The General Assembly Vote on Palestinian Observer Status

By Jason Petrucci – It is extremely difficult to hold both substantive and humane views regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is certainly more intuitive to simply take a side.

Take the recent violence between Israel and Hamas, which touched not only the Gaza Strip but also Israel’s largest cities: Israel supporters typically focus on Hamas rocket attacks launched in peacetime while declining to broadcast any opinions about the total blockade of a population the size of Manhattan or Israel’s continued construction of settlements in West Bank lands they have never made legal claim to; many Palestine sympathizers focus on the hundreds of Palestinians killed every time the IDF undertakes a major operation in the Territories, thereby claiming disproportionality in the use of violence–which implies, whether they admit to this or not, that months of prior attacks by Hamas with the express purpose of killing Israeli civilians (or Hamas’ strategic decision to hide in dense civilian neighborhoods) are morally and politically irrelevant in Israel’s decision to resort to violence.  There are the positive neutrals (“I hope that both parties are able to bring this conflict to a quick and peaceful resolution”) whom are of course well-represented in the diplomatic corps, and the negative neutrals (“I wish these idiots would just blow each other up already”) of whom the reader may know a few from private conversation.

Israel drags its feet over giving Palestinians more control over their land and their government, and making reasonable restitution for Palestinian land, property and life lost after taking the upper hand in multiple wars.  On the other hand, there has been little discussion among Palestinian sympathizers of the harm done to the Palestinian cause by militants.  (Apparently the non-violence that worked for India, Black Americans in the South and Black Africans in South Africa would just never work for Palestinians in the Territories or abroad…But then, the Territories have been under occupation for 45 years and armed struggle has episodically spoiled proposed improvements in their status.)  For my part, I share the positive neutrals’ relief to see the violence stop, but I increasingly suspect that these episodes are part of a perverse political negotiation in which some of the parties are foreign and non-public.  (A certain Islamic Republic comes to mind, and if I am right it definitely isn’t helping.)  I share nothing of the negative neutrals’ animus in this case, aside from a mistrust of many of the powers that be–especially Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition and Hamas.

At the end of November the United Nations General Assembly granted Observer status to the Palestinian Authority.  Acceptance of the Palestinian Authority’s bid for recognition from the General Assembly was widely anticipated.  While this vote does not make the Palestinian Authority a full member in the UN and certainly does nothing substantive to make Palestine a functional state–full membership would have to be granted by the Security Council where the United States wields veto, and Palestinian functional statehood is unattainable without consent from the State of Israel–this vote represents the consensus of the General Assembly and would allow the Palestinian Authority access to a number of United Nations institutions–including, potentially, the International Criminal Court.

The International Criminal Court was organized to deal with charges of war crimes against individual persons.  The danger of the Court (and the reason the United States is not a party to it) is that charges of war crimes might be issued on an inconsistent or politically-motivated basis.  Now that the Palestinian Authority gains Observer status at the UN, if it is granted access to the ICC it could bring charges of war crimes against IDF or Israeli government officials.  The United Kingdom, which ultimately abstained from the vote, had indicated that possible participation in the ICC was one of its greatest reservations against granting observer status to the Palestinian Authority.

I for one applauded the Palestinian Authority’s decision to pursue this acknowledgment from the United Nations, and felt congratulations was owed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on its success.  While my country and Israel both insist that nationhood can only be granted through negotiations between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, in retrospect negotiations have effectively been frozen since the fall of the moderate Olmert government.  (Intransigence from the far-right Likud government is a major culprit, of course, but following former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s controversial withdrawal from multiple settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Israel has not committed to any further concessions.)

The simple fact is that Israel is taking advantage of the current situation.  As I have argued before: This is Netanyahu’s fault for dragging his feet, period. Both his aggressive expansion of settlements in territory with a contested status and his own rationale for not negotiating with the divided Palestinians suggest he never had any intention of granting Palestinians further rights or self-determination. The sad fruits of non-action on the political status of the Palestinians—namely, the on-again, off-again flare-ups of violence with militant groups that can fire rockets deep into Israel—reaffirms why you must negotiate in politics–yes, even with your enemies.

Again, to head-off the skeptics and the shruggers with all their damned reasonable arguments: This step certainly wasn’t full recognition, let-alone functional statehood or a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, but fair play to the Palestinian Authority for peacefully asserting Palestinians’ rights.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s (and Likud’s) position remains that the Palestinian Authority must be unitary, accept Israel’s right to exist and renounce violence before the State of Israel will enter any new negotiations.  (These conditions sound reasonable until one considers how many wars could never end if they were offered as preconditions for just talking.)  Fatah in the West Bank has met these conditions while Hamas has not. When Hamas won a majority in the Palestinian Parliament in the 2006 elections, Israel cut off all the tax revenues it was collecting on the behalf of the Palestinian Authority.  This led to a brief but decisive civil war (if we may call it that) between Fatah and Hamas, resulting in 2 separate semi-state entities in the West Bank and Gaza.  The Israeli government of Ariel Sharon may have felt it had no choice but to deny revenues to Hamas, but now the Netanyahu government refuses any negotiations with the Palestinian Authority because it “will not renounce violence.”  This is a fraud; Likud is just using the Palestinians’ internal divisions as a convenient excuse to leave them in legal limbo.

The Territories have been under military occupation for 45 years.  This would be a tragedy if there weren’t a short list of Israeli, Palestinian and Iranian government officials we can hold morally responsible for it.  The idea that “the Palestinians” must assume all moral responsibility for this state of affairs, while Netanyahu’s coalition government (which includes public figures, such as Avigdor Lieberman, who would never rise to such prominence in the American political system) builds and maintains new settlements in the West Bank at will, is offered in such bad faith that I suspect its aim is to maintain this situation of perpetual military occupation, in the vague and fantastic hope that over 4,260,000 Palestinian nationals will just…well, go away.

No, I am absolutely not implying what you might be thinking.  We should not give quarter to the obtuse and offensive likeness sometimes drawn between the State of Israel and the Nazis.  I will be the first to argue that, if its leaders so chose, the State of Israel has the means to do far worse than it has to the Palestinians at any time.  But there are limits to the moral as well as the political pertinence of such a point.  It in no way changes the fact that the conditions the Palestinians currently abide are awful.  If there is a consensus in Israeli politics that Hamas is illegitimate, that doesn’t explain why the State of Israel cannot negotiate further agreements (whether final or interim) with the Palestinian Authority through the agency of Fatah, at least to increase their control over and freedom within the West Bank.  But no further agreements have been inked with the faction of Mahmoud Abbas, which has probably wanted meaningful negotiations all along.  The real reason Abbas unilaterally pushed for acknowledgment through the UN General Assembly is because his receptivity to Israel has brought him nothing–not even evidence that any further political progress was possible.   He was pushed to this point.  Our government’s position was that Abbas’ action is “not helpful;” I say, he obtained something for Palestinians and did not have to use violence–indeed, he used a legitimate international mediating institution–to do it.  Is there anything intrinsically objectionable about this (unless, perhaps, one wants the Palestinians to have nothing)?

Almost half the West Bank is either under IDF jurisdiction, is reserved for the settlements, has been unilaterally annexed by Israel or has been designated a nature preserve by Israel on the Palestinians’ behalf.  Palestinians cannot pass from one side of the West Bank to the other.  Palestinians cannot leave the West Bank at all except through Israeli-occupied territory.  The State Israel continues to construct new settlements at will, and has built structures on much of the territory with an accessible water table.  Note that I haven’t said that the 1967 boundaries are sacred, or that everyone who claims descent from a Palestinian refugee should have a “right of return.”  I have only mentioned East Jerusalem implicitly.  I have made no argument that the State of Israel is illegitimate in itself, and I am not going to.  But in the face of all this, should we expect complete political passivity on the part of the Palestinians and their advocates?  Should we accept premises and offer arguments that assume they will be politically-passive?  We are supposed to believe that Bibi Netanyahu really just wants peace, and has tragically been frustrated for want of an honest negotiating partner among the Palestinians?

I recognize the State of Israel’s right to exist and its right to defend itself.  In everything else it has done, I have long suspected the Netanyahu government of acting in bad faith.  Do not forget: In President Obama–whose Ambassador to the UN vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning unilateral settlement expansion, and who voted against granting Palestine Observer status in the General Assembly–Prime Minister Netanyahu sees such an obstacle to the sort of partnership he wants in the United States that in November 2010 met with the incoming Republican House Majority Leader to obtain assurance of more help, and tried to stir-up pre-election controversy to help Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney–who had promised him unqualified support.

Observer status for the Palestinian Authority is far from an ideal status (and certainly isn’t the harbinger of the resolution of all outstanding issues)–but it is something.  I will not just shrug-off a nonviolent call for legitimate recognition by the Palestinian Authority.  If it causes Israel institutional headaches, that marginally increases the political prospect of some kind of concessions, whether negotiated or unilateral.  Even incremental progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been almost unheard-of since Prime Minister Sharon went into a coma.  This minimal level of recognition from the UN General Assembly creates institutional ties that reinforce the concept of and capacity for Palestinian statehood; as I am convinced that Netanyahu has absolutely no intention of allowing Palestinian statehood, this is the first development that improves the prospect of a 2-state solution since Sharon undertook the unilateral withdrawal of West Bank and Gaza settlements.

I don’t think the distinctions I have made here are profound or novel.  I do think they are unusual, and require some measure of courage on one’s part, to offer simultaneously.  This is because the many unqualified supporters of either side in this conflict have dumbed-down this debate, preferring to speak to the like-minded and invoke their respective cases of victimhood rather than seek help with their own moral blind spots.  Taken in isolation these various observations may seem trivial; in combination I think they are worryingly hard to find.

I have not pretended to be an “objective” or “unbiased” observer of these events, or even to know what that is supposed to mean.  But I am trying to support the policies (and the prior sentiments) which I consider most-humane.  I have often seen no choice on the part of the State of Israel but to use military force against Palestinian militants.  This has sometimes earned me consternation from friends who support the Palestinians.  On a more-mundane level, or in an event such as recognition of observer status when the Palestinian Authority peacefully seeks further concessions or brings claims against the State of Israel which the latter finds embarrassing or damaging, I find myself referring to the same litany of abuse or neglect which advocates of the Palestinians claim.  This seems to puzzle or frustrate friends who support Israel.  I only claim a preference for those policies and goals which I think most-humane.  The thing I like least is the initiation of violence, the naked use of power (including by a weaker actor); the thing I like next-least is oppression, abusing the advantage of one’s power.  I also find invocation of historical grievances useless, especially after generations have passed and the principal victims and perpetrators are dead.  We should find it outrageous that there isn’t a serious discussion about the terrorism Hamas regularly perpetrates or attempts against Israel; we should find it outrageous that the Palestinians have had to live under military occupation for 45 years.

We should also find it outrageous that so little passion is contributed to holding both of these views concurrently.  I should have more to say about this, but I feel burdened with general claims on which there should be broad agreement but which usually just signal one’s politics.

Jason Petrucci is a former graduate student at the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he specialized in ethnic conflict, genocide, and civil war.