What is at stake in Barack Obama's vehement refusal to recognise Palestine as a mini-state with a disfigured geography and no sovereignty, and his urging the world community not to recognise it while threatening the Palestinians with retribution? What is the relationship between Obama's refusal to recognise Palestine and his insistence on recognising Israel's right to be a "Jewish state" and his demand that the Palestinians and Arab countries follow suit?
It is important to stress at the outset that whether the UN grants the Palestinian Authority (PA) the government of a state under occupation and observer status as a state or refuses to do so, either outcome will be in the interest of Israel. For the only game in town has always been Israel's interests, and it is clear that whatever strategy garners international support, with or without US and Israeli approval, must guarantee Israeli interests a priori. The UN vote is a case in point.
Let us consider the two possible outcomes of the vote and how they will advance Israeli interests:
The ongoing Arab uprisings have raised Palestinian expectations about the necessity of ending the occupation and have challenged the modus vivendi the PA has with Israel. Furthermore, with the increase in Palestinian grass-roots activism to resist the Israeli occupation, the PA has decided to shift the Palestinian struggle from popular mobilisation it will not be able to control, and which it fears could topple it, to the international legal arena. The PA hopes that this shift from the popular to the juridical will demobilise Palestinian political energies and displace them onto an arena that is less threatening to the survival of the PA itself.
The PA feels abandoned by the US which assigned it the role of collaborator with the Israeli occupation, and feels frozen in a "peace process" that does not seek an end goal. PA politicians opted for the UN vote to force the hand of the Americans and the Israelis, in the hope that a positive vote will grant the PA more political power and leverage to maximise its domination of the West Bank (but not East Jerusalem or Gaza, which neither Israel nor Hamas respectively are willing to concede to the PA). Were the UN to grant the PA its wish and admit it as a member state with observer status, then, the PA argues, it would be able to force Israel in international fora to cease its violations of the UN charter, the Geneva Conventions, and numerous international agreements. The PA could then challenge Israel internationally using legal instruments only available to member states to force it to grant it "independence". What worries the Israelis most is that, were Palestine to become a member state, it would be able to legally challenge Israel.
This presumed addition of power the Palestinians will gain to bring Israel to justice will actually be carried out at enormous cost to the Palestinian people. If the UN votes for the PA statehood status, this would have several immediate implications:This logic is faulty, though, because the Palestinians have not historically lacked legal instruments to challenge Israel. On the contrary, international instruments have been activated against Israel since 1948 by the UN's numerous resolutions in the General Assembly as well as in the Security Council, not to mention the more recent use of the International Court of Justice in the case of the Apartheid Wall. The problem has never been the Palestinians' ability or inability to marshal international law or legal instruments to their side. Instead, the problem is that the US blocks international law's jurisdiction from being applied to Israel through its veto power. The US uses threats and protective measures to shield the recalcitrant pariah state from being brought to justice. It has already used its veto power in the UN Security Council 41 times in defense of Israel and against Palestinian rights. How this would change if the PA became a UN member state with observer status is not clear.
True, the PA could bring more international legal pressure and sanctions to bear on Israel. It could have international bodies adjudicate Israel's violations of the rights of the Palestinian state. The PA could even make the international mobility of Israeli politicians more perilous as "war criminals". This would render Israel's international relations more difficult, but how would this ultimately weaken an Israel that the US would shield completely from such effects as it has always done?
Implications of the UN vote
(1) The PLO will cease to represent the Palestinian people at the UN, and the PA will replace it as their presumed state.
(2) The PLO, which represents all Palestinians (about 12 million people in historic Palestine and in the diaspora), and was recognised as their "sole" representative at the UN in 1974, will be truncated to the PA, which represents only West Bank Palestinians (about 2 million people). Incidentally this was the vision presented by the infamous "Geneva Accords" that went nowhere.
(3) It will politically weaken Palestinian refugees' right to return to their homes and be compensated, as stipulated in UN resolutions. The PA does not represent the refugees, even though it claims to represent their "hopes" of establishing a Palestinian state at their expense. Indeed, some international legal experts fear it could even abrogate the Palestinians' right of return altogether. It will also forfeit the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel who face institutional and legal racism in the Israeli state, as it presents them with a fait accompli of the existence of a Palestinian state (its phantasmatic nature notwithstanding). This will only give credence to Israeli claims that the Jews have a state and the Palestinians now have one too and if Palestinian citizens of Israel were unhappy, or even if they were happy, with their third-class status in Israel, they should move or can be forced to move to the Palestinian state at any rate.
(4) Israel could ostensibly come around soon after a UN vote in favour of Palestinian statehood and inform the PA that the territories it now controls (a small fraction of the West Bank) is all the territory Israel will concede and that this will be the territorial basis of the PA state. The Israelis do not tire of reminding the PA that the Palestinians will not have sovereignty, an army, control of their borders, control of their water resources, control over the number of refugees it could allow back, or even jurisdiction over Jewish colonial settlers. Indeed, the Israelis have already obtained UN assurances about their right to "defend" themselves and to preserve their security with whatever means they think are necessary to achieve these goals. In short, the PA will have the exact same Bantustan state that Israel and the US have been promising to grant it for two decades!
(5) The US and Israel could also, through their many allies, inject a language of "compromise" in the projected UN recognition of the PA state, stipulating that such a state must exist peacefully side by side with the "Jewish State" of Israel. This would in turn exact a precious UN recognition of Israel's "right" to be a Jewish state, which the UN and the international community, the US excepted, have refused to recognize thus far. This will directly link the UN recognition of a phantasmatic non-existent Palestinian state to UN recognition of an actually existing state of Israel that discriminates legally and institutionally against non-Jews as a "Jewish state".
(6) The US and Israel will insist after a positive vote that, while the PA is right to make certain political demands as a member state, it would have to abrogate its recent reconciliation agreement with Hamas. Additionally, sanctions could befall the PA state itself for associating with Hamas, which the US and Israel consider a terrorist group. The US Congress has already threatened to punish the PA and will not hesitate to urge the Obama administration to add Palestine to its list of "State Sponsors of Terrorism" along with Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria.
All of these six outcomes will advance Israeli interests immeasurably, while the only inconvenience to Israel would be the ability of the PA to demand that international law and legal jurisdiction be applied to Israel so as to exact more concessions from that country. However, at every turn the US will block and will shield Israel from its effects. In short, Israeli interests will be maximised at the cost of some serious but not detrimental inconvenience.
The second possible outcome, a US veto, and/or the ability of the US to pressure and twist the arms of tens of countries around the world to reject the bid of the PA in the General Assembly, resulting in failure to recognise PA statehood, will also be to the benefit of Israel. The unending "peace process" will continue with more stringent conditions and an angry US, upset at the PA challenge, will go back to exactly where the PA is today, if not to a weaker position. President Obama and future US administrations will continue to push for PA and Arab recognition of Israel as a "Jewish state" that has the right to discriminate by law against non-Jews in exchange for an ever-deferred recognition of a Palestinian Bantustan as an "economically viable" Palestinian state - a place where Palestinian neoliberal businessmen can make profits off international aid and investment.
Either outcome will keep the Palestinian people colonised, discriminated against, oppressed, and exiled. This entire brouhaha over the UN vote is ultimately about which of the two scenarios is better for Israeli interests. The Palestinian people and their interests are not even part of this equation.
The question on the table before the UN, then, is not whether the UN should recognise the right of the Palestinian people to a state in accordance with the 1947 UN Partition Plan, which would grant them 45 per cent of historic Palestine, nor of a Palestinian state within the June 5, 1967 borders along the Green Line, which would grant them 22 per cent of historic Palestine. A UN recognition ultimately means the negation of the rights of the majority of the Palestinian people in Israel, in the diaspora, in East Jerusalem, and even in Gaza, and the recognition of the rights of some West Bank Palestinians to a Bantustan on a fraction of West Bank territory amounting to less than 10 per cent of historic Palestine. Israel will be celebrating either outcome.
Joseph Massad is Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University in New York.