Binyamin Netanyahu, “Bibi” to both his friends and his ever-growing list of enemies, is running for a fourth term as the prime minister of Israel. He called the election, two years early, because the leaders of two of the parties in his coalition government had become too openly hostile to his policies. So he is rolling the dice again in the hope of being able to form some different coalition.
That’s what he always does. His coalitions draw mainly on the centre-right and, increasingly, the far right, partly because that is where he stands personally on “security” issues and partly because Israel opinion in general has been drifting steadily to the right. But beyond that, he has no fixed policy. His primary goal is to hold his coalitions together and stay in power.
Netanyahu is hardly unique in this. Professional politicians anywhere tend to divide into two types, the “conviction politicians” and the players, with the majority usually in the latter category. He is a tremendously good player of the game, but it has a paralysing effect on Israeli politics.
Since he cannot afford to come down in favour of either a real “two-state” solution that allows for an independent Palestine or a single Israeli-ruled state that permanently controls all or most of the occupied Palestinian territories, Israel never gets to choose between the two. Until, perhaps, now.
Netanyahu’s excuse for refusing to choose has usually been the lack of a valid Palestinian negotiating partner, and there is certainly some basis for that. Mahmoud Abbas, the “President” of the Palestinian Authority, has not faced an election, even within his own Fatah party, for ten years. Moreover, Abbas has no control over the 40 percent of the Palestinian population who live under Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip.
But it is more an excuse than a reason. Genuine negotiations envisaging a Israeli withdrawal from most or all of the West Bank and a real Palestinian state, even a demilitarised one, would destroy any coalition Netanyahu has ever built. Going flat-out with the extreme right-wing project for a “one-state” solution incorporating the whole West Bank but denying Palestinians the vote would do the same. Result: permanent paralysis.
Indeed, Netanyahu has even encouraged Israelis to believe that this peculiar status quo can be a lasting substitute for a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is a ridiculous proposition, but it clearly has appeal for Israelis who would like to believe that they can have security without the pain of territorial compromise.
Meanwhile, however, the outside world has been losing patience. Abbas has been pushing for a November, 2016 United Nations deadline to end the Israeli occupation unless two-state negotiations have succeeded by then. And last week the European Parliament voted to recognise Palestine statehood “in principle” as part of the two-state solution, with Jerusalem as the capital of both states.
The EU resolution also said that Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are illegal under international law – as indeed they are, but it has not been normal for Israel’s allies and supporters to say so explicitly. (The European Union has granted Israel trading privileges so extensive that it is practically a member economically.) The vote was 498 in favour and only 88 against, and there was a standing ovation in the chamber afterwards.
The rot is spreading rapidly. Four national Western European parliaments – Ireland, the United Kingdom, France and Spain – have recently endorsed resolutions in favour of Palestinian statehood, and Sweden has actually recognised Palestine as a state. Other European Union members are on the brink of doing so, and even Israel’s final line of diplomatic defence, an American veto, is no longer guaranteed.
The United States has used its veto on the UN Security Council to shield Israel from resolutions that criticise the country forty-one times in the past forty years. Indeed, it has used its veto for no other purpose since 1988. Israelis fully expect Barack Obama to use it a 42nd time to defeat Mahmoud Abbas’s appeal for a two-year deadline for an agreement on a two-state solution when it comes before the Security Council, most likely in January.
They are probably right, but Obama will be sorely tempted to let people think that he might not use the veto, and perhaps also to push the Security Council vote down towards the 17 March date of the Israeli election, in the hope of influencing Israeli voters to turn away from Netanyahu.
It’s quite common for Israeli voters to push back when they feel they are under foreign pressure to make concessions, so this could actually play out to Netanyahu’s advantage. A great deal can happen between now and 17 March, so one shouldn’t give too much weight to current polls. But at the moment, the numbers suggest that Netanyahu’s gamble on forming a new coalition may not succeed.
And that might open the way to one last attempt to make the two-state solution work.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“The EU…guaranteed”)
It’s a slow process, this business of getting recognised as an independent state, but the Palestinians are making progress. In September of last year, Mahmoud Abbas, the long-overdue-for-an-election president of the Palestinian National Authority, was given permission to sit in the “beige chair”, the one that is reserved for heads of state waiting to go to the podium and address the UN General Assembly.
And now, another Great Leap Forward. On Monday, the British Parliament voted by 274 to 12 to recognise Palestine as a state. It was a private member’s bill, however, and ministers in Prime Minister David Cameron’s cabinet were ordered to abstain. The bill cannot compel Cameron to actually recognise Palestine, a decision which the British Government will only take “at a moment of our choosing and when it can best help bring about peace.”
More hot air and empty symbolism, then, or so it would seem. But the parliamentary vote is better seen as a very large straw in the wind. After half a century when Israel could count on reflexive support from the United States, Canada and the big Western European countries no matter what it did, public opinion in the countries of the European Union is shifting.
Until recently, the only EU members that recognised the State of Palestine were ex-Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe that had done so when they were Communist-ruled. But early this month the newly elected Swedish government declared that it would recognise Palestine, and other parliamentary votes on the question are coming up in Ireland, Denmark, Finland and, most importantly, France.
They will probably all vote yes. As Matthew Gould, UK ambassador to Israel, said on Israeli radio after the vote in London: “I am concerned in the long run about the shift in public opinion in the UK and beyond towards Israel. Israel lost support after this summer’s conflict (in Gaza), and after the series of announcements on (expanding Israeli) settlements (in the West Bank). This parliamentary vote is a sign of the way the wind is blowing.”
Official Israel is busily pretending that this does not matter, but it does, in two ways. One is the diplomatic reality that soon nothing may stand between Palestine and full membership of the United Nations except a lone, naked US veto in the United Nations Security Council, which may have to be repeated on an annual basis.
That will be one consequence of the way the wind is blowing, but much graver for Israel is the reason why it is blowing in that direction: patience with Israeli Prime Minster Binyamin Netanyahu’s perpetual delaying tactics is close to exhausted in most Western electorates. Among the young it has already run out completely.
Most people in Israel believe that Netanyahu has absolutely no intention of allowing the emergence of a genuinely independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the one-fifth of colonial Palestine that was not already incorporated into Israel at the end of the 1948 war. Indeed, much of his electoral support comes from Israelis who trust him to prevent such an outcome.
Netanyahu can never state his purpose openly, of course, because that would alienate Israel’s supporters abroad, who generally believe that peace can only be achieved by the “two-state solution” that both sides signed up to 22 years ago in the Oslo Accords. Those supporters used to be willing to turn a blind eye to his actions so long as he gave lip-service to the Oslo goals – but that faith is now running on fumes in the British House of Commons.
Sir Richard Ottaway, the chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and a lifelong supporter of Israel, told the House: “Looking back over the past twenty years, I realise now Israel has been slowly drifting away from world public opinion. The annexation of the 950 acres of the West Bank just a few months ago has outraged me more than anything else in my political life. It has made me look a fool and that is something I deeply resent.”
The erosion of support for Israel has been slower in the United States, where open criticism of Israeli actions in the media is rare and Congress is still (in the crude phrase of Washington insiders) “Israeli-occupied territory.” But it is happening even there – and among the younger generation of Americans the decline has been very steep.
In a Gallup poll conducted last July, in the midst of the most recent Gaza war, more than half of Americans over the age of 50 said that Israel’s actions (which eventually killed over 2,000 Palestinians) were justified. Just a quarter of those between 18 and 29 years old agreed.
In both cases these generations will probably stick to their convictions all of their lives – but generational turnover will ensure that the opinions of the younger group ultimately prevail. It was presumably Israel’s actions and positions over the past ten years that shaped the opinions of the younger Americans. Another ten years like that, and even the United States may have a majority that wants to recognise Palestine.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 10. (“More…shifting”; and “Sir…resent”)
4 November 2011
The Palestinians’ New Weapon
By Gwynne Dyer
The Palestinians have finally come up with a strategy that may produce some results. But only by accident, so to speak.
They were fed up with nineteen years of “direct negotiations” with Israel that never made any progress towards a final peace settlement, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas badly needed some small victory to prop up his failing popularity. So he decided to seek international recognition of Palestine as a sovereign state.
He didn’t say that he was abandoning direct negotiations with Israel forever, but he insists that they will not resume until Israel stops building Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories – which will be shortly before Hell freezes over. In the meantime, he is trying to strengthen the extremely weak bargaining position of the Palestinians by seeking membership in the United Nations.
He knows very well that the Palestinians cannot get full membership in the United Nations, because the United States has promised to veto that. But membership in the various UN agencies like the World Bank and the World Health Organisation is not subject to a veto, and each organisation they join would move Palestine a tiny step closer to real statehood.
Their first target was the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). On 31 October (last Monday) they were granted full membership by a vote of 107 in favour, 14 against, and 52 abstaining.
The United States immediately cut off its huge contribution to UNESCO’s annual budget – 22 percent of the total – as a punishment for voting the wrong way. The UNESCO vote, said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, was “regrettable, premature, and undermines our shared goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”
Israel’s response was equally drastic. It announced that it was speeding up the construction of 2,000 new homes for Jewish settlers in the occupied territories. It has also cut off the transfer of tax revenues that it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority on goods passing through Israel: about $100 million a month, which provides half of the PA’s domestic revenue. Without it, the PA’s civil servants will go unpaid.
Painful measures for the Palestinians, but Israel is always building more homes for Jews in the West Bank, and it cuts off the flow of revenue to the Palestinians whenever it feels like it: this is the second time this year. Nothing new there. And Washington had no choice: it is obliged by a 1990 US law to cut funding to any organisation that recognises the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
But this law, which the Palestinians were barely aware of when they adopted their current strategy, presents them with an extraordinary opportunity. There are fourteen other UN specialised agencies, from the Food and Agriculture Organisation to the World Meteorological Organisation, most of them with similar membership requirements to UNESCO: a two-thirds majority vote of the existing members, and no veto.
If the Palestinians apply for membership in each of these organisations over the next year or so, they will probably get the same 88 percent majority when it comes to a vote on membership. None of the countries that defied the United States and voted Palestine into UNESCO is going to humiliate itself by changing its vote at other UN agencies. And each time, Washington will be forced by law to cease its contributions to that agency.
The United States would not actually lose its membership by stopping its financial support – at least not for a good long while – but it would lose all practical influence on these agencies, which do a great deal of the work of running the world. It would be a diplomatic disaster for Washington, and it would test America’s reflexive compliance with Israel’s agenda, perhaps to the breaking point.
This interesting possibility is only now getting the full attention of decision-makers in the United States, Israel and Palestine. It gives the Palestinians unprecedented leverage over the United States, but it is a tool that must be used with caution, for Washington cannot back down. The United States operates under the rule of law, and the Obama administration must enforce this archaic law unless and until Congress rescinds it.
The law, which prohibits the United States from paying funds to any UN agency that accepts the Palestinians as full members, was passed in 1990, before the Oslo Accords were signed and at a time when neither Israel nor the US even spoke to the Palestinian leadership. But Congress, which is often described by Washington insiders (though always off the record) as “Israeli-occupied territory,” will certainly not repeal it.
Using this new lever that has fallen into his hands, Mahmoud Abbas could actually drive the United States out of most international agencies if he wanted, but that is not in his interest. What he actually needs is some major pressure on Israel from Washington to stop building settlements and start negotiating seriously.
That cannot happen in an election year, so perhaps Abbas will wait until the end of next year and the outcome of the American presidential election. The US law will stay on the books, but if Barack Obama wins re-election in 2012, maybe then he will risk putting pressure on Israel rather than see the US driven into what amounts to diplomatic isolation. Or maybe he won’t.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 13. (“He didn’t…Nations”; and “The law…it”)
12 September 2011
Palestine: The Vatican Option
By Gwynne Dyer
“We will go to the United Nations (to request the recognition of Palestine as a state) and then we will return to talks,” said Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas early this month. But he is actually going to the UN because there are no peace talks, and there is little likelihood of them even if he doesn’t go. He has to give Palestinians some sign of progress, even if it is a purely symbolic UN recognition of a Palestinian state.
The Israelis have already lined up the United States to veto it. The US Congress has loyally threatened to cut all financial aid to the Palestinian Authority if the statehood project goes ahead. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has even warned that Israel might withdraw from the Oslo accords, the foundation of Middle Eastern peace talks for the past two decades.
The Israeli government is also warning that if Palestine is recognised as a state, then there will be a wave of violence against Jewish settlers in the occupied territories. It’s unclear why the Palestinians would be likelier to resort to violence if they were DENIED statehood than if they were granted it, but Netanyahu insists that terrible things will happen if the UN recognises a Palestinian state. Don’t worry. It won’t.
Mahmoud Abbas will address the General Assembly on the 23rd of this month, and then there will be a vote that he is certain to win. 120 UN members recognise Palestinian statehood already, and he can easily find the eight extra votes he needs. His problem is that only the Security Council can admit a state to full membership in the United Nations – and one of its five permanent, veto-wielding members is the United States.
The last time the United States openly defied Israel was in 1991, when President George H.W Bush forced Yitzak Shamir’s government to attend the Madrid conference that led to the Oslo accords and the “peace process”. But the senior Bush has always believed that he lost the 1992 election as a result, and Barack Obama has no intention of following his example.
The United States has already promised Netanyahu that it will prevent Palestinian statehood, so this whole proposition seems an exercise in futility. Palestine will not get a UN seat, the United States will become even more disliked in the Arab world because it vetoed Palestine’s request, and angry and frustrated Palestinians may turn to violence. Abbas is no fool, so he must have a better plan than that. What is it?
He knows that the “peace process” has been dead for years, and that there is nothing to lose by ignoring it. It is only kept on life support to save the United States and some European countries from having to admit that they will never try to force Israel to make territorial concessions.
Abbas also knows that there will be no domestic pressure on Netanyahu to change course. The average Israeli has stopped worrying much about security and “peace” since the Wall around the West Bank stopped most terrorist attacks. Besides, Netanyahu is politically in thrall to the Jewish settlers: his coalition government would collapse if he compromised on territorial issues.
Finally, Abbas knows that Palestinian popular support for the “two-state solution,” the essential goal of the past twenty years of peace talks, is fading rapidly. Yet he and the Palestine Liberation Organisation are indissolubly linked to that solution, so he must restore its credibility. There will be no UN seat for Palestine this year, but there’s a half-way house that could bring enough benefits to win him some time.
It’s known as the “Vatican option.” The Vatican City is an independent and universally recognised state, but it only has 800 citizens so it has never sought a seat in the General Assembly. However, it does participate in most UN special organisations as a “non-member observer state.”
Palestine could achieve that status this month. The General Assembly can upgrade its current status as a non-member “observer entity” to a non-member “observer state” with no Security Council involvement and no risk of veto. It probably will.
Becoming an “observer state” would confer real advantages on Palestine. It could then join international organisations like Unesco, the World Health Organisation, and Unicef. Most importantly, it could also bring complaints before the International Criminal Court (ICC), including allegations that Israel has committed war crimes.
Since Israel (like the United States) refuses to accept the authority of the ICC, that would have limited practical implications for Israelis, but international arrest warrants might be issued. That would greatly inconvenience Israeli diplomacy: the ICC is the toughest and most impartial international legal authority in the world, and its indictments have a real impact on global public opinion.
What about the US veto and its negative effects on America’s reputation in most parts of the world? Washington would certainly prefer Abbas not to launch this initiative, but it does have the option of handing the proposal for full Palestinian membership in the UN over to a committee of experts for examination. Properly conducted, that examination might last for years.
Much hot air will be expended over this initiative, but it will not cause a crisis.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 13. (“The last…example”; and “Since…opinion”)