Tony Karon
The National (Opinion)
November 23, 2009 - 1:00am

It is hard to take seriously the threat by the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to declare a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and demand recognition by the UN Security Council.

The cool response from the US and the European Union made clear that no such recognition would be forthcoming; and, as Hamas asked, what is the point of unilaterally declaring a state while those territories remain ultimately under Israeli control? Yasser Arafat already did that, in 1988.

Mr Abbas, of course, is a desperate man, because the strategy on which he has staked his political career – negotiating a two-state solution to the conflict with Israel under US auspices – is dead. The Obama administration was the last, best hope of the Palestinians for a change of course by America to deliver a credible peace. Mr Obama has been a massive disappointment, lacking either the will or the ability to compel Israel to do anything it doesn’t want to.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, of course, has made clear that it has no intention of recognising the 1967 borders as the basis for Palestinian statehood, of sharing Jerusalem, even of discussing Palestinian refugees. The phrase commonly used to describe Israeli-Palestinian relations is “peace process”, but Mr Abbas knows this is an empty euphemism invoked by the Americans and their allies to sustain the illusion that they are doing something to resolve the Middle East’s most toxic conflict. The Palestinians are all too aware that there has been no “process” since the second intifada in 2000.

Abbas knows, too, that his dutiful appearance at photo op after photo op with various Israeli and US. leaders is critical in sustaining the illusion of “process”, so he has lately begun threatening to walk away in the hope that this will scare the Americans and Israelis into making some concessions. He’s announced that he won’t stand for re-election, then upped the ante by threatening to resign. And now to take the question of Palestinian statehood out of the hands of the Americans and Israelis and refer it to the UN. But everyone knows that Mr Abbas is threatening to take “drastic” steps only because he believes that the spectre of his retirement will frighten the Americans into doing more.

The man most likely to inherit the leadership of Fatah from Mr Abbas sees things a little differently. Marwan Barghouti, the movement’s most popular leader, said from his Israeli prison last week that the peace process had failed, and that it was time for the Palestinians to revert to “a constructive mix of negotiation, resistance, and political, diplomatic and popular action”. In other words, to take their fate into their own hands.

With no “Israeli partner” for negotiations, Mr Barghouti placed his emphasis on resistance, calling for “popular action” against Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And he distinguished himself from Mr Abbas and those around him by making a priority of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, to confront the Israelis. “I do not see that there are fundamental political differences between Fatah and Hamas,” he said.

The Palestinians would be well advised to think through the implications of the mix of tactics suggested by Mr Barghouti. For most of the past two decades, they have failed to make headway because they have chosen to challenge Israel on terrain where the Jewish state is strongest: armed confrontation, and in the corridors of power in Washington. Israel has easily prevailed on both fronts.

But it is far less confident when confronted by unarmed protesters demanding their rights, defending their homes from demolition to make way for Jewish settlements, challenging the “security” wall that pens them into their villages, fighting Israel’s apartheid regime on the West Bank and demanding rights that, in denying them, make a nonsense of Israel’s claim to be the region’s only democracy. In this respect, the UN could become an important vehicle for the Palestinians to press their case.

Sure, Israel professes contempt for the UN, insisting that it is inherently biased and therefore unworthy of being taken seriously. But that is bravado: Israel’s frenzied attempts to stop the UN discussing the Goldstone Report, bullying the Obama administration into leaning on Mr Abbas to withdraw Palestinian backing for a discussion of the issue, demonstrates just how sensitive Israel is to what happens at the UN and its image in international public opinion.

The Israelis saw what happened to South Africa: international public opinion turned against a repressive regime being propped up by the governments of the western democracies, eventually forcing those governments to distance themselves from the offending country. The Israelis are desperately afraid of such international isolation.

Going to the Security Council with something as abstract (and pointless) as a declaration of statehood is unlikely to get anywhere. But the Goldstone example shows that the Palestinians may do better to focus on specifics such as Israel’s decision to build new settlements on occupied land in East Jerusalem.

On Palestinian statehood the US can argue that the matter is best left to negotiation between the two sides, but on construction in East Jerusalem it cannot plausibly shield the Israelis; the US itself, together with the entire international community, has condemned such construction. And putting Washington on the spot by daring it to wield its veto may be a useful means of shaking the US out of the torpor of ignoring Israel’s transgressions of international law in the name of a peace process that no longer exists.

Mr Obama is no more likely than any other US president to deliver for the Palestinians. But he may find it difficult to stand in the way of them claiming their incontrovertible rights. Smart strategy for the Palestinians means taking on Mr Netanyahu outside his comfort zones: resisting the temptation to launch a new campaign of violence, but also no longer waiting for the US to play honest broker.


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