Netanyahu must face the music

No one won at the UN in the Palestinian bid for statehood, but neither was it a tie.

birds flags 311 (photo credit: Avi Katz)
birds flags 311
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
It was just another battle; yet another skirmish in the long conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. This time the battle was waged by diplomatic means, between two veteran gladiators.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had the advantage in the choice of the battlefield, since the UN is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. The weapons were the media, where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has the advantage thanks to his natural talents.
So who won? Netanyahu didn’t win, yet Abbas didn’t lose. But this was no tie, either. In the final count, which ultimately only history can tally, it would appear that Abbas took significant strides toward accomplishing his goal of an independent Palestinian state while, in contrast, Netanyahu was fighting a losing battle.
This was a battle between two historical narratives; Netanyahu and Abbas presented two different stories about the same conflict over the same piece of land. Naturally, each side chose to ignore or diminish the importance of the other in the history of the land of Israel/Palestine.
However, the important difference from previous partition plans is that the current conflict, at least from Abbas’s point of view, isn’t over the entire Greater Land of Israel/Palestine but over only part of it – the 1967 borders. Thus, this is no longer a zero-sum game, but rather a conflict that allows for a solution – at least in the eyes of those who want a solution.
In contrast to a military or financial struggle, where Israel holds clear superiority, the battle at the UN starts out on a level playing field, with perhaps even an advantage for the Palestinians, thanks to the wide support they enjoy from the nations of the world (and not only the nations of the Third World). In a global community, where occupation and colonialism are considered illegitimate, an Israeli narrative that attempts to explain why they are justified for security reasons is viewed as little more than crass apologetics. So even when Netanyahu orates the Jewish-Israeli narrative with great skill and flourish, the world sees it as nothing more than rhetorical demagoguery.
For sure, historians will be interested in Abbas’s and Netanyahu’s speeches, even though their content was not important. What is important is that Abbas managed to bring the Palestinian issue back into world consciousness and to present Israel as the local bully that is refusing to compromise with its neighbors.
Moreover, the main significance of Abbas’s brilliant UN maneuver is that it serves as a crucial further step along the way towards the establishment of a Palestinian state. This process began with the first partition plan in 1937 (the Peel Commission Report) and continued with the second partition plan in 1947 – the two plans that the Palestinians rejected and, in so doing, missed a historical opportunity to establish a state within borders that would have been far superior to the ones currently being negotiated. The process then continued with the PLO’s Phased Plan in 1974 and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s declaration of independence in 1988.
These have been the primary international milestones along the road toward the establishment of the Palestinian state. The new Palestinian request for UN recognition has become another such milestone.
What can and should Israel do? Israel must understand that in many respects the struggle for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital has been won. According to Israeli polls, the public has generally accepted these terms. The exact details will be determined in the final negotiation, but the basic guidelines, so it seems, have been set.
Thus, Israel must try to shape the agreement to suit its own interests.
Obviously, different political groups define these interests differently, but it would appear that a majority of Israeli society is willing to accept a solution according to these broad guidelines.
It is important to seize this opportunity, while there is still a moderate Palestinian leadership that opposes violence and seeks peace. The fact that Hamas controls Gaza and opposes such a solution makes it harder to solve this conflict permanently, but Abbas’s failure would be Hamas’ victory – and that is something that Israel must prevent at all costs.
The composition of the current Israeli government does not bode well for the continuation of the diplomatic process. But should Netanyahu become convinced – as were former prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, each in their time – that continued negotiations are the right and necessary thing to do, then he has enough political legitimacy to change the composition of his coalition and inscribe himself in the annals of history.
Until then, Netanyahu remains merely a footnote.
Prof. Elie Podeh teaches in the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.