Rejoice! On 20 September, the United Nations will welcome a new member: the “State of Palestine”. Senior Palestinian Authority (PA) officials believe they have secured the support of enough countries to pass a resolution in the UN general assembly recognising a Palestinian state. There is, however, little to celebrate. For the first time in my life, I find myself in agreement with Binyamin Netanyahu. The loathsome Israeli prime minister is opposed to the Palestinian bid for statehood – and so, reluctantly, am I. But for very different reasons to “Bibi”.
The Palestinians are walking into a trap of their own making. With the so-called “peace process” going nowhere, and with the number of Israeli settlements on the rise, the UN vote is an act of desperation, not strength, on the part of the Palestinian leadership. The risks are high; the benefits few and far between.
Proponents of statehood hide behind a series of spurious arguments. Some argue that statehood will give Palestinians a greater voice. Mahmoud Abbas, the PA president whose electoral mandate expired more than two years ago, has said that “when the recognition of our state on the 1967 borders happens, we will become a state under occupation, and then we would be able to go to the UN [with demands]”.
Yet Abbas also happens to be chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. The PLO, in its capacity as “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”, has had observer status at the UN since 1974 and been allowed to participate in security council debates since 1976. So Abbas can already raise whatever issue he likes at the UN. Why has he not, for instance, gone back to the international court of justice, which has previously declared Israeli settlements to be “illegal and an obstacle to peace”, for further rulings? Why has he not pushed for a security council debate on the Goldstone report, which accused the Israelis of committing war crimes in Gaza?
Such initiatives would do more to advance the decades-long Palestinian struggle for freedom than a change in nameplates at the UN building in New York. That Abbas has failed to use the powers he possesses speaks volumes about his own weakness; it does not strengthen the case for a make-believe Palestinian state.
Then there are those who believe statehood would offer the Palestinians a legal shield against Israeli aggression. PA official Nabil Shaath has said that if a Palestinian state were to gain UN recognition, the Israelis would then “be in daily violation of the rights of a fellow member state and diplomatic and legal consequences could follow, all of which would be painful for Israel”. Who is he kidding? Consider the experiences of Lebanon and Syria. The former had its southern strip occupied by Israel for 22 years, from 1978 to 2000; the latter lost the Golan Heights to the Jewish state in 1967. Did “statehood” protect Lebanon from Israeli assault? Has membership of the UN general assembly helped Syria regain the Golan Heights?
There is also a lazy assumption that if the Israelis are opposed to Palestinian statehood, then it must be the correct course of action. However, some of the shrewdest members of Israel’s foreign policy elite take a different line to Netanyahu. Gidi Grinstein, a member of Ehud Barak’s negotiating team at Camp David in 2000, has bluntly spelled out the strategic benefits of Palestinian statehood… for the Jewish state. “A declaration of a Palestinian state in September includes the possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough as well as significant advantages for Israel,” he wrote in Haaretz in May. “The establishment of such a state will help anchor the principle of two states for two peoples, shape the permanent situation with Israel controlling the security assets and the new state’s surroundings, and diminish the refugee problem by marginalising UNRWA [the United Nations relief and works agency] and limiting refugee status.”
This issue of refugees is crucial. In recent years, much ink has been spilled on the divide between Palestinians in the Fatah-led West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza. But the real divide is between Palestinians living in the occupied territories and Palestinian refugees living abroad. The majority of the world’s nine million or so Palestinians live outside the West Bank and Gaza, with three out of four members on the Palestinian National Council, the PLO’s legislative body, representing the diaspora.
Yet a hard-hitting, seven-page legal opinion on the consequences of Palestinian statehood, published recently by Guy Goodwin-Gill, a professor of international law at Oxford University, concluded that “the interests of the Palestinian people are at risk of prejudice and fragmentation” and the refugees in the diaspora risk losing “their entitlement to equal representation” and “their ability to vocalise their views, to participate in matters of national governance, including the formation and political identity of the state, and to exercise the right of return”.
Why? According to Goodwin-Gill, the PLO’s UN status would be transferred to the new state of Palestine after the vote on 20 September: a state confined to mere segments of the West Bank and perhaps Gaza; a state which most Palestinian refugees would have little or no connection to; a state which, lest we forget, does not actually exist. To have a PA-led fantasy state representing only West Bank and Gaza residents replace the PLO – representing all Palestinians – as Israel’s chief interlocutor would be a disaster.
Numerous Palestinian representatives and civil-society groups have expressed their concerns. Karma Nabulsi, the Oxford academic and former PLO official, says that by “losing the PLO as the sole legitimate representative at the UN, our people immediately lose our claim as refugees to be part of our official representation”. The Palestinian American journalist and blogger Ali Abunimah has dismissed the UN bid as a “charade”.
It is difficult to disagree with him. Will “statehood”, after all, stop the relentless colonisation of Palestinian land by Israeli settlers? Will membership of the UN general assembly stop the targeted assassinations of Palestinians? Will it result in the closure of a single checkpoint or the release of a single detainee?
The truth is that, whether or not Abbas succeeds in his bid for statehood, the life of the ordinary Palestinian on the ground in Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem or, indeed, Gaza City, will change not a jot. The residents of the occupied territories will continue to be killed and maimed. The members of the Palestinian diaspora, meanwhile, could find themselves voiceless; a people disenfranchised and delegitimised.