Sunday 2 December 2012

The Meaning of the UN Vote on Palestine

The UN General Assembly voted on Thursday by a large majority to upgrade the status of the Palestinian Authority to that of a non-member state.  The issue at stake has nothing to do with the upgraded status that the Palestinian Authority managed to achieve at the UN.  I believe that there are few around the world, including in Israel, who would have a problem with this.  The main issue in this vote is the inclusion of the word "state" in the resolution.  By passing this resolution, the UN has effectively recognised the Palestinian Authority area as a state, something that has not been done before.

Israel fought hard, against the tide of world support, to prevent the vote coming to the UN.  When it became clear that the vote was to be held, Israel did all she could to convince UN General Assembly members to vote against it.  The problem is that there were two different issues at play in the vote.  The reason that Israel was trying to convince member countries to vote against the motion was completely different than the reason why they wanted to vote in favour.  Inevitably, the two issues became intertwined and intermingled, causing a great deal of confusion.

For many in the international community, the vote at the UN was all about recognising the idea of "two states for two peoples".    This idea says that Israel will have the right to exist in peace and security for Israelis, and a Palestinian state will be formed for the Palestinian people.  This has been recognised by the Israeli government, and has been formally supported by Prime Minister Netanyahu.  So why was Netanyahu intent on opposing the UN vote when he has not objected to the idea of a Palestinian state?  It has been accepted that the recognition of a Palestinian state should be done on the basis of mutual understanding, respect and recognition between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  The main barrier which has prevented Israel from wishing to continue peace talks with the Palestinians, is their unwillingness to acknowledge Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state.  This recognition of Israel as a Jewish state does not threaten any peace and harmony that could exist between Israel and a future Palestinian state.  A neighbouring country has no right to dictate the main religion or key identifying characteristics of the country that exists along its borders in peace and mutual respect.  So why is it that the Palestinians refuse to give recognition of this fact to Israel?  There is a feeling that the Palestinians may have ulterior motives by trying to prescribe to Israel what sort of country she is allowed to be.  Is there an attempt to scupper any hopes of reaching a peace with Israel, and then somehow blame the deadlock on Israel?  Or perhaps that is some other hidden agenda?

Having reached an impasse because of the unwillingness of the Palestinians to give Israel the basic recognition it seeks as a Jewish state, the Palestinians have spent a great deal of time and effort to find a way to circumvent the peace process that has been laid down by the international community.  Instead of negotiating with Israel and being forced to make compromises in return for the concessions that they will receive, they been working on unilateral actions that will give them what they seek without having to give in return.  This is effectively what they have achieved by the vote at the UN, and what Israel was so vehemently opposed to.  It seems somehow unjust that the Palestinians would be granted some of their demands via the UN, without them having to give anything in return.  This explains clearly why Israel and the USA were opposed to the unilateral action taken by the Palestinians at the UN last week.  Despite the fact that it has cemented the agreed "two states for two peoples" concept, it has granted unfair advantage to one of the peoples which has created in imbalance in the current situation.

The Israeli government reacted quickly to try to rebalance the situation, by approving the construction of 3,000 housing units in parts of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.  This action, while being roundly condemned by the Palestinians and other members of the international community (including the USA), is not as extreme as it is presented in the international media.  The construction of these units has been approved by the Israeli government in areas of the West Bank and East Jerusalem which are heavily populated by Jewish Israelis, and areas which have already been tentatively agreed to exclude from any future Palestinian state.  As such, these additional construction approvals do not present such a significant departure from the current status quo.  It is certainly not a point that is substantial enough to present is a deal-breaker to the peace process as has been suggested by the Palestinians.  It also masks the fact that the current Israeli government has acted on a number of occasions to dismantle the illegal construction of new settlements that could  have interrupted the status quo.  It is unfortunate that very little recognition of these actions has been seen in the international media, or from the Palestinians.

While it is true that the concept of a "Palestinian" people is a new invention by the Arabs since the establishment of the State of Israel, and has been presented by many as another tactic to try to remove the Jews from Israel, there is a related point that is difficult to deny.  This is the fact that the group of people who have united under the banner of "Palestinians" really have no other nationality that they can claim as their own.  It has been said that the Palestinians are made up of people who are really Jordanians and/or Egyptians and/or Lebanese or some other nationality.  On the contrary, the "Palestinians" are largely despised by the Arab countries around the Middle East, and these countries do all that they can to deny granting their nationality to the Palestinians.  It should be recalled that it was a Palestinian who assassinated King Abdullah I of Jordan, great-grandfather of the current Jordanian King.  There is certainly no love lost between the Jordanians and the Palestinians (even though current Queen Rania comes from a Palestinian family).  The main reason that Arab countries have supported the Palestinian cause so vigorously, is simply to remove the "Palestinian problem" and related threat from their own doorsteps.

The world, by voting for a Palestinian state, has rewarded the Palestinians for bad behaviour.  Israel, despite supporting two states for two peoples, could never have supported a unilateral move on the part of the Palestinians in the way that it happened at the UN last week.  None of this, however, changes the facts on the ground in any substantial way.  The state that has now been recognised still has borders that are not clearly defined, and they remain unchanged from the week before the vote.  If anything, it has created more uncertainty and more conflict than was the case before.  The level of distrust is higher than before, and the prospects of returning to the negotiating table are remoter than was the case previously.  It is also suggested that it gives the Palestinians reason to believe that the way to achieve their aspirations of an independent state, is not via the negotiating table.  Instead, they can manipulate the international community to get what they want, without any cost to them.

While the world may have had good intentions in supporting the Palestinian cause at the UN, it has done irreparable harm to the peace process.  If they thought that this would advance the cause of peace, they clearly have misunderstood politics in the Middle East.  They message sent to the Palestinians is entirely the wrong message, and will simply push any possible peace further and further away.  Israel is unfortunately extremely experienced in coping with negative UN resolutions.  For a country whose population numbers barely 7 million, and which occupies such a tiny area of the earth, there have been more negative resolutions adopted by the UN against Israel than any other country.  This reflects how absurd  the UN's obsession with Israel has been over the years.  As before, Israel will be forced to cope with the latest UN resolution and move forward.  Things could have been much easier had the countries of the world paused to try to understand the full implications of their do-good resolutions.

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