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Democracy Now! debate: Does UN statehood bid advance or undermine Palestinian struggle?

September 23, 2011 -- Democracy Now! -- Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to officially submit a statehood request to the United Nations in defiance of U.S. and Israeli threats... While supporters have hailed the bid as a step forward in the struggle to end the Israeli occupation and bring peace to the Middle East, critics call it a ploy by the Palestinian Authority to cling to power while undermining the rights of Palestinian refugees. We host a debate with two leading Palestinian analysts: Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the website The Electronic Intifada and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, and Mouin Rabbani of the Institute for Palestine Studies and the webzine Jadaliyya. See also

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JUAN GONZALEZ: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to officially submit a statehood request to the United Nations Security Council later today. The United States has vowed to veto the move.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I am convinced that there is no shortcut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades. Peace is hard work. Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations. If it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now. Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians who must live side by side. Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians, not us, who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them, on borders and on security, on refugees and Jerusalem.

JUAN GONZALEZ: A new poll shows the Obama administration’s stance on Palestinian recognition at the United Nations is more extreme than that of a strong majority of Israeli citizens. A joint Israeli-Palestinian poll shows 69 percent of Israelis think their government should accept U.N. recognition of an independent Palestinian state. The survey also found 83 percent of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories supported the bid. Many Palestinians have expressed concern about the U.S. decision but remain committed to their goal.

KIMUR, Ramallah Resident: [translated] We have brought a lot to the table, and we have conceded a lot. We have given up on 78 percent of the land of historical Palestine for the state of Israel. What else do they want? They want us to leave. We will not leave. We will stay. And we will not be afraid of America, Israel or any other threats, whether they are to cut off donations or American aid. We will persist to remain on this land.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, Israeli Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Danny Danon praised President Obama’s speech at the United Nations and warned Israel will have a strong reaction to the Palestinian bid for U.N. membership.

DANNY DANON: There is no hope in the near future. This is the reality for the near future. Until we will not see a viable partner among the Palestinians, there will be no real, genuine peace. It is not popular to say it. We all want change, peace, tomorrow morning. It’s not going to happen tomorrow morning. We will have to wait until we will see a real partner among the Palestinians.

AMY GOODMAN: Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has said President Mahmoud Abbas will not be deterred and hopes the U.S. will not continue to be opposed to his country’s bid for statehood.

SAEB EREKAT: I would hope that the U.S. would revisit its position, because if we want to seek a Middle East that’s democratic, free, void of extremists and so on, we cannot maintain the status quo. The U.S. cannot continue treating Israel as a country above the laws of man. And that’s the truth.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more on the proposal for Palestinian statehood set to go before the U.N. Security Council, we’re joined by two guests. Ali Abunimah is the co-founder of news and analysis website, The Electronic Intifada, and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. He’s in Cleveland. We’re also joined by Mouin Rabbani in Washington, D.C., visiting scholar at the Institute for Palestine Studies. He is also co-editor of Jadaliyya ezine. Previously he worked as Palestine director of the Palestinian American Research Center.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s go first to Washington, D.C., to Mouin Rabbani. What is your take on what is happening today at the United Nations, Mahmoud Abbas presenting his statehood bid?

MOUIN RABBANI: Yeah, well, the Palestinian leadership today is going to deposit an application for full membership in the United Nations at the Security Council. And it seems that the Security Council, at the behest of Washington, will sit on it, while Washington seeks to garner enough votes in opposition to this proposal, so it doesn’t have to exercise a veto. And it seems that the Palestinian leadership is not going to increase the pressure by also going to the General Assembly.

I have to say I think the main issue here is not the bid for recognition or statehood. I think the key issue here is the extent to which this initiative creates space and possibility for the internationalization of the question of Palestine in all its dimensions. In other words, a beginning of an irrevocable turn away from the Oslo process, which time and again has proven that it serves as nothing more than a political cover for the consolidation of Israeli control and the deepening colonization of the Occupied Territories.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Ali Abunimah, you have been a vocal opponent or critic of this move by the Palestinians. Why?

ALI ABUNIMAH: Good morning, Juan. Good morning, Amy and Mouin.

Well, if we take what the PA, the Palestinian Authority, leadership say at face value, they say that their goal here was to try to break the status quo and to sort of return to negotiations, but on much better and more reasonable terms. That’s what they said. And if we evaluate it by those criteria, it’s been a complete disaster, because, in fact, what we saw from President Obama was a speech that was more pro-Israel than anything we have ever seen from him, which is saying something. And that was not a speech by a president of the United States addressing a world body with any sincerity about bringing an end to the conflict. That was a candidate running in an election where he is being very falsely and unfairly accused of not being pro-Israel enough. And that showed in the speech. So, the Palestinian Authority, rather than having ended the Oslo status quo, will go back home having achieved nothing and having simply demonstrated that it remains a captive of a situation where Palestinians are expected to carry out security, so-called security, for the Israeli occupation, are totally dependent on European Union and United States financing, and therefore financial blackmail, and have closed off all avenues for political action. And so, I see, really, this as a total failure.

The source of the opposition really came from a lot of Palestinians across the political spectrum who expressed fears that going to the United Nations to call for a state on a fraction of historic Palestine, without recognition of any other Palestinian rights, such as the rights of Palestinian refugees or the rights of Palestinian citizens in Israel, rather than advancing the cause of Palestine, could actually limit it and circumscribe it in the future because of unintended consequences. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to be a factor, after all, because this bid has gone absolutely nowhere.

AMY GOODMAN: Mouin Rabbani, your response?

MOUIN RABBANI: Well, you know, Ali is making the point that, for the Palestinian leadership, they’ve approached this entire issue as a tactical maneuver rather than a strategic initiative. And in that, he’s completely correct.

The point, rather, is, does this—does this initiative—or to the extent that it’s initiative, rather—create possibilities for a new dynamic for Palestinians to deal with the issues of occupation and self-determination and so on? And what I think you’ve seen in Palestinian society is a very broad desire to begin to move decisively away from the Oslo framework, which has been really, you know, bilateral negotiations, forever, about nothing, under unilateral American custodianship, with the U.S.—you know, Obama’s speech yesterday left even the Israelis in stunned disbelief about the extent of its pro-Israeli partisanship. So, no disagreement there. Rather, the issue is, you now have this initiative. This initiative creates possibilities, if the leadership is put under sufficient pressure by Palestinian society, to take it well beyond what the leadership intended. I think what Ali has been saying about the leadership is, more or less, essentially correct. But there—you know, the dynamic that’s created is by no means limited to what the leadership intends to do with it. And I think the key issue here is that this provides an opportunity to move away from Oslo and back towards the internationalization of the question of Palestine, where Palestinian—the issues of Palestinian self-determination are addressed on the basis of Palestinian rights as codified in a very large corpus of U.N. resolutions, rather than, you know, being codified in the pro-Israeli positions of the American administration and a Congress that has decisively gone off the deep end.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Ali Abunimah, what about this issue of bringing back the question of the—through the international community, of dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian question? I was struck a couple of days ago by an interview with Brzezinski, a former key official in the Carter administration, who said that he saw this as a possible turning point in terms of the loss of influence of the United States in the Middle East and the rise, basically, of the European powers to be—to take a lead in attempting to resolve the question.

ALI ABUNIMAH: I don’t think that’s right. On the contrary, the role the European Union has been playing has been absolutely abject in terms of trying to be sort of a deal maker to get Israel’s demands written into Quartet statements, the Quartet being the self-appointed ad hoc group of international officials that has unilaterally placed the—replaced the United Nations on the question of Palestine. And the European Union provides the largest subsidies to Israeli occupation under the guise of aid to the Palestinian Authorities. So I don’t see the Europeans playing that role.

But on the question of internationalization and changing the dynamic, I agree with Mouin that that’s what needs to happen. But, you know, listen to your—to the introduction to this debate, and we had someone called Saeb Erekat being quoted as the chief negotiator. I and the rest of the Palestinians thought that Saeb Erekat had resigned after the scandals of the Palestine Papers were revealed. And yet, there he still is, calling himself chief negotiator. I think that that demonstrates the lack of accountability of this Palestinian leadership, the lack of connection to the Palestinian people, the lack of responsiveness to the Palestinian people, particularly the Palestinian diaspora and Palestinian citizens of Israel, who have essentially been written out of the question of Palestine. And part of the disaster of the Oslo process has been to reduce and circumscribe the Palestinian cause to residents of the West Bank and Gaza—and now perhaps only residents of the West Bank, as even Gaza is consigned to the garbage can.

And what we really need to do, I think, is rebuild a Palestinian consensus and body politic based on the rights and demands of every segment of the Palestinian people, inside and outside the country, based on fundamental rights, not a demand for limited statehood, which ignores the rights of the majority of Palestinians. Can this bid jump-start that process? I don’t know. But I think there are other movements going on that have been much more dynamic and much more inclusive, such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which was dismissed as very marginal just a couple of years ago but is now sufficiently frightening and threatening to Israel, that they’re enlisting the United States government to fight it, which, of course, the Obama administration has enthusiastically volunteered to do by pledging to help Israel fight so-called delegitimization. What they call delegitimization, we call a struggle for universal rights and self-determination of Palestinians.

AMY GOODMAN: Mouin Rabbani—

ALI ABUNIMAH: So I think there are other avenues that need to be explored. And this U.N. bid, I think, has, if anything, demonstrated the dead end of a diplomatic process within a U.N. system that is so hopelessly broken and rigged on behalf of the powerful.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Mouin Rabbani, your response, but also what you would have liked to have seen President Obama say?

MOUIN RABBANI: Well, you know, Ali makes some very relevant criticisms of the Palestinian leadership, and I think one could add many more to what he’s said. And, of course, what is an essential requirement here is a reconstruction of the Palestinian national movement on the basis of an inclusive and purposeful strategy, and all the rest of it. At the end of the day, the fact of the matter is that there is this initiative at the United Nations and that Palestinians now have an opportunity to take this initiative well beyond the objectives for which it was launched by the leadership and to seek to intelligently use this initiative to promote the re-internationalization of the question of Palestine by addressing the issues of self-determination and the end of occupation on the basis of Palestinian rights as codified in international law and U.N. resolutions. I don’t think that that issue should have to wait until we get the leadership that we want or that we deserve, and I don’t think that these two elements are necessarily contradictory.

Now, in terms of Obama’s speech, I mean, you know, it’s—again, Israelis themselves reacted with stunned disbelief that an American president would give a speech at the U.N. that left even Avigdor Lieberman delighted and saying, you know, Bibi Netanyahu is now going to have to rewrite his own speech, lest he come across as less Israeli than the American president.

So, again, you know, getting back to the larger question, one of the key values of going to the United Nations and promoting the internationalization of the question of Palestine is precisely to get away from this hopelessly compromised American role in—not in resolving this conflict, but which has in fact come down to a policy of transforming Israeli impunity and promoting Israeli impunity as a central plank of American Middle East policy and basically acting in support of perpetual Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. So there can be no solution within the current framework. There can be no solution, unless the American role is replaced by a genuinely international one. And I think that going to the United Nations represents an essential first step in that direction, complemented, of course, by many other strategies and tactics, some of which Ali has mentioned. But at the end of the day, one either has Oslo or one has internationalization, and I don’t think that there’s a third option between the two.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there, Mouin Rabbani with the Institute for Palestine Studies and Ali Abunimah, co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse.

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Palestine: UN push a bid to save Oslo, Israel's isolation grows

Protesters in Egypt tear down the security wall protecting the Israeli embassy in Cairo, September 9. Photo from

By Tony Iltis

September 18, 2011 -- Green Left Weekly -- “We are going to the United Nations to request our legitimate right, obtaining full membership for Palestine in this organisation”, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Ramallah-based, internationally recognised Palestinian Authority (PA), declared in a September 16 televised address.

“We are going to the Security Council.”

Abbas has acknowledged the initiative is largely symbolic and that UN recognition of Palestinian sovereignty would not translate to actual control of territory.

The BBC reported on September 16 that he “aimed to play down expectations … adding that the move would not end Israel’s occupation”. It said, “he stressed the UN move was not a substitute for negotiations.”

The initiative specifically limits the claim for recognition of Palestinian sovereignty to 22% of Palestine ― the Palestinian territory not claimed by Israel after it was established in 1948.

Ma’an News Agency said on September 16: “Abbas said he wanted to see a Palestinian state recognised on the basis of the 1967 lines, comprising the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, adding that this would then enable the Palestinians to return to negotiations with Israel.”

The BBC said Abbas reassured the West: “We are not heading there to delegitimise Israel, no one can do this, it is a state with full membership at the UN.”

Abbas said that should the bid be vetoed in the UN Security Council, he would turn to the General Assembly where, Xinhua said on September 16, 126 countries out of 193 support what the PA is requesting.

However, the General Assembly does not have the power to confer full UN membership. It does have the power to grant recognition as a “non-member state”, a status now held by the Vatican.

The US has already indicated that it will use its veto.

Al Jazeera reported that White House spokesperson Jay Carney said on September 16: “The Palestinians will not, and cannot, achieve statehood through a declaration at the United Nations. It is a distraction, and in fact, it’s counterproductive.”

The September 17 Independent said Israel warned, “it will consider possible retaliation which could include … even, according to some ministers, ‘annexation’ of the main settlement blocs inside the West Bank”.

Abbas has promoted the UN recognition bid as a response to the failure of the peace talks between Israel and the PA that have taken place since the 1993 Oslo Agreement. This is due to the intransigence of Israel and its Western backers.

However, the familiarity of the latest round of declarations and counter-declarations reflects that the bid is based on the same premise as the Oslo peace process. That is, the establishment of separate Israeli and Palestinian states in line with 1967 borders is the most realistic path to peace and Palestinian self-determination.

It is therefore up against the same obstacles.

In 1948, when Jewish settlers militarily established the state of Israel, driving hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their land, they did so over 78% of the country until then called Palestine.

The remaining 22% of Palestine ― the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip ― was held by Jordan and Egypt until Israel conquered it in 1967.

The “1967 borders” at the heart of both the Oslo peace process and the UN recognition bid existed for less than 20 years.

The greatest obstacle to any solution based on the 1967 borders is that they are irrelevant to the fact that all of what was called Palestine before 1948 is now under Israeli control.

Israel has shown no inclination to relinquish this control.

Since 1967, more than half of the West Bank has been annexed by Jewish-only settlements, Jewish-only roads, closed military areas, checkpoints and the “Apartheid Wall”. The wall doesn’t separate the West Bank from pre-1967 Israel, but separates West Bank Palestinian communities from each other and their land.

Current Palestinian demographics are the result of successive waves of Israeli ethnic cleansing since 1948. About half of Palestinians, more than 5 million people, live overseas, the majority in refugee camps in neighbouring countries.

Abbas’s statehood bid, like the various proposals in the post-Oslo negotiations, ignores the demand for the right of refugees to return.

Of the 5 million Palestinians inside the country, 2.5 million live in the West Bank, 1.5 million in the Gaza Strip and 1 million in pre-1967 Israel. Those living in Israel have Israeli citizenship, but with fewer rights than Jewish Israelis.

The high population density of the West Bank and Gaza reflects the high proportion of refugees from pre-1967 Israel and their descendants.

The Israeli Jewish population is also about 5 million ― about half a million live in the West Bank settlements with exactly the same citizenship rights as other Jewish Israelis.

In the West Bank, during the years of the peace process, the rate of Israeli land annexation, settlement building and demolition and expropriation of Palestinian houses increased.

This has been particularly the case in East Jerusalem. Israel has made it clear it is not willing to relinquish control of any of Jerusalem, the municipal boundaries of which have been expanded to include several West Bank villages.

Israel could create these “facts on the ground” because it is a nuclear-armed power that receives US$4 billion annual US military aid while its adversary is a subjected population.

A peace process premised on treating the two as equal parties in a conflict was always less about creating a solution than creating an illusion. Unfortunately, the UN initiative does not challenge this illusion.

Gaza blogger Sameeha Elwan, writing in a September 8 Electronic Intifada article, pointed out: “Less than half the Palestinian population live in the occupied Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the territories to be declared as the Palestinian state.

“What will happen to the other millions who live outside this territory?”

She said it was not even representative of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. “The last democratic elections for the PA took place more than five years ago. The refusal by the US and Europe to respect the results of that election has led to the severe fragmentation of both Gaza and the West Bank, leaving Palestinians with two governments, neither of which is representative of the total interests and will of the Palestinian people.”

The Western dismissal of Abbas’ statehood bid showed the same undisguised pro-Israel bias that characterised the international mediators role during the Oslo peace process. But in the region, the Palestinians have become less isolated.

Israel’s diplomatic relations are in crisis with what were its two most significant allies in the region until recently.

On September 2, Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and the suspension of all military ties.

This was in response to Israel’s refusal to apologise over the Mavi Marmara incident in May last year. Israeli troops shot dead nine unarmed activists in international waters who were trying to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza.

On September 9, Egyptian diplomatic relations with Israel were effectively broken, not by the government, but by the people.

Protesters tore down the wall protecting the Israeli embassy and stormed the building, removing embassy files. Israel's ambassador and diplomatic staff fled Egypt by plane.

Protesters were enraged by Israel's killing of three Egyptian border guards, and the refusal of the Egyptian government to expel Israel's ambassador in response.

Since the 1979 Camp David Treaty, Egypt has been Israel’s closest regional ally.

The leaked “Palestine Papers” published by Al Jazeera in January, as well as documents published by WikiLeaks, showed former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak and his secret police chief Omar Suleiman played key roles in conspiring with Israel and the West in using the peace process to thwart Palestinian national aspirations.

However, this collaboration contrasted with the pro-Palestinian sympathies of the Egyptian people. That made the mass uprising that toppled Mubarak and Suleiman this year a dangerous development for Israel.

The military government has maintained Mubarak’s pro-Israel stance, but has proved less able to contain popular feeling.

Popular feeling boiled over on August 18 when Israel killed the border guards.

During Mubarak’s rule, 23 border guards were killed by Israel with no consequences.

This time, the mass protests and embassy storming forced the evacuation of all 86 Israeli staff.

As the Ramallah-based PA seeks to save the discredited Oslo process through a diplomatic manoeuvre at the UN, the Egyptian people have taken matters into their own hands. They have helped reveal Israel's isolation in a region whose people are waking up.

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