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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.

The Vanishing Two-State Solution

3 January 2011

The Vanishing Two-State Solution

By Gwynne Dyer

What does it mean when the United States, Britain, France and Spain upgrade the diplomatic status of the Palestinian delegations in their capitals, as they all did in the past year? When the number of countries recognising Palestinian statehood now exceeds one hundred?

Binyamin Ben Eliezer, former deputy prime minister of Israel and Minister of Industry, Trade and Labour in the current government, thinks he knows. “I wouldn’t be surprised if within one year the whole world supports a Palestinian state, including the United States,” he warned his cabinet colleagues recently.

Ben Eliezer doesn’t mean a hypothetical Palestinian state at some point in the distant future, after Israelis and Palestinians have miraculously agreed on borders, refugees, etc. He means a real Palestinian state, declared this year and promptly recognised by practically everybody.

It would have a seat at the United Nations and the right in principle to control its own borders, though in practice it would still be under Israeli military occupation. Exactly where its borders are, like a host of other issues, would have to be settled afterwards, by direct negotiation between Israel and Palestine.

At first glance, the immediate creation of an independent Palestinian state sounds like an idea whose time has come. The “peace process,” now seventeen years old, has clearly run out of road, goes the argument, so we might as well try something different. As a rationale for creating a fully-fledged Palestinian state now, that’s not very convincing – but it’s not really why people are talking about this.

Many Arabs and Americans support the idea because they hope that the creation of a legitimate and theoretically independent Palestinian state would give Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, enough credibility to keep the West Bank out of the hands of Hamas a while longer. (Hamas, which rejects any permanent peace with Israel, already controls the Gaza Strip, the other part of occupied Palestine.)

Some Israelis back the idea too, but not many, and none in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government. Netanyahu does everything he can to avoid direct peace talks, because any Israeli concessions would break the ruling coalition apart. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liebermann says that even an “intermediate” peace deal could take decades.

So despairing advocates of a peace settlement are now lining up behind the idea of declaring Palestinian statehood even in the United States, where former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk recently endorsed the idea. But it is, alas, an idea whose time has not only come but gone.

It has suddenly become popular because a lot of people are finally realising that the “two-state solution,” seen for the past quarter-century as the only possible foundation of a permanent Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, is dying if not already dead. The proposal to create a real Palestinian state, even without agreed borders, is meant as a last-minute rescue mission, but it probably comes too late.

Popular support in Israel for a land-for-peace deal collapsed years ago, but now the Palestinians are also losing faith in a two-state future. They are concluding that the peace talks have been a charade from the very start, because Israeli politicians, even the best-intentioned ones, will never find the political courage to stop the process of spreading Jewish settlements across the West Bank.

What is the point, Palestinian critics ask, of a truncated Palestinian state that is riddled with Jewish settlements and utterly dominated by Israel? What do Palestinians have to lose if they forget about a state for now and just wait until a higher Palestinian birth rate makes them a majority across all of former colonial Palestine (i.e. Israel and the occupied territories)?

They would have to live through another ten or fifteen years of military occupation and occasional Israeli punishment campaigns like the 2008 operation in Gaza. They would have to accept that there will never be an exclusively Palestinian state. But once they became the majority, they would launch a non-violent civil rights movement demanding one person, one vote in all the lands between the Jordan and the sea.

That demand – One Big State with equal rights for all – is what wise Israelis fear most, because it would put Israel in the same position as apartheid South Africa. All these people, both Arabs and Jews, live on lands that are under your permanent control, the rest of the world would say. Why won’t you let the Arabs in Gaza and the West Bank vote? Israel would survive, but it would become a pariah.

That is why Netanyahu has suddenly demanded that the Palestinians recognise Israel as a specifically JEWISH state: if they agreed to that, they could never credibly demand One Big State. It is also why various non-Israelis have begun to advocate the early creation of a Palestinian state: they are hoping to keep the two-state solution alive. But it is already on life support, and the oxygen is running out.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“Ben…Palestine”)