood is unlikely to be met with any significant change on the ground. As an Israeli professor told a journalist friend of mine when she asked what would happen after September, he replied: ‘October.’

Among some of the more apocalyptic members of the international community in Ramallah, the fear is that continued Israeli obstruction to an independent Palestine may give rise to a third intifada (uprising). The logic to this argument goes like this: because the Palestinians have pursued a non-violent approach to achieve statehood, first through the Oslo process and now by circumventing it through an appeal to the UN, that its frustration will give rise to growing anger. That resentment will lead to a collapse in the current approach and manifest itself in violence. But would this really be the case? The Palestinians have already tried this path once before, during the second intifada after September 2000. That process was more violent than the first intifada (1987-1991), which incorporated labour and consumer boycotts within it. By contrast the second intifada became an armed – and largely disproportionate – confrontation between a powerful Israel and a number of weaker Palestinian militias. Not only was the outcome not in doubt, but it gave Israel license to proceed with some of its more discriminatory practices, including the construction of the separation wall. A decade after the second intifada’s outbreak, I would argue that one is hard pressed to find anyone who thinks that it benefited the Israelis.

Consequently, I do not expect violence to break out across the West Bank and Gaza and against Israel. Notwithstanding sporadic and individual acts, the likelihood is that the current trend of non-violent resistance will continue. This will include actions by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, to target Israel. It will involve ongoing protests by demonstrators at key sites across the occupied territory, such as Bi’lin, Ni’lin and Nabi Saleh. Refugees’ descendents may well continue the actions they initiated in May, when many not only congregated at the Lebanese and Syrian borders, but passed through them, even while facing bullets and teargas from the Israeli army. As these movements and actions continue, the likelihood is that they will wear down both Israel’s capacity and willingness to act. Eventually, it may even prompt reflection within Israeli society as to whether the continued occupation is worth the cost. That such a scenario offers the Palestinians the best hope of achieving Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank and its siege of Gaza is not only bleak; it also requires both endurance and courage. But what may help is the seal of international recognition in the form of that UN vote – even if (as I expect) the world fails to place itself in the firing line to ensure that Palestine’s independence is realised in practice.

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