Rejoicing Palestinians

Can diplomatic recognition tear down the apartheid wall?

The New York Review of Books recently published a long state of the union – type piece on the Palestinian- Israeli conflict. It was written by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley – two writers who generally do not easily let Israel off the hook for its discriminatory policies – and is a general warning about the state of affairs in the conflict. Agha and Malley express concern about Washington’s ability to moderate between the two sides (good) and Israel’s ability and desire to make peace (good) as well as the efficacy of Palestinian PM Salam Fayyad’s state building plan (kudos). For all the perceptive (or, rather, obvious) points the authors made, there were a million inconsistencies and one-sided arguments. I don’t have much time today, so I want to discuss just one part of the essay that particularly irked me and leave the rest for you to read for yourself.

In the third part of the paper, the authors spoke about the recent wave of international recognition for an independent Palestinian state along ’67 borders. Such a strategy – international recognition, that is – boosts Palestinian moral and depresses Israelis, but it gives Israel the opportunity for unilateral action, so the authors argue:

Of these suggestions, arguably the most promising is to seek international acceptance of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders. In the past few months, several countries have recognized such a state and others may follow. The trend is causing Palestinians to rejoice and Israelis to protest, which only makes Palestinians rejoice all the more. Further recognition almost certainly, and understandably, would be seen as a significant achievement and boost Palestinian morale. Should European nations join the list, it could possibly provide the jolt that will force Israelis to reconsider their options.

What it will not do for now is materially affect the situation on the ground. Palestinians would not enjoy greater sovereignty, their capital-to-be in East Jerusalem would still be occupied, the fate of Palestinian refugees would remain unaddressed. Their initial shock overcome, Israelis might see an advantage: as Palestinians and the international community celebrate the birth of a state and focus on the minutiae of building its institutions in the roughly 40 percent of the West Bank under PA control, pressure to resolve outstanding issues—drawing final borders, dividing Jerusalem, or bringing justice to the refugees—could wane and Israel could be provided with the opportunity to pursue its own unilateral inclinations.

Agha and Malley are correct only on the last of the three assumptions. International recognition is not a unilateral move by the Palestinians, but rather a series of bilateral moves with states across the globe. Likewise, if this summer, Palestine declares independence with the backing and recognition of the one hundred plus countries that already recognize it,  it would be an example of a multilateral, international decision, not a simple unilateral move. Yet, such a move would be completely symbolic and deeply counterproductive. A second declaration of independence that is supported by many countries from around the world would need the approval of the United States and Israel to be more than ink on paper. The situation on the ground, as Agha and Malley note, would not change. There would be no international force to remove the IDF and settlers from Palestine, no legal way to remove the apartheid wall and no true diplomatic way to force Israeli compliance. Moreover, such a move would be read as (or at least argued to be) a move to delegitimize Israel, reinforcing the back-against-the-wall, isolated feeling that many Israelis have.

[tweetmeme] Backed by a defensive feeling of (what is perceived to be) unjust isolation, Israeli politicians would most likely encourage a unilateral declaration of Israel’s borders. Given the chance to draw its own map, Israel would present the world with borders that would be nowhere close to the Green Line and certainly unacceptable to the Palestinians. Most settlements would find themselves inside the expanded Israel proper, Palestinians would be placed in de facto bantustans (more so than today), and compromise over borders would be effectively finished.

Where Agha and Malley err is in the statement that Palestinians rejoice when new countries recognize 1967 Palestine as an independent state. Of course, certain Palestinians do celebrate each new announcement as if it actually meant something, but the majority of Palestinians see such recognition for what it is: political gamesmanship that leads to no true change. There is little that Brazil or Uruguay can do to ease the suffering on the ground in Palestine. Neither Chile nor Paraguay can rebuild schools that Israel has torn down. Puru and Russia, though powerful, are helpless as they watch Israeli settlements take over valuable Palestinian farmland, leaving many Palestinian families without an income. Bolivia and India are powerless to stop the unjust and disproportionate distribution of natural resources throughout the occupied territories. Guyana and South Africa certainly are unable to put an end to the deadly siege over Gaza.

Most Palestinian people – and most Israelis, for that matter – see that the game of international recognition will invariably remain the rhetorical realm of theoretical politics, having little positive effect on the situation on the ground. International recognition (without Israeli and American consent), as I have said before, is completely symbolic, with no real effect on the situation. Most Palestinians watch countries recognize a 1967 Palestine with, at best, a modicum of hope and no expectations for results. For over 60 years Israel has imposed its will on the Palestinians as the international community did nothing. Today, with the political protection from its political bodyguards in Washington, Israel is able to shun peace with impunity.

Agha and Malley write about the dire situation in Palestine, ending their piece with the sentence: “This probably is not what the world had in mind when Obama took office. It certainly is not what the Palestinians believed history had in store. But it won’t get any better anytime soon.” Clearly, the authors understand that the current political balance does not favor Palestinian rights. Unfortunately, this balance is not going to change without the acquiescence of Israel and, perhaps more importantly, the United States.

Photo from NJP

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