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UN votes yes on Palestinian statehood: Not 'just' a symbol

While commentators say the vote is merely symbolic, at least for Palestinians and the international community, the vote could be a game-changing  kind of symbol.

Celebration in Ramallah over the Palestinian statehood bid, November 29, 2012 (photo: Activestills)

One week ago, the request to the UN General Assembly to grant Palestine status as a non-member observer state looked like a poor stepchild of the highly anticipated first “UN route” just over one year ago. The buildup to September 2011 was long; yet until about a week ago, it wasn’t even clear whether the current vote would really happen.

The 2011 application for UN membership turned into an anticlimax. This year, the dark-horse diplomacy won: 138 member states voted in favor and the emotional echoes of 1947 were hard to ignore.

But, detractors say, the vote cannot change the Palestinians’ main complaints against Israel: settlement expansion, restrictions on movement, division between Gaza and the West Bank, life under military occupation. Therefore it’s “symbolic,” meaning, meaningless. And it’s true that at present, the vote may mean more in people’s minds than in their daily lives. But when did hearts and minds become insignificant? Consider how the lead-up and the vote itself has already resonated for three major actors: Palestinians (leaders and people); Israel; and the international community. Each of those, of course, contains essential sub-communities – this is just a broad-strokes starting point.

International Reaction

Despite anodyne comments like this New York Times editorial, the international community put on a fairly nail-biting drama leading up to the vote. That the U.S. rejected the bid is no surprise; but France’s support was a powerful victory for the Palestinians. Germany’s decision to abstain, when translated from diplo-speak into English, is a critical shift: given historical constraints on defying the Israeli government, this is a clear sign of support for Palestinian statehood. The UK first rejected the idea, then very nearly found a way to say yes, and settled on abstaining – a very weak no.  Spain’s support for the resolution is also major statement, considering that it breaks Spain’s with its own policy of not recognizing Kosovo. Spain has steadfastly resisted recognizing the latter, despite being one of the last five EU holdouts; it has cited unilateralism as the reason, but clearly Spain feared the repercussions on its own separatist tensions. So Spain overcame both unilateralism and separatism (although its support for Palestine actually pre-dates even the 2011 bid).

Actually, on a historic level, the only question about the UN and Palestine is: What took it so long? The lack of recognition has been a glaring gap between rhetoric and practice. The United Nations (and many elements of the international community) has legitimized Palestine officially since 1947, with General Assembly Resolution 181 – the Partition Plan. UN resolution 3236 in 1974 explicitly cited the Palestinian right to self-determination – something the other unrecognized state-seeking entities can only dream of. Prior to today’s vote, Palestine already enjoyed more official recognitions from other states than any other such entity, over 120.

In other words, whether one is personally for or against the Palestinian statehood bid, at least certain international bodies are showing signs of internal consistency. Spain – and of course (conversely) the U.S. and its stalwart support for Kosovo – reminds us that for individual states, ad hoc, case-based policy still trumps logical or rule-governed decision-making.

Palestinian Reaction

Among leaders, the latest conflagration between Hamas and Israel set off a legitimacy-and-achievement competition: Hamas proclaimed its triumph despite civilian casualties, loss of top people, and destruction of its weapons. The PA was clearly itching for a victory. But Abu Mazen and the Fatah leadership need more than just an expedient success. They want to entrench the image of Fatah as an alternative to Hamas, which consistently pursues diplomatic, rather than military, strategy: Hamas plays dirty, we do things the good, acceptable way. Beyond immediate political points, they must show rewards for the whole approach. The audience for this statement is both internal and external: Palestinians, and the international community.

For Hamas and some Palestinians, the fact that the UN vote accepts Palestine based around the 1967 lines, implicitly accepting Israel, is a compromise. On Wednesday one Palestinian university student at a conference angrily insisted that “most Palestinians do not support the PLO [sic] in this UN vote!”

Interestingly, though, Hamas itself was conflicted: Political leader-in-exile Khaled Mashaal didn’t, then did, then confirmed that he supports the move. Gaza’s Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh reportedly denied it, then accepted it. That certainly throws Hamas’ major backer, Iran, for a loop – having totally rejected the idea over one year ago (Iran did in fact vote yes). But perhaps even hard-line Palestinians are reconsidering the wisdom of 1947-style rejectionism, or at least the wisdom of showing a fractured front. There have been renewed hints of unity efforts between Hamas and Fatah following the war, even talk of elections – and maybe Hamas doesn’t want to be seen as the spoiler by any party.

Israel’s Reaction

It is mildly interesting that Israel briefly worked with the U.S. to “soften” the resolution.  Israel does seem grudgingly prepared to refrain from severe economic or political punishment, but the vote continues to be portrayed as a blunt anti-Israel instrument. At first, just a few voices mainly from the Meretz camp called to recognize Palestinian statehood as a pro-Israeli position. And yet, on Thursday, Haaretz reported that former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (a former Likudnik) views the vote as a positive foundation for a two-state solution; that could shift perceptions among the center-camp.

But mainly, the papers report, Israel is just trying to do “damage control,” whatever that means.

Here’s what it will NOT mean: any rollback or restraint on further settlement construction, any openness towards greater de facto Palestinian control in the West Bank; any softening of the increasingly entrenched separation between Palestinian and Israeli populations in the West Bank, who live under different infrastructures, under separate and unequal systems of law. Instead Israel is digging in: Haaretz reports  (Hebrew) that the government is planning to adopt the “Levy Report” (which concluded that Israel’s control over the WB is not an “occupation”), pave the way for further settlement construction and look to legalize existing settlements.

A brief historical glimpse does show declining panic: in the 1999 Israeli election campaign, the Likud made television ads showing a scary, shaky hand (supposed to be Arafat) counting down the days until Palestine would declare a state. It was intended to evoke nightmares. In 2011, Israel was much more outspoken against – read, worried – about the UN bid than today. Now, there’s “resignation.” Fear seems to be diluted. But I do not believe this is because Israeli elites have come to accept the idea.

Rather, as many Palestinians fear, I believe it reflects the current Israeli government’s overall plan to dissolve any remaining physical and conceptual basis for a Palestinian state. This is the best and perhaps only explanation for the government’s lengthy delegitimization of the Fatah leadership, the relentless and explicit policy of separation of Gaza and the West Bank, which is physical and, the government probably hopes, conceptual. The “Israel-Gaza” war was a good way to try and change perceptions (it was a conflict with Gaza, not the Palestinians), and get Egypt to take some responsibility for Gaza. The shifting frame became a new manifestation of the idea that “Palestine” can be broken up like crackers in soup: Gaza is Egypt’s charge, and only small enclaves of autonomy in the West Bank remain, circumscribed by Israeli military law. Notably, on the very same day as the vote, the president of the military court in the West Bank called to impose Israeli law over the whole West Bank – one small bite into the separation problem, and a giant leap towards an Israeli-dominated one-state reality.

Israel probably now hopes that following the war, the notion of “Palestine” has no real meaning on the ground. In calling the UN vote “diplomatic theater,” it certainly hopes that the vote will be “merely” symbolic. History may have other things in mind.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. Kolumn9

      If it wasn’t ‘just’ symbolic you would be able to point to some non-symbolic consequences. You wrote a long article and have provided none.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Richard Witty

      It takes a hundred good experiences to make the same psychological impression as a single very bad one.

      And, a couple thousand incidents of terror then require a few hundred thousand incidents of acceptance and recognition to change views.

      The same goes for the treatment of Israel.

      And, even though there are many people logging a few hundred good actions here, a few hundred good actions there, they are ignored.

      In all cases, democracy, justice is in the present, not in the past.

      If you believe in self-governance as the basis of modern political reality, then the two-state solution is the only game in town.

      The reality of such grave division in Palestinian attitudes about their experience, and their actions more importantly (with implications about underlying morality and basis of credibility), makes all positive assertions about what the Palestinian state works for, very difficult.

      There is substance to the assertion that the affirmation of statehood now, without consented control of a singular Palestinian government, leave only complaint or resistance as the possible agenda of the state that is now in the UN.

      Those aren’t insignificant. It’s just that they are only a shadow, and nowhere a substance, nowhere a development, nowhere an actual self-governing society.

      If Abbas and Fayyad can retain the Palestinian focus on development and actual governance, then this assertion can be on the green side of the divide, rather than the hellish.

      Reply to Comment
    3. “Rather, as many Palestinians fear, I believe it reflects the current Israeli government’s overall plan to dissolve any remaining physical and conceptual basis for a Palestinian state.” : I believe the paragraph with this beginning sentence totally on mark. Israel has ignored international law for decades and will not shift now. The new roster of Likud candidates is clearly directed to an expansive Israel.

      “on the very same day as the vote, the president of the military court in the West Bank called to impose Israeli law over the whole West Bank – one small bite into the separation problem, and a giant leap towards an Israeli-dominated one-state reality.” : It would be very interesting to know why he said this. But calling for Israeli law over the Bank does not preclude apartheid until, within Israel old, equal protection of the law is actualized. I have given too many times a legal strategy toward that end; here I only note that such a strategy may become even more important if this military judge’s call is heeded.

      On Gaza, its high density urban life, coupled with Hamas as internal government, is creating a cultural chasm vis-a-vis the Bank. Nationalism will try and paper this over, but real government will replay prior friction. I continue to believe de facto State policy on Gaza is to force it to eventually merge with Egypt, everyone screaming no in the process.

      Reply to Comment
    4. XYZ

      An indepedent state for the Palestinians is not the final goal of the Palestnians, it is merely a means to the true goal, which is the eradication of Israel which means their inviolable demand for full right of return of the Palestinian refugees. Thus, as long as the Palestinians refuse to agree to a compromise peace with Israel (something they can’t do, as the recent firestorm over Abbas supposedly claiming that their won’t be a full right of return of the refugees indicates) there won’t be an independent Palestinian state, no mattter how many meaningless resolutions like this most recent one the UN passes.

      Reply to Comment
      • Epstein

        XYZ-Whatever
        Poor Israel with all its American War Planes, Missiles and 400 Nuclear Bombs is afraid of wretched Palestinians taking over Israel with a Toyota pick up truck?

        The trouble with many Israelis is they believe their own BS. It’s like Romney Tea Party pundits telling him he’s going to win. Get out of your self pitying Bubble.
        Unless of course you want to make people hate you with a belligerent attitude as that is the only way you can define your own identity?

        Reply to Comment
    5. I don’t understand why everyone and her aunty keeps saying that today’s vote was “anti-Israel”. Of course, it was so, at least in the limited sense that Israel wanted to prevent it.

      But it doesn’t seem to me to hurt Israel in any respect at all — in relation to any legitimate goals or actions that Israel might have or have done.

      Settlements are violations of GC-IV, and much of Israel’s military activity has been accused of being war-criminal in nature. such things cannot be called legitimate.

      So if Israel regards immunity and impunity for war-crimes and violations of treaties and international humanitarian law as necessary, good, valuable, proper, and what-not, then, I guess today’s vote and its anticipated sequelae are “anti-Israel”.

      But if Israel can see its way toward being a nation like other nations, law-abiding, peaceable, treaty- and law-compliant, then today’s vote is not “anti-Israel”.

      And as so many have said, Israel has never stated its boundaries and they are therefore up for negotiation. Nothing has changed.

      Except, perhaps, a readiness on the part of the nations to stand up and be counted in opposition to the settler-colonial USA-Israeli axis.

      Reply to Comment
    6. I think the greatest significance to this successful bid on UN status upgrade is that it signifies that the tides are changing. Looking at the nays, we see Israel (no great surprise there), the US (no great surprise either), my country, Canada, along with the powerhouses Panama, Nauru, Palau, Micronesia, Marshall Islands and the Czech Republic. In addition, while the US really had no other choice what are they going to do now? – they at least were smart enough to keep their mouths shut and vote. Not my guy, he has to actually make a speech lecturing the GA on the colossal mistake they are making. Oy Vey! No wonder we lost the almost 100%, guaranteed Security Council Seat. Who wants to listen to this idiot, Baird, blather on.

      Reply to Comment
    7. XYZ

      Lopsided votes against Israel in the UN are nothing new, they go back to the very beginning of Israel more than 60 years ago. There is ‘no turning of the tide’. The UN passed resolutions with similar lopsided votes demanding Israel withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza and set up a Palestinian state already in the 1970′s. Already in the 1950′s there were resolutions that Israel be forced to take back the Palestinian refugees. The countries voting for these meaningless resolution know that they will have no effect and it keeps the Arab petrodollar sheikhs happy.

      Reply to Comment
    8. rsgengland

      Well its taken the Arab/Muslim world 65 years to accept the UN partition plan of 1947 .
      How many dead and lives destroyed .
      How many communities destroyed .
      Virtually the entire Jewish population from the Arab/Muslim lands ETHNICALY CLEANSED .
      And now a belated acceptance from the Arab/Muslim world .
      Plenty problems still ahead – like the Hereditary Palestinian Refugee problem .
      As long as UNWRA and its RACIST agenda remain there will not/cannot be any resolution .(racist because it applies to only one group amongst hundreds of other refugee groups)
      To many vested interests in UNWRA for one .

      Reply to Comment
    9. XYZ

      A couple of aphorisms appropriate for occasions like this from David Ben-Gurion

      (1) What matters is NOT what the non-Jews say but that the Jews DO!

      (2) Oom-Shmoom.

      (“Oom” is what the UN is called in Hebrew).

      Reply to Comment
      • jason

        keep the hasbara BS to yourself.

        Reply to Comment

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