September 29, 2011
It was about time that the Palestinians — half of them, anyway — brought their case for independence to the United Nations. After decades of being treated, and treating themselves, as non-persons, it was an "I-am-Somebody" moment.
Right from the beginning, when the stymied British off- loaded Palestine to the fledgling U.N. to deal with, the Arab peoples of the region were more in the way than on the way. With the exception of six months of deadly skirmishes with the Jewish settlers following the U.N. resolution of partition in 1947, all the wars in Palestine were initiated, or provoked, by outsiders — Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq. Refugees displaced by the wars were shunted into camps in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, where their descendants remain to this day; not even their Arab brethren thought them worthy of integration into their societies.
It took 15 years after the partition for the Palestinians to develop a semblance of leadership of their own, the Fatah or Palestine Liberation Organization, but their terrorist tactics alienated most of the world. Since replacing the confrontational, erratic, and bizarre-looking Yasser Arafat as leader of the Fatah party in 2004, Mahmoud Abbas has nurtured a civilized, sensible, and nonviolent image that has brought international legitimacy and credibility to the Palestinian cause — though his efforts have been sabotaged by the retrograde Hamas party in Gaza, with its misguided (in both senses) rocket attacks and its anachronistic refusal to recognize the Jewish state.
Abbas went to the U.N. to make the rest of the world come clean. He knew, of course, that his application for statehood status would be rejected one way or another, but he wanted a recorded vote. He also wanted to unmask the contradictory positions of the United States. Just four months ago, President Obama called for a two-state solution with borders based on those that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War, and "land swaps" to accommodate some of the Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Abbas's petition resulted in an embarrassing about-face: the threat of a U.S. veto in the Security Council, based on the premises that such recognition would impede the resumption of talks and that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict should be resolved only by the two parties themselves — both rather strange, given the utter stalemate of the so-called "peace process" over the last couple decades.
The whole issue keeps getting thornier, just when you thought it couldn't possibly get any thornier. The "Arab Spring" that is working its way through Israel's neighbors adds even more instability and uncertainty to the region, further heightening the country's sense of threat and making it even more unlikely to engage the Palestinians. The Israeli settlements on the West Bank continue to grow, turning the area into a crazy-quilt of jurisdictions that will make even the most minimal proposals of "land swaps" ever more difficult. And then there is Hamas. Nothing at all can be accomplished until Hamas rejects violence and embraces the two-state solution, impossible to imagine in the near term.
Some observers predict that the likely rejection of President Abbas's bid for full U.N. membership will provoke Palestinian violence and hamstring the role of the United States in the "peace process." Regarding the latter, it may be a signal for America to release its grip and allow other countries to assume the task of mediation, as France has proposed. Regarding the former, Abbas's insistence on nonviolence will, I think, not go unheeded. In his unassuming way, he is giving West-Bank Palestinians a sense of their own identity and integrity — which, as Gandhi and King showed in like circumstances, is the real key to liberation.
We are Somebody.