Arab News (Editorial)
May 29, 2011 - 12:00am

In deciding to seek full UN membership for a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its capital, the Arab League is announcing that the current wave of self-determination in the region needs to translate into a more independent Arab foreign policy. And despite President Barack Obama's claim that the UN move would give the Palestinians only a symbolic diplomatic victory and nothing else, plus the unlikelihood that a Palestinian state would be declared — given it would need the support of all five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council to be recognized — the Arabs are saying that whoever waits for America and Israel for change will wait a lifetime.

In the wake of major Middle East policy speeches in Washington by Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the impossible conditions imposed on peace by Netanyahu preclude Palestinian acceptance of any agreement. The Palestinian leadership cannot cede Palestinian rights or compromise on fundamental constants — the inviolability of the 1967 lines, Jerusalem and the refugees.

What the Palestinians can do is exploit the present dynamics that have greatly empowered them. Despite the Palestinian plight on the ground, politically and diplomatically they are in their strongest shape in years: Buoyed by the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, by the mass activism of the Arab world that finally flowered into a Palestinian Spring in the Nakba protests on May 15, and by the huge international consensus for statehood at the UN. All three could be harnessed for a showdown over recognition in September.

The UN drive might not bring a Palestinian state in the occupied territories but by mobilizing to return the Palestinian issue to the UN, the Arabs are freeing themselves from the yoke of an American diplomacy that, for decades, has succeeded only in shielding the Israeli occupation from legal sanctions.

Such a turn to the UN and international legitimacy would mean conflict with Obama who has dismissed the Palestinian attraction to the UN as pointless. But privately the White House is worried. It knows such a resolution could again expose America as Israel's sole defender in the international body and prompt a major political clash with the Arabs at a time when Obama would like to be seen at least rhetorically on the side of change in the region.

Obama's reference to the 1967 lines was not meant for Netanyahu or even Israel but was a last-ditch effort to prevent the Palestinians asking the General Assembly to recognize a Palestinian state.

Palestinian officials have been parsimonious in their reaction to Obama's two recent speeches. This is partly out of an ingrained deference to all things American and also to keep the door to Washington mediation open. However, cancellation or even postponement of the "September entitlement" might be very unpopular in the occupied Palestinian territories, especially if Palestinians are led to believe that such a step was taken solely to please and appease the Americans. A thwarted statehood resolution at the UN may translate into violence on the ground, and not only in the occupied territories.

Even as a symbolic gesture, the Palestinian move at the UN would make Israel look politically isolated. As for the US, the more Washington stands by Netanyahu, or looks like it cannot handle him, the more irrelevant to a regional peace it becomes, and the more credible an initiative of Arab origin appears.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017