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On Palestine and the U.N.

Hands are being wrung at the White House and the State Department as the Palestinian Authority prepares to petition the United Nations later this month for some form of statehood recognition.  Palestinian leaders are being told by Washington and Tel Aviv that such a move will threaten the peace process and make life in Gaza and the West Bank even more untenable for its long-suffering residents.  This is being backed up by Congressional threats to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority should the U.N. vote on statehood move forward, not to mention predictions of dire political consequences for them from Israel.

These warnings would be far more credible if there were, in fact, a peace process to threaten.  But there isn’t.  What Palestinians see is a call for patience that merely allows for the relentless expansion of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, thus rendering the dream of statehood even more elusive.  In what one colleague has described as negotiations between the powerless and the powerful, Palestinians have watched the Netanyahu government publicly embarrass the Obama administration with exquisitely ill-timed (well-timed?) announcements of settlement expansion with no negative consequences.  They have watched the Israeli Prime Minister condescendingly lecture the U.S. president in a televised meeting for which, again, there were no diplomatic or economic penalties exacted.  And all this occurs while a wall is built around them ignoring the 1967 Green Line, willfully intruding into the West Bank in order to secure the Settlement Archipelago. The U.S. remains, as it has always been, Israel’s prime benefactor.  Palestinians know that nothing will change that in order to make the U.S. an honest broker of peace.  Patience has borne bitter fruit.

Meanwhile Palestinians are asked as a condition for negotiations to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, confirming second class status on Arab citizens of Israel and conceding the Right of Return as a bargaining chip before negotiations even begin.  Is it any wonder that this condition is unthinkable for an occupied people, exiles and refugees in their own land?  Palestinians are punished when they resort to violence in response to decades of occupation.  They are lectured when they promote non-violent resistance through economic boycotts, divestment, or sanctions.  They are patronized when they seek recognition on the international stage after years of waiting.  Rather than trying to find a way to thwart this diplomatic initiative at the U.N., we should probably be giving thanks that we are not already facing a Third Intifada.

I wish militants would stop firing rockets from Gaza toward Israeli citizens.  I wish Hamas had not been victorious in elections that have given them charge over Gaza and that Hamas would pursue the policies of economic development and security cooperation with Israel that are being carried out by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.  I wish anti-Semitism was universally condemned in the Arab world.  But blocking legitimate Palestinian yearnings for justice and peace by counseling patience with no prospect that such patience will do anything other than allow grim facts on the ground to grow even grimmer will do nothing to make my wishes come true.

There are Palestinians who would like to see Israel erased from the map of the Middle East, their ancient lands restored and their sovereignty over pre-1948 Palestine restored.  And there are Israelis, supported by right wing Christian Zionists and their patrons in Congress, who would like to see Palestinians quietly and meekly accept their long humiliation as a permanent condition in an Israel defined geographically by ancient Biblical promises. But most Israelis and most Palestinians recognize that this is a naïve illusion and dangerous game for everyone.  They all understand that two mutually recognized states, each economically viable and militarily secure, existing side by side with internationally recognized borders, is the only future that can avert disaster.  But they also understand that the door to this future is rapidly closing.

An application for recognition in the U.N. may, in fact, be an obstacle to peace.  Israel and the U.S. have the ability to make it so.  But it is not the only obstacle to peace by far.  Until Palestinians see incentives and sanctions equally applied to both the powerful and the powerless, negotiations promise all risk and no reward, and patience promises even less.  It is easy to understand why U.S. calls for prudence sound to Palestinian ears like indifferent and frequently absent parents telling their children they will be rewarded some day for good behavior.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians, through their UN initiative, have the world’s attention for a couple of weeks, and they have claimed it without missiles, suicide bomber vests, or hate-filled slogans.  Isn’t that what we’ve always asked of them?  It would be sad indeed if, as a reward for choosing this rather than violence as a last resort, they receive a quick rebuke rather than even grudging respect.

John H. Thomas

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