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Recognising Palestine

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”)

Palestinians’ New Weapon

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”)

Palestine: The Vatican Option

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”)

Israel: When Mubarak Goes…

6 February 2011

 Israel: When Mubarak Goes…

 By Gwynne Dyer

 In his first public comment on the unfolding drama in Egypt, Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, worried aloud last week that the right analogy may be the Iranian revolution of 1979: “Our real fear is of a situation…which has already developed in several countries including Iran itself, repressive regimes of radical Islam.”

 The non-sectarian, non-party protesters in Egypt who have driven President Hosni Mubarak to the brink of resignation, suggests Netanyahu, may lose control of their revolution just as the Iranians lost theirs to the ayatollahs. The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist party that is particularly strong among the poor, might gain a dominant position in the new Egyptian government.

 The Muslim Brothers have always condemned the peace treaty that Egypt signed with Israel thirty-two years ago, so they serve as a sort of shorthand in Israeli politics for the nightmare scenario in which Egypt cancels the peace treaty. In fact, you don’t even need the Muslim Brotherhood to make the scenario credible: a majority of Egyptians dislike the treaty and would like to see it cancelled

 Cancellation of the peace treaty would not necessarily lead to war between Egypt and Israel. It’s not even likely to. It would certainly cause a huge rise in Israeli military spending, but the threat that a post-Mubarak regime would pose to Israel is more political than strictly military. As, indeed, is the threat from Iran.

 The Iranian regime has never attacked any other country, but it does support the Hizbollah organisation in southern Lebanon, whose militia fought the Israeli army to a standstill in 2006. The Hamas movement, a Palestinian party modelled on Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, could become equally formidable militarily with support from Cairo.

 Hamas already controls the Gaza Strip, which shares a border with Egypt. With Egyptian backing, it might also overthrow the Palestinian Authority that currently controls the West Bank, for that body has been discredited by its corruption and its long collaboration with Israel.

 Even without a war, therefore, an elected Egyptian government would greatly compound Israel’s security problems. Hamas could end up in control of all the occupied Palestinian territories, and Jordan would have great difficulty in preserving its own peace treaty with Israel. No wonder Binyamin Netanyahu is concerned.

 But Netanyahu’s own policy, which boils down to avoiding serious negotiations with the Palestinians and hanging onto the West Bank indefinitely, is not sustainable in the long run. Palestinians are already moving towards the view that no “two-state” solution is possible, and that the right strategy is to accept the unity of all of the former British mandate of Palestine.

 The Israeli army effectively unified all of that land in 1967 and has dominated the Palestinian-majority parts of it ever since. But the Palestinian birth-rate is considerably higher than the Jewish population growth rate, even though the latter benefits from massive immigration, so the day is not far off when Arabs will outnumber Jews within the old borders of mandatory Palestine, i.e. all the lands between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

 When that day arrives, say the proponents of the “one-state” solution, Palestinians need merely demand the vote throughout that territory, and Israel as we know it will be finished. It will become a civil rights issue in which Israel is cast as a new apartheid regime, and support for it will drain away even in the United States. Significantly, this is already the implicit strategy of Hamas.

 If a new Egyptian government adopts this policy, Israel will not just have a bigger security problem. It will face an existential problem, albeit one that will only play out over several decades. What can Netanyahu (or any Israeli leader) do to avoid this outcome?

 There is going to be a new Egyptian government very soon. It will probably not be dominated by the Muslim Brothers, at least in the early days, for they cannot claim credit for the revolution. So there may still be a window of opportunity in which an Israeli offer to allow a Palestinian state on all the land beyond the country’s pre-1967 borders could revive the “two-state” option.

 It is unlikely to remain open for long, however, and it is hard to see how the Israeli electorate could be persuaded to jump through it in time. Netanyahu, given the character of his governing coalition, certainly could not do it, and it’s not clear whether any other coalition of Israeli parties could either.

At a time when bold steps are called for, Israeli politics is effectively paralysed. But then, it has been effectively paralysed by the settlements issue for several decades already, and most of the time available for implementing a “two-state” solution has already been wasted.

 Given that the emergence of two legitimate and universally recognised states in former Palestine, the larger of which would be Jewish, should be Israel’s main security goal, it has been extraordinarily negligent of its own interests.

 And now it may be too late.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 15. (“Hamas…Israel”; and “Given…interests”)

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.