Jerusalem Report

Telling It Like It Is

Palestinian success at the UN clearly serves Israeli and American interests.

Palestinians watch Abbas' UN address
Photo by: Reuters
Like so many others in Israel and Palestine, I, too, sat transfixed in front of the television screen as I listened to the speeches at the UN by US President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

All three of them addressed the representatives of the countries around the world but spoke to their peoples at home. And I was amazed.

After all, it’s obvious that Netanyahu does not want to enter into meaningful negotiations, because he does not want to reach that final stage when it will be necessary to implement “the two states for two nations” solution in the Greater Land of Israel. Nor does Abbas want to renew the negotiations at this time, because he – quite justifiably – has no faith that Netanyahu will negotiate sincerely or that he has any intention of actually reaching a solution.

Obama, too, spoke reluctantly, grudgingly accepting the conservative/nationalist Israeli narrative that Netanyahu dictated to him when he visited Washington in May. Like the saner sectors of the Israeli public, Obama understands that his support for Netanyahu’s positions actually compromises Israel’s existential interests. But the conservative forces on his own home field, the AIPAC-Tea Party-Evangelicals, have forced him into an unviable, and perhaps intolerable, detour from the only rational path – the one that inevitably leads to “two states for two nations.”

The three men were called to speak about the Middle East in the General Assembly of the UN – the auspicious institution that came into being out the devastation of WWII – at the initiative of the Palestinians, under Abbas’s leadership. The Palestinian Authority is waging a diplomatic campaign against Israel, hitting hard at Jerusalem’s chronic “Achilles heel.”

Indeed, the arena and the essence are interconnected.

Abbas began his visit in New York wit h the request that Palestine be accepted as a full member of the UN. This request necessitates discussion and a vote in the Security Council. The Security Council is not the Palestinians’ main playing field since results there are preordained – either they will not have the majority necessary for passage or, if they do, the Americans will veto the decision. The Palestinians’ central moves will come into play in the next stage – the vote in the General Assembly, which, for the time being, has been postponed.

When they present their request to the General Assembly, the Palestinians will receive widespread support from the entire plenary, in the name of the entire world. This will be a historic, political and PR feat for the Palestinians at this point in the first part of the 21st century: Once again, they will have placed the Palestinian issue at the top of the world’s agenda. This will now be the Archimedean leverage point for pulling the Middle East conflict out of the stagnant, shallow waters in which the Netanyahu/Lieberman/Barak government has deliberately left it to wallow.

Palestine knows, Israel knows, the US knows, the entire world knows what the end result of any attempt to end the conflict in the Middle East must be: the establishment of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and in Gaza within the borders of ’67, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and with mutually agreed-on land exchanges and security arrangements. Any solution to the Palestinian problem will follow the outlines of the Arab Peace Initiative. The speeches of Abbas, Netanyahu and Obama were little more than a warm-up to gain public support back home, before the real defensive and offensive moves come into play.

To a certain degree, now that Netanyahu has returned to Jerusalem after his “dugri” (“telling it like it is”) speech at the UN, Israel is out of the game. Abbas is the one who now has Obama’s ear. A better connection with the Americans has been a strategic goal for the Palestinians, and they have reached it thanks to Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s clear thinking and rich experience.

A decade ago, at the height of the intifada, Fayyad, a smart man who is well-versed in the ways of the American arena, tried to convince then-chairman Yasser Arafat to invest most of his efforts in building a bridgehead to the White House. As far as the Palestinians are concerned, Palestinian success in working with the White House means a loss for Israel. To them, it’s a classic zero sum game. Fayyed understood that the Palestinians should rely on the Americans, rather than on the anachronistic “armed struggle,” which employed terrorism against civilians and caused the entire world to hate the Palestinians. Arafat couldn’t play the American card, but Abbas is not Arafat. Working together, Abbas and Fayyad, with the assistance of their experienced aides, may successfully put together a sophisticated diplomatic maneuver that Arafat could not have even conceived.

If so, over the course of the next two months, so long as it is still convened in New York, Abbas can work the General Assembly and obtain a “moral majority” in support of the Palestinian request for membership in the UN.

In theory, if the Palestinians prefer, they can make their move any time within the framework of the “Uniting for Peace” provision. But drawing further attention to the US’s declining position as a former superpower could have a negative effect on America’s vital interests. And so Washington and Ramallah have a lot to talk about. Jerusalem will have to sit this one out and, at best, try to cut its losses. Israeli leaders’ melodramatic rhetoric about punitive measures towards the Palestinians is not only unrealistic – it proves that Israel is uneasy and losing control over the situation.

The significance of the Palestinian move is even more obvious when viewed against the background of the past. The Palestinian struggle for independence bears the Mark of Cain. Over the years, Palestinian acts of terror have taken thousands of lives. They have hijacked planes; they have murdered athletes; suicide terrorists, men and women, have invaded restaurants, parties, buses, theaters and markets – and detonated themselves. They have knifed innocent passersby to death on the streets. They hijacked a ship and tossed an old, crippled Jewish man, confined to a wheelchair, into the ocean. They have fired thousands of rockets at civilian targets. All in the vain attempt to convince the world to get Israel out of Palestine. But the violence has been seared into the consciousness of the people in Israel and throughout the West, a symbol of the Palestinian struggle for freedom.

But Israel’s resilience withstood Palestinian violence, and in response to its despicably arrogant terrorism, the Palestinian vision was set back for years.

The armed Palestinian struggle began years before the Six Day War. The results of that war shocked both the victors and the vanquished. In the years following the war, the political groups that view the territories of Judea and Samaria as an integral part of the state and the nation took root in Israel. Even if, from a legal point of view, those areas have remained separate from the State of Israel proper, since Israel, knowing very well that the world would never tolerate it, refrained from annexing the conquered areas.

The number of Israelis who, for various motives, chose to settle in the territories conquered during the Six Day War has grown exponentially. Hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews now live beyond the borders of Israel as we knew them when we were children, the borders of Jerusalem as we knew them in our youth. The Green Line is fading out of our national consciousness, off the map and out of our everyday lives; it has been replaced by a fence – if that.

In the Palestinians’ national consciousness, the Green Line is becoming a marker of justice: it demarcates political Palestine in an area that is less than one-fourth of the historical land of Palestine. From Abbas’s point of view, any Israeli presence in these territories is de facto occupation and should therefore be resisted.

This perception explains the timing of the current diplomatic confrontation, which, to a great extent, is the fault of the Israeli government. Netanyahu’s second government has willfully and knowingly taken political and security risks in order to distance itself from the accepted paradigm of “territory for peace.” In accordance with the platform of the Likud, the current government has determined that the Jordan River will mark Israel’s eastern border and that there is no room for a Palestinian state to be established to its west.

That is the gap that we could hear in the speeches by Netanyahu and Abbas. And in response, the Palestinians have taken up the current initiative, which has one clear goal: to internationally call Israel’s control over the West Bank into question.

Cleverly, Abbas spoke to his audience at the General Assembly in words and terms taken from the history of the struggle against colonialism, from Frantz Fanon to Fidel Castro. For decades, Palestinian diplomacy has been playing in this arena. And now, the Palestinian struggle has once again climbed to the head of the agenda of the “automatic majority” (which is an arrogant Israeli reference to the unallied states). Abbas appealed to these countries in their language and for good reason: his speech was received with thunderous applause.

Netanyahu faced a hostile assembly, locked into its preconceptions and prejudices. But he was not clever enough to speak to the assembly in its own language. he was unable to hide the disdain that he feels. His references to the Lubavitcher rebbe and his muddled allusions to the alleged Palestinian demand that the region be Judenrein, including trite references to an impending holocaust in Palestine, were ludicrous and embarrassing. It was painfully clear that Israel feels out of place in this forum, which represents the nations of the world. Netanyahu was speaking solely to his own camp – to the right wing in Israel and to the “Tea Party” in the US.

Abbas's central statement was this: Our efforts are not aimed at isolating Israel or delegitimizing it. Rather, we want to gain legitimacy for the cause of the people of Palestine.” This is the message that a group of Israelis, of which I was a part, heard from Abbas when we met with him at the beginning of September; this is the message he has presented to the entire world. It is a message that points to his acceptance of the reality of the existence of the State of Israel. In the name of the Palestinian nation, Abbas has agreed that Israel exists to the west of the Green Line, while they are demanding that the areas of Palestine that are to its east become the site of the future state.

This is a clear message of peace.

Netanyahu’s central statement was this: “The Palestinians should first make peace with Israel and then get their state.” To the Palestinians, this means that they will not have a state in any territory to the west of the Jordan before there is a peace treaty. To us, the Israelis, this means that we will not allow the Palestinian state a foothold in the region. The rest is obvious: there will not be, at least not as long as Netanyahu is in office, any peace agreement.

This is a clear message of confrontation.

Between the Palestinian message of peace and the Israeli message of confrontation is a diplomatic chasm that cannot be bridged. Only one of the following three conditions could change the situation. The first: A complete Palestinian capitulation and agreement to negotiations “without pre-conditions.” The chances for this are nil. The second: A complete Israeli capitulation and agreement to enter into negotiations based on the “1967 lines,” “territory for peace,” and a freeze on settlement construction as long as the negotiations are proceeding. The chances for this are also nil. The third: Waiting for a change in the administrations in ramallah, Jerusalem, and Washington.

And there is a fourth option, which we don’t want to speak about: a return to violence. A third intifada. A dizzying escalation of the conflict in the Gaza Strip, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, the territories of Judea and Samaria, and among the Arab citizens of Israel.

The Palestinians’ success at the UN has calmed the region down and serves as a counterweight to the pressure for a resumption of violence. And so the Palestinian success at the UN clearly serves Israeli and American interests as well.

Ilan Baruch is a former senior diplomat and Israeli ambassador to South Africa.


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