For years, even Israelis have known that Palestine is a state. And pretending it's not at the U.N. is misreading history.
In 1988, Abba Eban, perhaps the finest diplomat and one of the sharpest minds Israel has ever produced, got up before a distinguished crowd in London to give an address with the predictable and yet absurd title, "Prospects for Peace in the Middle East." Predictable not just in itself, but because Eban and other Israeli leaders had delivered countless such addresses in the 40 unpeaceful years since the country’s creation; absurd because his remarks, which concerned Palestine, came a year into the First Intifada.
But Eban, who served as Israel’s deputy prime minister, its foreign minister, and its ambassador to the United States, laid the case bare for his surprised listeners. He lamented "the paradox of the West Bank and Gaza as an area in which a man’s rights are defined not by how he behaves, but who he is." He said of the Israeli occupation, "The need to rule one-and-a-half million people of specific and recognized national particularity against their will weakens our economy, distorts our image, complicates our regional and international relations," and "prevents any prospect of peace." Weighing the Palestinian stone-throwers in the streets against Israel’s indisputable — no, laughable — military supremacy over its neighbors, he concluded, "We come up against the immense gap between the reality of our power and the psychology of our vulnerability."
"The immense gap between the reality of our power and the psychology of our vulnerability" — nicely put, and Israel’s existential dilemma crystallized. It’s a phrase worth bearing in mind this week as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Barack Obama, and even certain European leaders try to persuade Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to not seek full statehood at the United Nations.
But there’s another phrase in Eban’s remarks that demands as much attention. Note that he referred to Palestinians as a "people of specific and recognized national particularity" — as a nation, in other words, or at least a population deserving one. Eban, who died in 2002, saw his fears borne out. He outlived the First Intifada only to catch the start of the second one, by which time the Palestinians were well-armed enough to inflict real damage, and to watch the eclipse in Gaza of Yasir Arafat’s Fatah party by the more militant Islamist party Hamas. Still, his epigones in Israel and the United States refute him as a matter of course. Get into a discussion with even a well-informed Israeli or defender of Israeli policy on the prospect of Palestinian nationhood, and the outdated and circular line of argument that Palestinians never comprised a state, and thus do not require one now, presents itself inside of a minute. If that doesn’t work, they’ll tell you that, anyway, Hamas has made a Palestinian state untenable.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, for instance, justified his criticisms of what he says are Obama’s too weak efforts by saying, "America should not be ambivalent between the terrorist tactics of Hamas and the security tactics of the legitimate and free state of Israel." Whether Perry knows that Abbas has risked life and limb defying Hamas he didn’t mention.
The first argument, too, still finds voice in the government offices of West Jerusalem, but it’s not the one Netanyahu and his colleagues, including the prime minister’s critics, are marshaling now. No, they say that recognition of a Palestinian state would subvert the principle of direct negotiation that has been the ideal since the Oslo process; that it would indeed embolden Hamas or inspire Palestine to rash actions such as seeking redress in international courts; or that it would — the psychology of vulnerability again, enhanced by the Arab Spring and the new anti-Israel flare-ups in Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey — compromise Israeli security. Obama, who has spent months trying to head off the vote, purports to agree at least with the first point and has promised to veto any resolution that makes it to the Security Council. But his U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, was saying more than she knew when she asked, rhetorically, "What will change in the real world for the Palestinian people?"
What neither government mentions — but what Eban, who also served as head of the Israeli mission to the United Nations, knew — is that Palestine already is essentially a nation in the eyes of the international body. As set forth in a decades-long procession of decisions in not just the Palestine-obsessed General Assembly, but also the U.S.-dominated Security Council, the West Bank and Gaza possess the same rights of self-determination as any nation. Palestine — and it is known officially as "Palestine" at the U.N. — participates in General Assembly and Security Council debates and enjoys a permanent mission. Merely making this formal, as Abbas wants, would change little at Turtle Bay — and, if history is any indication, less on the ground.
It’s often said that Palestine defines the United Nations as much as any other issue. That’s incorrect. No other issue comes close. In his memoir A Life in Peace and War, U.N. war horse Brian Urquhart observes, "The Palestine problem has haunted the development of the United Nations ever since 1948" and "has twisted the organization’s image and fragmented its reputation and prestige." The United Nations’ first special committee was set up to deal with Palestine; its peacekeeping model was created there; its greatest son, Ralph Bunche, made his name there, and for his efforts was the first U.N. employee to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. The United Nations Resolutions on Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict compilation runs to five volumes (as of 1998).
No less, the United Nations defines Palestine. I spent March on assignment in the Gaza Strip, where the U.N. Relief and Works Agency is indispensable to life. Not only does it service the strip’s refugee camps, where hundreds of thousands still live, but it runs Gaza’s best schools, builds apartment blocks, and is the second-largest employer after the government.
The United Nations first resolved to create a state for Palestinians alongside Israel in 1947, in Resolution 181, the partition resolution, as it was known (before that, the League of Nations’ Mandate for Palestine, written in 1920, provided for Palestinian self-rule), but efforts in that direction since — and the U.N.’s concomitant rebukes of Israel — have served as nothing else has to belittle the institution in Israeli and American estimation. Some of the United States’ best politicians have fallen prey to this contemptuous attitude. (Former New York senator and U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Daniel Patrick Moynihan named his memoir about life at Turtle Bay A Dangerous Place.)
But that has not deterred the United Nations, one of the merits of whose founding charter is that it treats dispossessed peoples with much the same dignity it does established nations. Bearing that in mind, the General Assembly followed Resolution 181, in 1969, with Resolution 2535, which "Reaffirms the inalienable rights of the people of Palestine"; in 1970 with Resolution 2672, which states "that full respect for the inalienable rights of the people of Palestine is an indispensable element in the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East"; in 1973 with Resolution 3089, which "Expresses once more its grave concern that the people of Palestine has been prevented by Israel from enjoying its inalienable rights and from exercising its right to self-determination"; and most momentously in 1974, with Resolution 3236, which asserts the Palestinian people’s "right to national independence and sovereignty." There are many more besides, and that’s not to mention the 1978 Camp David summit, which called for the implementation of Palestinian self-rule, or the 1993 Oslo Accords, which created the Palestinian Authority with an eventual independent state in mind.
In 1974, the United Nations granted the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) observer status, and the next year the Security Council agreed that the organization could join its debates. In 1988, when Arafat declared Palestinian independence, a majority in the General Assembly recognized it. In 1998, the PLO was given the right to participate in all assembly debates and awarded a permanent mission. That same year, its official designation was changed to, simply, Palestine. As of the 66th session, which began on Monday, Sept. 19, Palestine can co-sponsor resolutions pertaining to the Middle East and itself, but it cannot vote.
Even Security Council Resolution 242, which Israel, Palestine, and the United States have all agreed at one time or another must be the basis of a two-state solution, can be interpreted as referring to the occupied territories, already, as a state. That is not sufficient reason to make the vague Resolution 242, written in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War, a centerpiece of negotiations. Discussing Resolution 242 in Years of Upheaval, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called it "the symbol of deadlock" and "more an expression of stalemate than a means of its resolution." It was partly for this reason that Kissinger decided to take control of the 1973 peace talks between Israel and Egypt, setting a precedent that afflicts the White House to this day. But Resolution 242 wasn’t the only problem. The Israeli government’s conviction, Kissinger admits, was that the United States "was best dealt with by extortion."
Now, all these measures have passed, and Palestine has inched closer to statehood, even while Israel has made a point of violating U.N. rules. Indeed, no country has been censured as many times by the Security Council (none come close). These aren’t the tepid rebukes of the assembly. Again and again the council has "condemned," "strongly deplored," and "declared invalid" not just Israeli actions and policies in the West Bank and Gaza, but its incursions into Syria, Lebanon, and Tunisia; its bombing of U.N.-run refugee camps and facilities; its use of such outlawed weapons as cluster bombs; its settlement-building; and its taking over of Jerusalem. All these condemnations passed with U.S. accession. (At the same time, the United States has used its veto power in the Security Council to protect Israel from remonstrance more times than on any other issue, in part as a favor and in part to prove, as Kissinger put it, that "road to peace runs through Washington" and not New York.)
Granted, Israel and the United Nations did not start off on the best footing. After lobbying world leaders for official statehood for years — just as Abbas is doing now — the Jewish Agency in Palestine’s original application for admission to the United Nations, submitted in December 1948, was turned down. The denial was understandable: Earlier that fall in Jerusalem, the U.N. mediator in Palestine, Folke Bernadotte, had been assassinated by the Israeli separatist group the Stern Gang — with a Tommy gun, at point-blank range. The Swede had been appointed to his dangerous post in part because he’d saved tens of thousands of Jews from Nazi Germany, apparently not qualification enough in the mind of Stern Gang leader Yitzhak Shamir. (Shamir, on the other hand, later became Israel’s prime minister.) The blood and rancor were the more futile and tragic because Israel’s leaders saw the inevitability of a Palestinian state. In a 1947 letter to Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, David Ben-Gurion, its first prime minister, wrote that they should be prepared for "enlightened compromise." Weizmann agreed, responding "the inexorable logic of facts will drive them towards partition."
For Israel’s part, it has never forgiven the General Assembly in particular for passing resolutions equating Zionism and racism, and the United Nations in general for twice electing to the secretary-generalship Kurt Waldheim, who, it would emerge after his tenure, had been one hell of a Nazi.
Mahmoud Abbas’s visit to the United Nations this week isn’t the first time a Palestinian leader has thrown Turtle Bay into an uproar. In 1974, Arafat came to address the General Assembly after yet another Middle East war and a rash of terrorist attacks and plane hijackings. Then, as now, Israel felt the Middle East closing in upon it. Arafat was met with thousands of protesters in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza and with a televised news conference that saw a Jewish Defense League heavy, a pistol sitting below the microphones before him, warn Arafat that he would not leave New York alive. The United States and Israel did what they could to cancel the invitation. But Arafat assumed the familiar green marble dais anyway.
And the result? No riots in Gaza, no murders, no ascendancy of the murderous PLO splinter group Black September — and no change in the lives of everyday Palestinians — though Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was so inspired he hatched a plan to go to Jerusalem to try to make peace. He did, and was received there with genuine warmth, even tears (as you can see in the excellent documentary Back Door Channels: The Price of Peace, out this week). The next year, 1978, Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed the Camp David Accords.
A decade later in 1988, at the end of his courageous speech in London, Abba Eban did not ask the United Nations to negotiate peace in a newly erupted Palestine. Instead, he called on the United States to do that. America had been largely absent from the game since Camp David, Eban regretted, and the results were dire — the intifada, for one, which lasted another three years, and Israel’s violently vulnerable reaction to it, which met with some of the worst international opprobrium the Jewish state had ever known. "It is not commonly expected or universally believed that 1989 must be the year of change," Eban said, but, still, he was hopeful that the impending president, George H.W. Bush, would return his country to the negotiating table.
Of course, Eban was mistaken. The year 1989 proved a momentous one for change and for liberation movements — and for peace. The year 2011 might well be remembered as another such historical moment. But it won’t be if Israel and Washington succumb to the psychology of vulnerability or to obeisance to the reality of their power — for one suspects that what really irks Obama is that Abbas is taking the initiative in a process Washington has come to feel it rightly owns. So, as they try to persuade delegates to vote against Palestinian statehood this week, Obama and Netanyahu might keep in mind the words not just of Eban, but of Shimon Peres, his spiritual successor in Israeli politics.
"The Palestinians became a people when they decided to do so," Peres wrote in his book The New Middle East, drawing an unmistakable parallel between Israel and Palestine. "Even if we agree that the rise of Palestinian nationalism was a reaction to Zionist activity, the fact remains that a Palestinian national identity now exists and plays a central role in the political arena, both regionally and worldwide. Just as we Jewish people did not ask the Palestinians for permission to become a state, neither do they need our permission to become a people."