Mahmoud Abbas: Indian reservations
What does Mahmoud Abbas expect to achieve at the UN? Moshe Machover analyses the Palestinian bid for statehoodOn September 23, Mahmoud (Abu Mazen) Abbas, ‘president’ of the Palestinian ‘Authority’, appeared before the United Nations general assembly and, to the great acclaim of the majority of delegates, made a bid for the admission of the ‘state’ of Palestine as a member of that organisation.
I have put three words above in quote marks, for good reason. First, although Abu Mazen is often addressed politely as ‘president Abbas’, his official title is ‘chairman of the Palestinian National Authority’ (in Arabic there is some ambiguity, as the word ra’is can mean both ‘chairman’ and ‘president’). In any case, even his entitlement to this title is dubious: he was elected as chairman in January 2005 for a term of four years, which expired in January 2009; but he has remained super-glued to his seat.
Second, the so-called Palestinian Authority (PA), of which he is (or was) chairman, is devoid of any real authority. Its main role is to keep the Palestinian people under control on behalf of Israel, and to engage with the latter in desultory negotiations in an endless ‘peace process’ (of which more anon).
Third, the so-called state for which he was demanding UN membership is non-existent: much less than a state, it is not even a Bantustan, but more like a series of disconnected Indian reservations, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.
In response to Abbas, Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, made a speech in his prime poisonous style, vehemently opposing Palestinian UN membership and inviting the PA instead to negotiate. This was seconded by US president Barack Obama, who, in an utterly one-sided speech, denounced the Palestinian bid as ‘one-sided’ and, as expected, promised to veto it in the security council. The invitation to negotiate was echoed by Catherine Ashton on behalf of the European Union.
In this article I propose to explain the background to this international charade and the motives of the various actors in it.
First, Israel. For the Israeli leadership, the ‘peace process’ - or, as many Israelis (who have trouble distinguishing between long and short vowels) pronounce it, piss process - is a perpetual ratchet mechanism for buying time, while colonisation of Palestinian lands is extended and expanded.
The Israeli negotiating strategy, successfully applied for the last 20 years, is very simple. At each stage of the process, Israel puts forward new conditions. If the Palestinian side rejects them, the negotiations are broken off, and world public opinion is invited to blame Palestinian intransigence for the deadlock. However, if the Palestinian side capitulates to the new demands, then Israel finds a pretext for stalling. A favourite ploy is to create provocations such as ‘targeted assassination’ of Palestinian militants. These are rarely reported by the international media, and never given any prominence, as they are considered routine moves in the ‘war against terror’. Eventually, some armed Palestinian group retaliates with a bloody bombing inside Israel or an ill-aimed rocket barrage. This is invariably given lurid coverage in the international media. Thereupon Israel breaks off the talks, because obviously one cannot negotiate with such terrorists. Again, the Palestinians are blamed for the failure of the talks. Meantime, Israeli colonization continues to metastasise.
After a while, there is another international initiative for resuming the negotiations. In the new round of talks, the previous Palestinian concessions are taken as a starting point, and Israel’s conditions are ratcheted up. Right now the new Israeli ultimatum includes the following two demands. First, that the Palestinians subscribe to the Zionist doctrine that all Jews around the world are a nation, and Israel is the nation-state of this alleged nation (rather than a state of its own citizens, or even of the Israeli Hebrew nation). Second, that the PA drop its insistence that the eventual settlement be based on the pre-1967 de facto border of Israel (the so-called green line). These two demands taken together amount to open-ended legitimation of Zionist colonisation, past, present and future.
The dual aim of this strategy is to buy time for further Israeli colonisation, and prevent the creation of a sovereign Palestinian Arab state of any size, however mutilated. This policy is by no means new, and is common to all the major Zionist parties. Let me quote from a Matzpen discussion paper co-authored some time ago by comrade Emmanuel Farjoun and myself.
“The decisive majority of the Zionist leadership, both in the government and in the … opposition, is resolutely opposed, as a matter of fundamental principle, to the establishment of any kind of independent Palestinian state.
“First, the Zionist legitimation for the existence of the state of Israel as an exclusive Jewish state has always been entirely based not on the right to self-determination of the Jews who live in this country, but on the alleged ‘historical right’ of all Jews around the world over the whole of the ‘Land of Israel.’ From this viewpoint, recognition of the existence in Palestine of another people, the Palestinian Arab people, which has a legitimate claim in it would undermine Zionism’s legitimation and self-justification.
“Second, the Zionist leadership indeed takes into account the eventuality that within the framework of a settlement Israel may be obliged to withdraw also from parts of its conquests west of the Jordan river. But from a Zionist viewpoint any withdrawal from any part whatsoever of ‘the historical Land of Israel’, especially west of the Jordan, is - in principle - temporary and contingent on transient conditions. From this viewpoint, Israel must reserve the ability and right to reconquer these territories, if that becomes politically possible or militarily necessary. But in international politics there is a huge difference between conquering part of another state and conquering the whole of a ‘third state’ [ie, a Palestinian state between Israel and Jordan]. The world would be much more likely to accept, under certain conditions, an Israeli reconquest of part of Jordan (or of Greater Syria), than the total erasure of a sovereign Palestinian state. The establishment of such a state would therefore impose a severe constraint on Israel’s political and military strategy.
“Third, the Zionist leadership is worried that the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, however small, may be the starting point of a historical process whereby that state would expand step by step at Israel’s expense. The Zionists in fact know from their own experience all about a process of this kind: at first they agreed to the establishment of a small Jewish state within the borders recommended [in 1937] by the Peel Commission, and later within the borders of the [UN] partition plan of 1947, but they expanded the borders further and further, step by step.”
In this context, we quoted the words of a famous Israeli leader:
“Fundamentally, a Palestinian state is an antithesis of the state of Israel … The basic and naked truth is that there is no fundamental difference between the relation of the Arabs of Nablus to Nablus and that of the Arabs of Jaffa to Jaffa … And if today we set out on this road and say that the Palestinians are entitled to their own state because they are natives of the same country and have the same rights, then it will not end with the West Bank. The West Bank together with the Gaza Strip do not amount to a state … The establishment of such a Palestinian state would lay a cornerstone to something else … Either the state of Israel - or a Palestinian state.”
Our discussion paper was written in August 1976 (and published in Matzpen in February 1977), when the first Rabin government was in office. The leader we quoted was Moshe Dayan (as reported in Ha’aretz December 12 1975). Plus ça change …
Indeed, no Israeli government has signed any legally binding commitment to the creation of a Palestinian Arab state. In particular, the Oslo accords of August 1993, signed by the second Rabin government, contain no mention of a Palestinian state (they also contain no commitment on Israel’s part to halt its colonisation of Palestinian lands).
Abbas’s UN bid is not remotely likely to give the Palestinians in the foreseeable future a state in any substantive sense. At most, it will result in a symbolic act of international recognition of notional Palestinian statehood, of the Palestinians’ right to have a state. But even this symbolic international legal act is more than Israel is prepared to countenance. Hence Netanyahu’s vehement opposition.
In our discussion paper, comrade Farjoun and I explained also the American position, which has not changed since then:
“The minimal demand, which even the most moderate current in the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) cannot give up (so long as it exists as an independent actor), is the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state in the occupied territories, which would exist for an entire historical period alongside the Zionist state of Israel.
“The Americans for their own part could accept this demand in order to tranquilise the [Arab] national ferment. From a purely American viewpoint, as from that of the moderate current in the PLO, a compromise that includes the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state under US protection would be acceptable. But in practice such a compromise is precluded by the resolute Zionist position and the special position of Israel in the American set-up in the region.”
The total, apparently slavish, US support for the Israeli position (illustrated for the hundredth time by Obama’s veto threat) is often explained by the great influence in Congress and the US media of the pro-Israel lobby (consisting of some important Jewish organisations and a much larger fundamentalist Christian network). But this ‘Israeli tail wags US dog’ explanation is at best only part of the truth, and it begs the question as to why that lobby is allowed to wield such influence. There is no sign that any major US capitalist interest group, including the dominant military-industrial and oil complex, which commands huge political and financial resources, makes a really serious effort to counteract or limit the effects of pro-Israel lobbying (billionaire George Soros is a rather isolated exception).
In fact, Israel is the most reliable American ally - in effect, a junior partner - in the Middle East, and is even more indispensable now, given the downfall of some Arab protégés of the US, and the general instability in the region. So the Obama administration is torn between its reluctance to arouse anti-American rage among the masses of the Arab world and beyond, and its commitment to Israel, obliging it to block the PA’s UN membership bid by a veto in the security council. To save the US this embarrassment, its EU camp followers (led by Nicolas Sarkozy and Catherine Ashton) have devised alternative plans: to persuade the PA to withdraw its bid for full UN membership, and apply instead for non-member-state status (like that of the Vatican). This can be granted by a two-third majority in the general assembly, where the US has no veto. Failing that, if the PA insists on its full membership bid, the issue can be kicked into the long grass of endlessly prolonged deliberation among members of the security council.
Why Abbas went to UN
It is impossible to believe that the Ramallah-based PA has not cottoned on long ago to the Israeli negotiating strategy and realised that the ‘peace process’ is leading nowhere except to the expansion of Israeli colonisation and theft of Palestinian land and resources. No-one can be that stupid. The reason why Arafat, and later on Abbas, and their clique have persevered in collusion with this pretence is - apart from their pathetic pro-US commitment - the considerable privileges in status granted by Israel to its favourite collaborationists, and the material benefits derived from their control of various funds, including grants from the EU (in this, Tony Blair has played a significant role as pander).
But even collaborationism has its limits. The Abbas leadership has been so discredited among its own people that it was rapidly losing control. Here the Arab awakening has played a crucial role in raising the expectations of the Palestinian masses. No Arab leader whose mandate on power has long expired can feel secure. In desperation, Abbas played the UN gambit. In the short term, it has won him fairly wide, open support in the West Bank, and covert support in the Gaza Strip, where the rival Hamas leadership has suppressed any open pro-Abbas manifestations.
Hamas is by no means alone in its sceptical attitude to Abbas’s UN gambit. Palestinian opinion generally is deeply divided. While many Palestinians point out the advantages - symbolic, diplomatic and legal - of internationally recognised statehood, many others are worried about the disadvantages. They point out that the likely outcome would be freezing the Palestinians for the foreseeable future in possession of a symbol devoid of any reality, without actual control of any territory, borders and resources such as water; and unable to halt further Israeli colonisation. The Palestinian refugees outside the occupied territories would remain in limbo.
Let me end with a few words about the position that, in my opinion, socialists should take towards the whole issue.
We should certainly be critical of the motives behind Mahmoud Abbas’s initiative, as well as of his utterly compromised and politically bankrupt Palestinian Authority. More generally, the so-called two-state ‘solution’, to which the PA is committed and on which the present UN membership bid is based, is a dead end as far as Palestinian liberation is concerned, and will not provide a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
However, right now socialists, especially in Israel and in the west, should direct their main attack against the moves by Israel, the US and its camp followers to block Palestinian UN membership. Whatever we think of the PA and its UN bid, the hypocritical positions of Netanyahu, Obama, Sarkozy, Cameron and Ashton are a thousand times worse.
1. On the systematic pro-Israel bias in British TV reporting, see G Philo, M Berry More bad news from Israel London 2011. Israeli attacks are invariably described as ‘retaliation’. Palestinian revenge is invariably described as ‘starting a new cycle of violence’.
3. For a position of profound scepticism by Palestinian nationalists (including Karma Nabulsi) towards the Abbas initiative, see http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/features/2011/09/20119881338104223.html. For a more robust Palestinian nationalist criticism, see G Karmi, ‘A token state of Palestine’ The Guardian September 24.