“We are going to the United Nations to request our legitimate right, obtaining full membership for Palestine in this organisation,” Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Ramallah-based, internationally recognised Palestinian Authority (PA), declared in a September 16 televised address.
“We are going to the Security Council.”
Abbas has acknowledged the initiative is largely symbolic and that UN recognition of Palestinian sovereignty would not translate to actual control of territory.
The BBC reported on September 16 that he “aimed to play down expectations … adding that the move would not end Israel’s occupation”. It said, “he stressed the UN move was not a substitute for negotiations.”
The initiative specifically limits the claim for recognition of Palestinian sovereignty to 22% of Palestine ― the Palestinian territory not claimed by Israel after it was established in 1948.
Ma’an News Agency said on September 16: “Abbas said he wanted to see a Palestinian state recognised on the basis of the 1967 lines, comprising the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, adding that this would then enable the Palestinians to return to negotiations with Israel.”
The BBC said Abbas reassured the West: “We are not heading there to delegitimise Israel, no one can do this, it is a state with full membership at the UN.”
Abbas said that should the bid be vetoed in the UN Security Council, he would turn to the General Assembly where, Xinhua said on September 16, 126 countries out of 193 support what the PA is requesting.
However, the General Assembly does not have the power to confer full UN membership. It does have the power to grant recognition as a “non-member state”, a status now held by the Vatican.
The US has already indicated that it will use its veto.
Al Jazeera reported that White House spokesperson Jay Carney said on September 16: “The Palestinians will not, and cannot, achieve statehood through a declaration at the United Nations. It is a distraction, and in fact, it’s counterproductive.”
The September 17 Independent said Israel warned, “it will consider possible retaliation which could include … even, according to some ministers, ‘annexation’ of the main settlement blocs inside the West Bank”.
Abbas has promoted the UN recognition bid as a response to the failure of the peace talks between Israel and the PA that have taken place since the 1993 Oslo Agreement. This is due to the intransigence of Israel and its Western backers.
However, the familiarity of the latest round of declarations and counter-declarations reflects that the bid is based on the same premise as the Oslo peace process. That is, the establishment of separate Israeli and Palestinian states in line with 1967 borders is the most realistic path to peace and Palestinian self-determination.
It is therefore up against the same obstacles.
In 1948, when Jewish settlers militarily established the state of Israel, driving hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their land, they did so over 78% of the country until then called Palestine.
The remaining 22% of Palestine ― the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip ― was held by Jordan and Egypt until Israel conquered it in 1967.
The “1967 borders” at the heart of both the Oslo peace process and the UN recognition bid existed for less than 20 years.
The greatest obstacle to any solution based on the 1967 borders is that they are irrelevant to the fact that all of what was called Palestine before 1948 is now under Israeli control.
Israel has shown no inclination to relinquish this control.
Since 1967, more than half of the West Bank has been annexed by Jewish-only settlements, Jewish-only roads, closed military areas, checkpoints and the “Apartheid Wall”. The wall doesn’t separate the West Bank from pre-1967 Israel, but separates West Bank Palestinian communities from each other and their land.
Current Palestinian demographics are the result of successive waves of Israeli ethnic cleansing since 1948. About half of Palestinians, more than 5 million people, live overseas, the majority in refugee camps in neighbouring countries.
Abbas’s statehood bid, like the various proposals in the post-Oslo negotiations, ignores the demand for the right of refugees to return.
Of the 5 million Palestinians inside the country, 2.5 million live in the West Bank, 1.5 million in the Gaza Strip and 1 million in pre-1967 Israel. Those living in Israel have Israeli citizenship, but with fewer rights than Jewish Israelis.
The high population density of the West Bank and Gaza reflects the high proportion of refugees from pre-1967 Israel and their descendants.
The Israeli Jewish population is also about 5 million ― about half a million live in the West Bank settlements with exactly the same citizenship rights as other Jewish Israelis.
In the West Bank, during the years of the peace process, the rate of Israeli land annexation, settlement building and demolition and expropriation of Palestinian houses increased.
This has been particularly the case in East Jerusalem. Israel has made it clear it is not willing to relinquish control of any of Jerusalem, the municipal boundaries of which have been expanded to include several West Bank villages.
Israel could create these “facts on the ground” because it is a nuclear-armed power that receives US$4 billion annual US military aid while its adversary is a subjected population.
A peace process premised on treating the two as equal parties in a conflict was always less about creating a solution than creating an illusion. Unfortunately, the UN initiative does not challenge this illusion.
Gaza blogger Sameeha Elwan, writing in a September 8 Electronic Intifada article, pointed out: “Less than half the Palestinian population live in the occupied Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the territories to be declared as the Palestinian state.
“What will happen to the other millions who live outside this territory?”
She said it was not even representative of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. “The last democratic elections for the PA took place more than five years ago. The refusal by the US and Europe to respect the results of that election has led to the severe fragmentation of both Gaza and the West Bank, leaving Palestinians with two governments, neither of which is representative of the total interests and will of the Palestinian people.”
The Western dismissal of Abbas’ statehood bid showed the same undisguised pro-Israel bias that characterised the international mediators role during the Oslo peace process. But in the region, the Palestinians have become less isolated.
Israel’s diplomatic relations are in crisis with what were its two most significant allies in the region until recently.
On September 2, Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and the suspension of all military ties.
This was in response to Israel’s refusal to apologise over the Mavi Marmara incident in May last year. Israeli troops shot dead nine unarmed activists in international waters who were trying to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza.
On September 9, Egyptian diplomatic relations with Israel were effectively broken, not by the government, but by the people.
Protesters tore down the wall protecting the Israeli embassy and stormed the building, removing embassy files. Israel's ambassador and diplomatic staff fled Egypt by plane.
Protesters were enraged by Israel's killing of three Egyptian border guards, and the refusal of the Egyptian government to expel Israel's ambassador in response.
Since the 1979 Camp David Treaty, Egypt has been Israel’s closest regional ally.
The leaked “Palestine Papers” published by Al Jazeera in January, as well as documents published by WikiLeaks, showed former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak and his secret police chief Omar Suleiman played key roles in conspiring with Israel and the West in using the peace process to thwart Palestinian national aspirations.
However, this collaboration contrasted with the pro-Palestinian sympathies of the Egyptian people. That made the mass uprising that toppled Mubarak and Suleiman this year a dangerous development for Israel.
The military government has maintained Mubarak’s pro-Israel stance, but has proved less able to contain popular feeling.
Popular feeling boiled over on August 18 when Israel killed the border guards.
During Mubarak’s rule, 23 border guards were killed by Israel with no consequences.
This time, the mass protests and embassy storming forced the evacuation of all 86 Israeli staff.
As the Ramallah-based PA seeks to save the discredited Oslo process through a diplomatic manoeuvre at the UN, the Egyptian people have taken matters into their own hands. They have helped reveal Israel's isolation in a region whose people are waking up.