Saturday, December 1, 2012

The nation as idea: Palestinians and the future



PALESTINIAN PRESIDENT Mahmoud Abbas addressed the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday, and in just twenty words changed the game, and raised the stakes, in the Middle East.

"Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen, the General Assembly is called upon today to issue a birth certificate of the reality of the State of Palestine," Abbas told the 193-nation assembly, according to the text of a speech that was anticipated globally and in the region, and just as widely dreaded in Israel and the United States.

And at the speech’s end, Abbas got was he was hoping for: a resounding endorsement from the world body. Draft resolution A/67/L.28, which formally upgraded the status of the Palestinian people from “entity” to “non-member observer,” was adopted by a vote of 138 to 9, with 41 abstentions.

What might, to casual eyes, have looked like a merely procedural, bureaucratic vote at the UN was anything but. On the 65th anniversary of the UN Plan of Partition and Economic Union vote that led to the creation of the state of Israel — the same vote that could have yielded Palestinians a state of their own — the stateless existence of the Palestinian people was revisited by the same organization, in a way that invites the world to see that recognition as a precursor to the next one.

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In the most cynical terms it was a petition for a do-over, an attempt to undo, or certainly enlarge on, an event in world history that can only be regrettable in hindsight. In November 1947, it was United Nations Resolution 181 that would have established a Jewish state and an Arab state, two separate and definable entities borne with the end of the British rule over Palestine.


Palestinians rejected the terms of the Plan on the grounds of an imbalanced distribution of land relative to the population of Jews and Palestinians. On May 15, 1948, the state of Israel was born. Member states of the Arab League and Palestinian Arabs invaded within a day of statehood, launching the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the first such conflict in the region. The rest is history, and current events.

One observer suggests that the Palestinians are avid students of both. “We are the best teachers of the Palestinian people in their struggle for independence,” wrote Eitan Haber, in a column for Yediot Ahronot. “They have studied carefully the history of the Zionist movement.”

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IN RECENT years, Hamas has been the wild card in the Palestinian bid for statehood. The Islamist organization that holds sway over Gaza, and has routinely clashed with Abbas' Fatah political party, launched rocket attacks on Israel in previous years and last month, and claimed responsibiity for bombing a bus in Tel Aviv on Nov. 21. The destruction of Israel is central to the group’s 1988 charter. Hamas co-founder Mahmoud Al-Zahar said in 2006 that he dreamed “of hanging a huge map of the world on the wall at my Gaza home which does not show Israel on it.” Hardly oil upon the waters.

Michael Danby at The Australian writes: “[T]he international quartet of the UN, US, EU and Russia does not even recognise Hamas as a prospective representative body for Palestinians. In this regard the resolution is a dangerous expedient that does not demand, as it should, that the Palestinians first take responsibility to resolve the internal chaos of their warring factions.”

But three members of the Quartet, excepting the United States, voted for the draft resolution; the lopsided vote on Thursday reflects nothing if not a widespread belief that differences between Fatah, the Palestinians and Hamas can be worked out long-term, and need not be an obstacle to the Palestinian future.

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Until very recently, Abbas’ bigger immediate diplomatic challenge may have been in dealing with Hamas, not with Israel or the United States. But there’s every reason to believe that the chafing between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas will end. Even before Abbas appeared at the UN, Fatah and Hamas had begun to seek common ground, and to resolve their contrasting visions of governing and security within a prospective Palestinian state.

Both sides were already incentivized to settle their differences by the unifying impact of the recent Israeli assault on Gaza, in which more than 100 Palestinians were killed. With Palestinians’ newfound clout at the United Nations, the profile of both rivals is much higher now.

Abbas has much at stake in making a relationship with Hamas work; Hamas has a lot at stake, as the newfound international attention on Gaza and the West Bank gives the organization still considered a terrorist group by the United States the opportunity to dial back its anti-Israeli rhetoric — or even to renounce its long refusal to accept the existence of Israel ... the better to redefine itself on the world stage, and to truly give peace a chance. Change is not a one-way street.

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CRITICS OF Thursday's UN resolution call it premature; they note that nothing in the resolution helps resolve issues of borders, settlements, sovereignty, and the always thorny issue of refugees.

These observations, while logistically correct, overlook the fundamentally messy business of embryonic statehood. Nations, especially those born in modern times, have rarely emerged through the niceties of compacts and agreements and everything just so. There are always internal loose ends, always brokers and go-betweens; conflicts armed and otherwise have been the midwives of any number of countries born in just the 20th century.

The other real challenges to the Palestinian future are happening within Gaza, and won’t be easily reversed. In January 2009, in a report announcing an emergency operation plan after an Israeli military operation in Gaza, the World Health Organization said: “Gaza is one of the world’s most densely populated places ... Health services in Gaza are under enormous strain and require urgent and wide-ranging support.”

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Abbas’ cri de coeur at the UN hinted at an emerging social and economic pragmatism increasingly displayed by the Palestinians. Despite the territorial disputes that are their legacy, there's evidence the Palestinians are advancing smartly on the economic front.

Work continues on Rawabi, the first planned Palestinian city, a project funded by $700 million from Qatari and Palestinian investors. The city, being built north of Ramallah, is expected to provide 5,000 housing units for 40,000 people, and to attract another $800 million in the coming years. Britain is entertaining investment in the project.

In April, Sara Hamdan of The New York Times reported on the increasing number of Palestinian startup technology companies, some as ventures between Palestinians and Israeli investors.

It’s sometimes done in the face of challenges from the power in the region. “Technology companies in the Palestinian region certainly face unique hurdles,” Hamdan reports. “Checkpoints and curfews imposed by Israel create a restrictive operating environment for businesses. Israel also monitors airwaves and restricts access to faster Internet speeds in the occupied Palestinian territories.”

“[...] Palestine is not new to instability,” Palestinian software entrepreneur Saed Nashef told The Times. “Palestinian people have been living under occupation for a long time and despite hardships, people still need to put food on the table. This has resulted in a lot of savvy entrepreneurs with resilient, adaptive business models.”

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ON THURSDAY, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, on the short list to be named the next secretary of state, defended the U.S. no vote on the resolution, and did so in somewhat downbeat terms:

“Today's grand pronouncements will soon fade,” she said. “And the Palestinian people will wake up tomorrow and find that little about their lives has changed, save that the prospects of a durable peace have only receded.”

Rice’s statement was unintentionally validated less than a day after she said that. Palestinians may have found little had changed on Friday, particularly after Israel doubled down on the status quo, announcing another kind of retaliatory strike: approving construction of 3,000 new homes in Jerusalem and the West Bank, to the dismay of the United States.

What Rice said was certainly true if viewed only through the formalist lenses of treaties and diplomacy. But it misses the deeper point of Abbas’ appeal. Abbas knows full well that Palestinians have not been granted formal status as a nation; the Palestinian Authority president also understands the inspirational and aspirational powers of simply making such a statement of principles in the world forum in the first place.

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The 4.3 million Palestinians in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip recognize that the UN resolution was no panacea. They also understand that symbolism often precedes substance (setting aside the ways in which symbolism is a substance all its own).

On Thursday, Rice said “[w]e have always been clear that only through direct negotiations between the parties can the Palestinians and Israelis achieve the peace that both deserve: two states for two peoples, with a sovereign, viable and independent Palestine living side by side in peace and security with a Jewish and democratic Israel.”

But the Abbas petititon and the UN resolution that followed don’t prevent or even complicate direct negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis from taking place; for maybe the first time, those negotiations can occur with Palestinians on a more level diplomatic field, a closer-to-equal footing as a community of the world — one not so easily marginalized in future, one with defined cultural components and aspirations as a people, if not defined geographic borders as a state.

Former Palestinian foreign minister Nabil Shaath seemed to say as much in an opinion piece in the Israeli daily Haaretz. “Independence and statehood have never been negotiable,” he wrote. “The notion that Israel should approve the Palestinians' inalienable right to self-determination is simply illogical, immoral, and totally unacceptable.”

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AS A STUDY of American history shows, there’s precedent for the notion happening well before the nation does.

The United States of America counts its genesis as a freestanding nation from the date of July 4, 1776, with the compass document of the Declaration of Independence — its defining charter. Never mind the fact that the War for American Independence — the war to decide the fate of that document in the real world — continued to be fought until Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in October 1781. Never mind that the Constitution anchoring the Declaration’s principles in law wouldn’t be ratified for five or six years after that.

Our nation’s birth date wasn’t established according to the timetable of war; it was set by the statement of principles that would define that nation that was still to come.

For five years, the United States was a nation in limbo, a fledgling that was gaining international support even while a war raged within its borders to determine its very existence. How is that so different from what the new UN resolution has just ratified?

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What’s escaped the skeptics and gradualists on Palestinian aspiration, what the United States and Israel have at least briefly forgotten, was a central if unspoken point of Abbas’ statement, and one affirmed by the UN resolution:

A nation doesn’t begin as a land mass or a territory; and it needn’t even begin with a government. A nation begins as an idea. Mahmoud Abbas understands this. So do 138 member states of the United Nations.

As Israel weighs direct negotiations, as the United States prepares to act as broker, both those nations must be prepared to engage the Palestinian people at that level — both deeply emotional and geopolitically inescapable — with that in mind.

Image credits: UN vote display numbers: Screengrab from MSNBC. Abbas, Rice: United Nations. UN General Assembly meets (hall image): Associated Press. Flag used by Hamas supporters: Guilherme  Paula, released to pubic domain via Wikipedia. Rawabi logo: © 2011 Rawabi.

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