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Recognising Palestine: Six critiques of the PLO's Internationalisation Strategy

Today the UK parliament will vote on whether to recognise Palestine as a ‘State’. As numerous commentary pieces have already noted, this vote represents a historic opportunity for British Parliamentarians to show their support for Palestine in the face of on-going occupation and the vicious excesses of settler colonialism.

It was after all a British foreign secretary who signed the infamous declaration that – without consulting the local population – promised the creation of a Jewish state in mandate Palestine nearly one hundred years ago.

This vote follows closely behind the Swedish government’s decision to recognise Palestine last week. And perhaps more importantly it follows on from a series of examples of shifts in public opinion towards the conflict. These include huge protests and the resignation of a government minister over Israel’s bombing of Gaza earlier this year, growing acceptance and support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign in the UK and numerous partnerships between UK and Palestinian universities (inter alia).

However, no matter what the outcome it is unlikely to have an immediate impact on government policy. Indeed the foreign office has made it clear that the government alone reserves the right to recognise a ‘state of Palestine’ at ‘the right time‘.

None-the-less, any opportunity to redress the balance – even a little bit – in support of the Palestinians against an increasingly belligerent and bellicose Israel is clearly a good one.

Internationalisation Strategy

Thus, if the motion passes, this vote could be a significant public relations victory for the Palestinian cause, and one that continues a trend of recognition in-spite-of-occupation that is sweeping the globe.

Doubtless there is a causal link between the advent of this vote in Westminster and the efforts made by the PLO at the UN General Assembly to achieve the status of a ‘None Member Observer’ in 2012. These efforts were labelled an ‘Internationalisation Strategy’ by Mouin Rabbani, who noted that, in his speech from the podium, President Abbas was effectively “sending the Americans a message: grow a spine, stop appeasing Israel and launch credible negotiations“.

None-the-less, certainly by the measures of (a) achieving diplomatic support from governments round the world and (b) returning the issue of Palestine to the world’s headlines (after a period during the ‘Arab Spring’ where it seemed that Palestine had been marginalised, especially in the Anglophone media) the internationalisation strategy was highly successful.

However, just because a strategy is apparently working does not mean that it is beyond critique. Indeed, it is perhaps when things are apparently going well that is the most important time to step back and ask difficult questions. So doing is critical to avoid the trap of complacency, which – as any sports fan will know – can rapidly descend into disappointment if one’s momentum is lost.

Therefore, it is with this goal in mind that I offer the following six critiques of the PLO’s internationalisation strategy. In an effort to try and see the issue from all sides each critique deliberately offers a different argument, though some are connected.

Reinforcing divides

Clearly one of the major failings of the internationalisation strategy is that it has effectively reinforced the existing and obvious divide between the majority of states – those support Palestinian statehood despite the fact of Israel’s occupation – and the minority of states who, combined, are powerful enough to prevent that state from coming into being.

Of course, it could be argued that there would be no chance, under any circumstances, that the US and Israel – the two states that matter the most – would shift their positions even if another track were to have been taken.

Yet, according to recent interviews I have undertaken with former senior members of the Palestinian Authority, it was precisely this issue that helped deepen the divide within the Palestinian leadership – between the President Mahmoud Abbas, and the then Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, who was the architect of Palestine’s ‘statebuilding‘ agenda.

According to these sources, where President Abbas favoured asking for recognition of a ‘Palestinian State’ (the strategy that was adopted in the end) Fayyad, favoured approaching the UN Security Council with an interim proposal. This would ask them to enforce a resolution that did not demand statehood overtly, but instead asked for ‘ending the occupation.’ This could then have been followed later with an upgrade to statehood.

The virtue of such an approach would have been that it would have effectively asked the US to do something that it might have been more likely to do. That is: agree to end the occupation – a goal that at least in its public statements it has been generally supportive of – rather than recognise a statehood bid by PLO that was not part of a broader framework.

Though because the difference between these two efforts depends on the mere wording of each resolution, it may seem that neither was more likely to prove effective at bringing the key states into the consensus.

While this may be the case, proponents of this ‘consensus building’ strategy focused on the example of the 1977 agreement to return Hong Kong to China from British rule. According to the narrative of these events favoured by the ‘consensus builders’, Britain – which under the Thatcher government in particular, had been hostile to ceding the territory in spite of its treaty obligations – was effectively won over by Chinese guarantees of reasonableness and public efforts to confound the fears of international observers and the Hong Kong’s public.

The comparison in this case, would be to say that the PLO should continue to trip over itself in an effort to show its complete reasonableness towards Israeli and US demands and, in so doing, make it virtually impossible for the key states to form a coherent argument rejecting the goal of ending the occupation.

Shaming the shameless

Even if the PLO’s chosen strategy does not quite fully encapsulate the tactic favoured by the ‘consensus builders’ it does share some critical characteristics. In particular this is that the strategy essentially askes powerful countries to bestow statehood on Palestine because, more-or-less, it would be the fulfilment of their promises.

The obvious criticism to level at this, which would apply to the ‘consensus building’ variant of this strategy too, it that it ultimately rests on holding to account several states which have a proven track record of avoiding accountability.

Indeed, the record of Israel, in particular its disproportionality in of the last three wars on Gaza, its on-going siege of the territory and its continued colonisation and occupation of the West Bank are all solid examples of the obvious lack of good faith by its various governments in relation to the ‘peace process’.

Moreover the US adopts a janus-like status as ‘an honest broker’ while simultaneously it is Israel’s closes ally and strongest supporter (though one outcome of this is that, on occasion, US officials are forced into positions where the truly contorted nature of their logic is put on display). While, closer to home, the UK has even changed its own domestic laws in order to avoid the potential prosecution of Israeli officials for war-crimes.

In short the strategy rests on a flawed interpretation of political reality, or in other words – it seeks to highlight the failure to achieve a solution through negotiations but it fails to realise that the peace process itself if a façade. Or, as Rabbani noted, “the so-called peace process is working precisely as designed, to give political cover to Israeli colonisation and maintain America’s diplomatic monopoly.”

The ‘one state’ solution

The details of this critique should be obvious. Proponents of a ‘one-state’ solution gain little from an internationalisation strategy that reinforces the division of a land that could be shared.

The standard responses to this position are also well worn: (a) only a two-state solution is practical given the fact there are such obvious cultural and institutional differences between the two sides and (b) proponents of a ‘one-state’ solution are not helped at all in the long run by the failure to achieve the lesser (in their eyes) goal of peace on the 1948 lines.

Non-the-less the ‘one-state’ critique can certainly draw some succour from the fact that their argument has at least inspired some fear in the hearts of the Israeli mainstream (demonstrated in statements by former prime ministers Olmert and Barak). Moreover, because, at its core, the ‘one-state’ argument emphases the idea of justice – in a very straightforward way – it highlights the fact that the whole two-state paradigm is predicated on obviating that claim to justice.

The strategy may imperil the ‘right to return’

This particular issue is obviously tied to the question of justice, but in particular it has been highlighted in a legal opinion offered by Guy S. Goodwin Gill, a Professor of International Refugee Law at Oxford University. The opinion published in 2011 warned that by seeking statehood outside of a more comprehensive framework that also dealt with refugee rights explicitly, the PLO might run the risk of allowing Israel to challenge their right to return under international law.

Thus far this concern has yet to be realised. However, given how hard Israel is fighting the ‘Internationalisation strategy’ anyway, and how central the denial of Palestinian right to return is to its most basic ideology, it would be foolish to rule anything out.


As I argued in a previous article for MEMO, life under the PA has become increasingly authoritarian since 2007. This is as a result of a startling increase in capacity and autonomy for the security forces and also the proroguing of virtually all forms of democratic expression. Furthermore this shows signs of growing even worse with the end of the Fayyad administration as a new, weaker prime minister, is not likely to be able to dilute the power of the Fatah old guard in the same way.

Not only is this a troubling turn in its own right, but it should be of central concern in relation to the internationalisation strategy for two reasons. First is that the PLO has utilized the rhetoric of democracy and invoked the spirit of the ‘Arab Spring’ as part of its internationalisation strategy, in spite of the fact that it has actively been moving in the opposite direction.

Second, and worse, is that the Palestinian leadership could quite reasonably claim that its authoritarian shift is part of what enabled it to be in a position to ask for statehood in the first place. Indeed, the fingerprints of Israel and western governments are all over this. For instance the huge levels of spending on the PA’s security sector is made possible by foreign aid, its training is undertaken by the US military and the EU and, of course, the reversal of the 2006 election results was the product of a CIA backed coup.

Given all this, it is hardly surprising that the PLO leadership that is currently asking for international recognition is one that enjoys no democratic mandate from its own people whatsoever.

The Rome Statute and the ICC

The final critique here is perhaps the most simple, but to my mind, it is the most difficult to comprehend. In short, it is that while the PLO seeks to pursue recognition through internationalisation of the Palestinian cause, it has avoided the opportunity to join the only organisation that may actually be able to have a serious and immediate impact on the situation: the International Criminal Court (ICC).

As MEMO has discussed in a previous analysis, this may be as a result of the fact that the President himself fears prosecution under the same legal mechanism. Though, this has not stopped his political rivals, Hamas from signing up.

If this is the case then the lack of movement on the ICC should be seen as a serious warning to supporters of the internationalisation strategy. This is because, from these actions, we can deduce that Abbas’ leadership may be driven by the goal of achieving recognition for Palestine, but not if it puts him personally at risk.

They should vote for recognition anyway

Of course in spite of all of these critiques, it would still be better for the British parliament to vote in favour of recognising a Palestinian state.

The profound injustice that is the contemporary reality of an occupied land, displaced population and a the daily denial of basic dignity, is one that has come to pass largely as a result of decisions being made for and about Palestinians by powerful foreign actors without consultation and without due consideration of Palestinian rights.

Any progress, therefore, on asserting Palestinian control over Palestinian destiny, is good. We should not forget though, that no strategy is beyond critique.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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