(from The Telegraph)
The UN vote to recognise Palestine as a “non-member state” looks like a second defeat in just over a week for Israel, after many observers judged that Hamas won the recent war in Gaza on points.
When it became clear Israel’s attempt to turn the vote into a crisis had failed, it spun 180 degrees and began dismissing it as largely symbolic.
That may be true – the vote changes nothing on the ground and may change little in the General Assembly hall in New York. But the symbolism isn’t insignificant. The scale of the defeat – 138 votes to 9, with 41 abstentions – underscores the isolation of Israel and the US in the international community, and leaves them looking like lone opponents (along with such powers as Micronesia and Panama) of Palestinian rights.
The Palestinian leadership’s move away from Washington and towards New York, where the UN is based, reflects its frustration with the US’s lopsided mediation of the conflict. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas believes the Obama administration has helped strip him of any real power by demanding he negotiate with Israel even as settlement growth swallows up Palestinian land and preempts the results of talks.
Abbas’s diminished status was emphasised by the reappearance on the political scene, for a few hours this week, of his predecessor as Palestinian president. Yasser Arafat, whose body was exhumed by scientists investigating his death, once stood in the UN General Assembly hall and said: “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”
Nearly 30 years later many Palestinians feel they’ve been left with neither option. Under Abbas the Palestinian Authority has turned its back on violence, cracking down on West Bank militants who oppose cooperation with Israel. But with nothing to show from a stalled peace process, he has been left vulnerable to accusations – not least from the Hamas regime in Gaza – that he is no more than Israel’s security subcontractor in the West Bank.
Yesterday’s UN bid was motivated as much by Abbas’s need to show Palestinians he’s prepared to stand up to Israel as by diplomatic considerations. And the recent fighting in Gaza redoubled that need by allowing Hamas once again to claim the mantle of “resistance”.
Nothing the General Assembly can do will change the facts on the ground. The “state” of Palestine has no control over its putative borders, two governments and no capital city.
But by defying Israel Abbas may well have saved the Palestinian Authority from irrelevance, giving it a foothold from which to restart negotiations. Now the Palestinians will at least in theory come to the negotiating table as equals, instead of scavenging underneath it for Israel’s crumbs.
What’s more, Abbas may have begun repairing his legacy. But in order to complete that task he must do two things.
First, he should resign. Elected in 2005, his term in office expired in 2009, leaving him a figurehead ruler who lacks the legitimacy to strike a two-state deal that would mean making difficult concessions on behalf of his people.
Second, and most importantly, he needs to find a way of explaining some hard truths, both to the Palestinian people and their supporters around the world.
He should tell Palestinians that, just as they have a right to a state in their homeland, so do the Jewish people. Yasser Arafat broke the Palestinian taboo on recognising the fact of Israel; now Abbas must break the taboo on recognising its right to exist as a home for Jews.
None of this excuses the occupation of an inch of Palestinian soil or the demolition of a single home. But in order to make peace, Palestinians must understand that Israel is not some freak of history, some alien invasion or malignant growth.
And, painful as it may be, this will ultimately mean giving up the so-called “right of return” – the fantasy, dangled before millions of displaced Palestinians, that they will one day go back to their parents’ and grandparents’ homes in Haifa, Jaffa, and Abbas’s own birthplace Safed.
Abbas understands all this, but is prevented from clearly saying so by the constraints of office.
By stepping down and speaking out, he could secure his place in history. And when Palestinians and Israelis realise he’s right – as one day they inevitably must – he will have put Arafat’s ghost to rest once and for all.