On November 29, President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas flew to New York to address the U.N. in an attempt to win recognition for Palestine as a ‘non-member observer’ state. He said, “The moment has arrived for the world to say clearly: enough of aggression, settlements and occupation…The general assembly is called upon today to issue a birth certificate of the reality of the state of Palestine.” Out of the 193 member states of the Assembly, 138 voted in favour of Abbas, while only nine, including Israel and the United States, voted against. 41 states abstained.
A qualified victory
While the new status of Palestine will not bring about a physical change on the ground, the euphoric celebrations in the West Bank following the vote were somewhat justified. Apart from the expression of world solidarity with the legitimacy of Palestine as an independent state, the U.N. vote gives Palestine the privilege of addressing international bodies such as the International Criminal Court (ICC), which might serve as leverage against Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank.
It is this last point – the prospect of challenging Israel at the ICC – that has caused Israel, as well as the United States, to condemn the Palestinian bid for statehood. Ron Proser, Israeli ambassador to the UN, called the resolution “one-sided”, claiming it pushes peace backwards. Likewise, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton called the vote “unfortunate and counterproductive,” explaining, “Only through direct negotiations between the parties can the Palestinians and Israelis achieve the peace that both deserve: two states for two people, with a sovereign, viable and independent Palestine living side-by-side in peace and security with a Jewish and democratic Israel.”
From Abbas’ standpoint, it is the failure of such direct negotiations, mediated by the US, that has forced him to seek an alternative route to the recognition of Palestine. Writing for the New Yorker, Steve Coll notes, “Many Palestinian leaders have…concluded that it may be impossible to achieve statehood through negotiations with [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu. Their pessimism is well grounded; the evidence suggests that he seeks only to fob off the Palestinian Authority, as well as his allies in the United States and Europe, in order to buy time to bankroll more settlements on the West Bank, which will change the contours of the conflict.”
Netanyahu’s policy has led to the increasing isolation of Israel in the international community. Most recently, the European Union’s 27 foreign ministers condemned Netanyahu’s authorization to build 3,000 new settler homes in the West Bank. This plan came only a day after the UN vote on Palestine, and along with seizing $120 million of Palestinian tax revenue, the settlements are an apparent punishment for the Palestinian statehood bid, as noted by Israeli politician Yossi Beilin in an interview with the CBC.
Most troubling for Western diplomats, however, is a proposed Israeli settlement in a territory known as East One (E-1) located on the east edge of East Jerusalem. Were the settlement to proceed, the West Bank would be severed from East Jerusalem, the future capital of Palestine. Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign affairs chief, warned that the development “may represent a strategic step undermining the prospects of a contiguous and viable Palestine with Jerusalem as the shared capital of both it and Israel.”
Threat to the “Special Relationship”?
While the United States has joined Europe in denouncing the new settlement plans, previous diplomacy aimed at deterring the Palestinian statehood bid reveals a shared isolation with Israel. In 2011, the US congress acted punitively when it withdrew financing to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) after it admitted Palestine as a member. This month, a bipartisan group of senators warned that if Abbas challenged Israel at the ICC they would pass legislation to cut off aid to Palestine.
The United States’ strong support for Israel is well known to the international community. During the recent election, both Romney and Obama touted their allegiance to Israel in phrases such as “no ally is more important than the state of Israel” and that ties between the two states are “unbreakable”. In addition to rhetorical support, US military and economic aid to Israel eclipses any other state.
Of course, the special relationship has not always been free of tension. In 1992, for instance, the Bush administration refused to approve a $10 billion loan to Israel unless the latter agreed to freeze settlements in the West Bank. Nevertheless, even this censure proved to be slight, as Dan Murphy observed in the Christian Science Monitor: “While this would appear to be a success for financial diplomacy, settlement expansion was never truly ‘frozen.’ Settlements expanded in 1992 and in each intervening year until 1996, when that particular guarantee program ended.”
While supporters of the special relationship emphasize the shared ideals of democracy between the US and Israel, more cynical observers note the importance of Israel as a strategic asset to the US in deterring the rise of radical Arab nationalism which might threaten the US’ energy interests in the region. Whatever the motive behind the special relationship, it is becoming clear that more and more officials and commentators are adopting a critical stance to what seems to be a private pact between two very powerful military nations that might very well prevent a cohesive solution in the Middle East. As Coll notes, “The United States and Israel now look trapped together, weakened and dangerously isolated during a period of deep transformation.”
These developments come after decades of aggression and human rights abuses initiated by both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It has been estimated that more than 6,600 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis have been killed since 2000 from Israeli military and Palestinian rocket attacks. Palestinians living in the West Bank continue to face the destruction of their homes as Israel expands settlements. Further, the Israeli land and naval blockade of Gaza – a response to Palestinian terrorism – has put more and more Gazans over the poverty line as the flow of items including medical equipment decrease, electricity supplies malfunction, and water becomes less safe for consumption.
In response to the special relationship, the broader Arab world has grown cynical of the United States’ support of Israel and its involvement in the Middle East. Bitterness over the US military presence in the Islamic heartland of Saudi Arabia, and previous economic sanctions against Iraq have shifted popular opinion in the Arab world to favor more violent reactionaries such as Hamas in the Gaza strip over the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) leadership of Abbas in the West Bank.
In recent weeks, this support was characterized most symbolically with the visit of the Emir of Qatar to Gaza, giving Hamas increasing legitimacy with the Arab League. In the context of the UN decision, dispute remains over who should be the voice of the Palestinians, especially as the US and Israel see the Gaza strip as falling under the sole mandate of the Palestinian Authority, and thus under the PLOleadership of Abbas.
While the disastrous regional consequences of Israel-Palestine loom large in the global psyche, an urgent resolution to the problem remains as necessary as ever.