Tag Archives: United Nation

Invisible Horizons of a Just Palestine/Israel Future

4 Nov

I spent last week at the United Nations, meeting with ambassadors of countries in the Middle East and presenting my final report to the Third Committee of the General Assembly as my term as Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine comes to an end. My report emphasized issues relating to corporate responsibility of those companies and banks that are engaged in business relationships with the settlements. Such an emphasis seemed to strike a responsive note with many delegations as a tangible way of expressing displeasure with Israel’s continuing defiance of its international law obligations, especially in relation to the unlawful settlements being provocatively expanded in the West Bank and East Jerusalem at the very moment that the resumption of direct negotiations between the Palestine Authority and the Government of Israel is being heralded as a promising development.

There are two reasons why the corporate responsibility issue seems to be an important tactic of consciousness raising and norm implementation at this stage: (1) it is a start down the slippery slope of enforcement after decades of UN initiatives confined to seemingly futile rhetorical affirmations of Israeli obligations under international law, accompanied by the hope that an enforcement momentum with UN backing is underway; (2) it is an expression of tacit support for the growing global movement of solidarity with the struggle of the Palestinian people for a just and sustainable peace agreement, and specifically, it reinforces the claims of the robust BDS Campaign that has itself scored several notable victories in recent months.

My intention in this post is to put aside these issues and report upon my sense of the diplomatic mood at the UN in relation to the future of Israel/Palestine relations. There is a sharp disconnect between the public profession of support for the resumed peace negotiations as a positive development with a privately acknowledged skepticism as to what to expect. In this regard, there is a widespread realization that conditions are not ripe for productive diplomacy for the following reasons: the apparent refusal of Israel’s political leadership to endorse a political outcome that is capable of satisfying even minimal Palestinian aspirations; the settlement phenomenon as dooming any viable form of a ‘two-state’ solution; the lack of Palestinian unity as between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas undermining its representational and legitimacy status.

The most serious concern on the Palestinian side is whether protecting the interests and rights of the totality of the Palestinian people in a peace process can be achieved within the present diplomatic framework. We need to be constantly reminded that ‘the Palestinian people’ cannot be confined to those Palestinian living under Israeli occupation: refugees in neighboring countries; refugees confined within occupied Palestine, but demanding a right of return to their residence at the time of dispossession; the Palestinian minority living in Israel; and 4-5 million Palestinians who constitute the Palestinian diaspora and its underlying reality of enforced exile.

It was also clear that the Palestinian Authority is confronted by a severe dilemma: either to accept the inadequate proposals put forward by Israel and the United States or reject these proposals and be blamed once again by Tel Aviv and Washington for rejecting a peace offer. Only some Israeli anxiety that the Palestinians might actually accept the U.S. proposals might induce Israel to refuse, on its side, to accept what Washington proposes, and spare the Palestinians the embarrassment posed by the dilemma of swallowing or spitting. That is, Israel when forced to show its hand may actually be unwilling to allow any solution to the conflict based on Palestinian self-determination, even if heavily weighted in Israel’s facvor. In effect, within the diplomatic setting there strong doubts exist as to whether the present Israeli leadership would accept even a Palestinian statelet even if it were endowed with only nominal sovereignty. In effect, from a Palestinian perspective it seems inconceivable that anything positive could emerge from the present direct negotiations, and it is widely appreciated that the PA agreed take part only after being subjected to severe pressure from the White House and Secretary Kerry. In this sense, the best that Ramallah can hope for is damage control.

There were three attitudes present among the more thoughtful diplomats at the UN who have been dealing with the Palestinian situation for years, if not decades: the first attitude was to believe somehow that ‘miracles’ happen in politics, and that a two state solution was still possible; usually this outlook avoided the home of the devil, that is the place where details reside, and if pressed could not offer a scenario that explained how the settlements could be shrunk sufficiently to enable a genuine two-state solution to emerge from the current round of talks; the second attitude again opted to support the resumption of the direct talks because it was ‘doing something,’ which seemed preferable to ‘doing nothing,’ bolstering this rather vapid view with the sentiment ‘at least they are doing something’; the third attitude, more privately and confidentially conveyed, fancies itself to be the voice of realism in world politics, which is contemptuous of the advocacy of rights and justice in relation to Palestine; this view has concluded that Israel has prevailed, it has won, and all that the Palestinians can do is to accommodate an adverse outcome, acknowledging defeat, and hope that the Israelis will not push their advantage toward a third cycle of dispossession (the first two being 1948, 1967) in the form of ‘population transfer’ so as to address their one remaining serious anxiety—the fertility gap leading to a feared tension between professing democracy and retaining the primary Zionist claim of being a Jewish state, the so-called ‘demographic bomb.’

As I reject all three of these postures, I will not leave my position as Special Rapporteur with a sense that inter-governmental diplomacy and its imaginative horizons have much to offer the Palestinian people even by way of understanding evolving trends in the conflict, much less realizing their rights, above all, the right of self-determination. At the same time, despite this, I have increased my belief that the UN has a crucial role to play in relation to a positive future for the Palestinian people—reinforcing the legitimacy of seeking a rights based solution rather than settling for a power based outcome that is called peace in an elaborate international ceremony of deception, in all likelihood on the lawn of the White House. In this period the UN has been playing an important part in legitimating Palestinian grievances by continuously referencing international law, human rights, and international morality.

The Israelis (and officialdom in the United States) indicate their awareness of this UN role by repeatedly stressing their unconditional opposition to what is labeled to be ‘the delegitimation project,’ which is a subtle propagandistic shift from the actual demand to uphold Palestinian rights to the misleading and diversionary claim that Israel’s critics are trying to challenge Israel’s right to exist as a state sovereign state. To be sure, the Palestinians are waging, with success a Legitimacy War against Israel for control of the legal and moral high ground, but they are not at this stage questioning Israeli statehood, but only its refusal to respect international law as it relates to the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people.

Let us acknowledge a double reality. The UN is a geopolitical actor that is behaviorally manipulated by money and hard power on many fundamental issues, including Palestine/Israel; this stark acknowledgement severely restricts the effectiveness of the UN with regard to questions of justice. Fortunately, this is not the whole story. The UN is also a normative actor that articulates the grievances of peoples and governments, influences public discourse with respect to the global policy agenda, and has great and distinctive symbolic leverage in establishing the legitimacy of claims. In other words, the UN can say what is right, without being necessarily able to do what is right. This distinction summarizes the narratives of articulating the Palestinian claims and the justice of the Palestinian struggle without being able to overcome behavioral obstacles in the geopolitical domain that block their fulfillment.

What such a gap also emphasizes is that the political climate is not yet right for constructive inter-governmental negotiations, which would require both Israel and the United States to recalculate their priorities and to contemplate alternative future scenarios in a manner that is far more congruent with upholding the panoply of Palestinian rights. Such shifts in the political climate are underway, and are not just a matter of changing public opinion, but also mobilizing popular regional and global support for nonviolent tactics of opposition and resistance to the evolving status quo. The Arab Spring of 2011 initially raised expectations that such a mobilization would surge, but counter-revolutionary developments, political unrest, and economic panic have temporarily, at least, dampened such prospects, and have lowered the profile of the Palestinian struggle.

Despite such adverse developments in the Middle East from a Palestinian perspective, it remains possible to launch within the UN a broad campaign to promote corporate responsibility in relation to the settlements, which could gradually be extended to other unlawful Israeli activities (e.g. separation wall, blockade of Gaza, prison and arrest abuses, house demolitions). Such a course of action links efforts within the UN to implement international law with activism that is already well established within global civil society, being guided by Palestinian architects of 21st century nonviolent resistance. In effect, two disillusionments (armed struggle and international diplomacy) are coupled with a revised post-Oslo strategy giving the Palestinian struggle a new identity (nonviolent resistance, global solidarity campaign, and legitimacy warfare) with an increasing emancipatory potential.

Such an affirmation is the inverse of the ultra realist view mentioned above that the struggle is essentially over, and all that is left is for the Palestinians to admit defeat and for the Israelis to dictate the terms of ‘the peace treaty.’ While admitting that such a visionary worldview may be based on wishful thinking, it is also appropriate to point out that most political conflicts since the end of World War II have reflected the outcome of legitimacy wars more than the balance of hard power. Military superiority and geopolitical leverage were consistently frustrated during the era of colonial wars in the 1960s and 1970s. In this regard, it should be understood that the settler colonial enterprise being pursued by Israel is on the wrong side of history, and so contrary to appearances, there is reason to be hopeful about the Palestinian future and historical grounds not succumb to the dreary imaginings of those who claim the mantle of realism.

UNESCO Membership and Palestinian Self-Determination

3 Nov

 It may not ease the daily pain of occupation and blockade or the endless anguish of refugee status and exile or the continual humiliations of discrimination and second class citizenship, but the admission of Palestine to membership in UNESCO is for so many reasons a step forward in the long march of the Palestinian people toward the dignity of sunlight! This notable event in Paris illuminates one path that leads to self-determination, but also brings into the open some of the most formidable obstacles that must be cleared away if further progress is to be made.


The simple arithmetic of the UNESCO vote, 107 in favor, 14 opposed, 52 abstentions, and 21 absent fails to tell the story of how one sidedness of the vote. Toting up the for and against votes obscures the wicked arm twisting, otherwise known as geopolitics, that induced such marginal political entities as Samoa, Solomon Islands, Palau, and Vanuatu to stand against the weight of global opinion and international morality by making a meaningless gesture of opposition to the Palestinian application for admission as member to UNESCO. This is not meant as an insult to such small states, but is intended to lament their vulnerability to powerful American pressures hoping to distort the perception of world public opinion by making the admission issue seem more contested than it is.


Such a distortion makes a minor mockery of the prevailing pretension that governments are able to offer adequate representation to the peoples of the world. It also illustrates the degree to which formal political independence may obscure a condition of de facto dependence as well as makes plain that voting patterns within the United Nations System should never be confused with aspirations to establish at some future time a functioning global democracy in substance as well as procedure. As an aside, geopolitical maneuvers consistently compromise the electoral process within the UN System, especially in the Security Council, and to a lesser extent, in the General Assembly and other UN institutional arenas. This actuality of the UN as a political actor demonstrates the urgency and desirability of establishing a global peoples parliament that would at least provide a second voice whenever a UN policy debate touches on issues of human concern.


What may be the most impressive aspect of the UNESCO vote is that despite a vigorous U.S. diplomacy of threat and intimidation, the Palestinian application for membership easily carried the day. There was enough adherence to principle by enough states to provide the necessary 2/3rds vote even in the face of this craven American diplomatic effort to please Israel, an effort reinforced by punitive action in the form of refusing further financial support for UNESCO, which amounts to some $60 million for the current year, and in the future, 22% of the organization’s annual budget of $643 million in 2010-11 (which is projected as $653 million for 2011-12). Actually this withholding of funds is an American policy embedded in ambiguous legislation that derives from the early 1990s, and so for once a preposterously the pro-Israeli action cannot be blamed on the present Congress, although it seems obvious that Congress would have taken the same steps or worse if given the chance. The leaders of both parties have made no secret of their desire to make the most of this new opportunity to draw fresh UN blood. Indeed rabid pro-Israel members of Congress are already showboating their readiness to do far more  than the law requires so as to manifest the extreme character of their devotion to Israel.  This unseemly punishment of UNESCO (and indirectly, the peoples of the world) for taking a principled stand expresses a more sinister attitude than merely the pique of being a poor loser. The American defunding move, taken without even a few words of regret, amounts to a totally irresponsible willingness to damage the indispensable work of cultural and societal cooperation on international levels just to make the childish point that there will be a price tag attached whenever the wishes of Israel suffer a setback at the UN, with the United States ready always to serve as the dutiful enforcement agent.


This sorry train of events gives governments of other states an excellent opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to human wellbeing and greater independence in global policy arenas by quickly acting to restore confidence in the UN. One way to do this is to overcome this unanticipated UNESCO budget deficit with a series of voluntary contributions to the UNESCO budget. What would deliver an instructive message to Washington and Tel Aviv would be a special funding campaign on behalf of UNESCO that generated more money than is being withheld. It seems an appropriate time to demonstrate once and for all that such strong arm fiscal tactics are no longer acceptable and often backfire in the post-colonial world. Such an outcome would also confirm that the geopolitical tectonic plates of world order have shifted in such a way as to give increasing prominence to such countries as China, India, Russia, Brazil, and South Africa all of whom voted to admit Palestine to UNESCO. At least for the moment in this limited setting we might get a glimpse of a genuine ‘new world order’! The Security Council has proved unable and unwilling so far to change its two-tier structure to accommodate these shifts in the geopolitical landscape, but these countries still kept on the sidelines of UN activities can reinvent world politics by becoming more active and autonomous players on the global stage. It is not necessary to wait any longer for France and Britain to read the tea leaves of their decline accurately enough to acknowledge that their role on the global stage has permanently diminished, and if these governments want an effective UN it is past time for them to step aside and let the rising non-West states run the show for a while, starting with giving up their claim to permanent seats at the UNSC. Admittedly, I am indulging some wishful thinking. I have no illusion that these ex-colonial powers will act responsibly. International history instructs us that most states would rather see world order collapse than to defuse a governance crisis by giving up entrenched, yet outmoded, privileges.


Perhaps, more enduring than the UNESCO vote itself is the reinforced image of the wildly inappropriate role given to the United States to act as intermediary and peacemaker in seeking to resolve the underlying conflict and ensure the realization of Palestinian rights that have been so cruelly denied for more than six decades. Observers as diverse as Michel Rocard, the former Socialist Party Prime Minister of France, and Mouin Rabbani, a widely respected Palestinian analyst of the conflict, each reach a common conclusion that this discordant American campaign to thwart an elemental Palestinian quest for legal recognition and political participation, establishes beyond all reasonable doubt, although such a reality should long have been apparent to even the most casual serious observer of the conflict, that the time has come to remove the United States from its presiding role with respect to the resolution of this conflict. It has always verged on the absurd to expect justice, or even fairness, to flow from a diplomatic framework in which the avowed and extremely partisan ally of the dominant party puts itself forward as ‘the honest broker’ in negotiations in a setting where the weaker side is subject to military rule, exile, and the continuous violation of its basic rights. To have given credibility to this tripartite charade for so many years is itself a commentary on the weakness of the Palestinian position, and the importance at this stage that Palestinian representative insist henceforth on a balanced international framework as a precondition for any future negotiations. Without such balance there is not the slightest prospect of producing a sustainable and just peace through diplomacy. Regrettably the PLO and the Palestinian Authority have yet to repudiate the Oslo era of phony peace negotiations, and astonishingly seem even now to be ready to resume talks if only Israel announces a temporary and partial freeze on settlement expansion. It is disappointing that the Palestinian Authority/PLO still is willing to endow this negotiating process with potential credibilit.

 Yet to find a new framework does not mean following the incredibly Orientalist prescription proposed by Rocard: “The Americans have lost their moral right to leadership in resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. It is time for Europe to step into the fray.”  As if Europe had recently demonstrated its capacity for rendering justice because it carried out the NATO intervention in Libya! As if the colonial heritage had been suddenly rebranded as a positive credential! As if the Americans ever had a ‘moral right’ to resolve this conflict that was only now lost in the UNESCO voting chamber! It is not clear how a new diplomacy for the conflict that is finally responsive to the situation of the parties, the region, and the world should be structured, but it must reflect at the very least the new realities of an emergent multipolarity skewed toward the non-West. To be provocative for once, maybe Turkey, Brazil, Egypt, and India should now constitute themselves as a more legitimate quartet than that horribly discredited quartet composed of the United States, the EU, Russia, and the UN, and assisted by its Special Envoy, the talented Mr. Blair.


Returning to the UNESCO controversy, it is worth noting the words of denunciation used by Victoria Nuland, the designated State Department spokesperson. She described the vote as “regrettable, premature” contending that it “undermines our shared goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.” Even Orwell might be dazed by such an archly diversionary formulation. Why we may ask was the vote regrettable and premature, and not the reverse: welcome and overdue? After all to work for the preservation of religious and other world heritage sites within the halls of UNESCO or to promote safe sanitation and clean drinking water for the poorest countries is hardly subversive of global stability by any sane reckoning. After enduring occupation for more than 44 years, it qualifies as comedic to insist that Palestine must not yet come in from the cold because such an entry would be ‘premature.’ And how can it be claimed that Palestine participation within the UN System ‘undermines’ the ‘shared goal’ of regional peace in the Middle East? The only answer that makes any sense of the American position is say that whatever Israel says is so is so, and the United States will act accordingly, that is, do whatever Israel wants it to do in the global arena. Such kneejerk geopolitics is not only contrary to elementary considerations of law and justice, it is also monumentally irrational and self-defeating from the perspective of the national wellbeing of the United States and future peace in the region and beyond. It also sets a horrible precedent by the absence of any ‘decent respect for the opinions of mankind.’


What in the end may be most troubling about this incident is the degree that it confirms a growing impression that both the United States and Israel have lost the capacity to serve their own security interests and rationally promote the wellbeing of their own people. This is serious enough with respect to the damage done to their societies by such maladroit behavior, but recognizing that these two military heavyweights who both possess arsenals of nuclear weaponry are well on their way to becoming rogue states is frightening to contemplate. These are two of the few governments in the current world that continue to rest their future security almost exclusively on an outmoded reliance on hard power investments in military capabilities and accompanying aggressive ideas about the effectiveness of military solutions. The implications of this approach are potentially catastrophic for the region and the world. When Israel alienates Turkey, its only surviving friend in the Middle East, and then refuses to take the minimal steps to heal the wounds caused by its recklessly violent behavior, one has to conclude that the Israeli sense of reality has fallen on hard times! And when Israel pushes the United States to lose this much social capital on the global stage by standing up for its defiance of international law as in relation to rejecting the recommendations of the Goldstone Report or refusing to censure the expansion of its unlawful settlements or the collective punishment of Gaza, there is no longer much doubt that Israeli foreign policy is driven by domestic extremism that then successfully solicits Washington for ill-advised implementation. And now, this furious beating of war drums in relation to Iran provides tangible confirmation that these severe indictments of American and Israeli behavior need to be taken seriously before it is too late!  


The situation in the United States is parallel. Many excuse, or at least explain, America’s unconditionally irrational support for Israel as produced by the fearsome leverage exerted by AIPAC over electoral politics in the country as associated with the political activities of the Congress and rationalized by conservative think tanks. But what this explanation says is that the United States Government, like Israel, has also lost the capacity to pursue a sensible foreign policy in a crucial region of the world that reflects its own national interests, much less provide leadership based on a wider commitment to a stable and just Middle East. The Arab Spring offered the United States a second chance so to speak to overcome its long embrace of vicious autocratic rule in the region, but this opportunity is being senselessly squandered on the altar of subservience to the vindictive whims, expansionist visions, and paranoid fears of the Netanyahu/Lieberman governing coalition in Israel.


Welcoming Palestine to UNESCO is a day of celebration and vindication for the Palestinian people, and a political victory for PA/PLO leadership, but it is also a day when all of us should reflect upon the wider Palestinian tragedy and struggle, and encourage further steps forward, including membership in such other components of the international system as the World Health Organization, the International Criminal Court, UNICEF and the International Court of Justice. If the U.S. Government were to continue its defunding tactic as Palestine gained admission after admission, its influence and reputation in the region and the global stage would certainly take a nosedive. Yet the United States is likely to be rescued not by intelligently backing off, but by the degree to which the PA/PLO seems ready to settle for UNESCO, and save other initiatives for some future season, apparently unwilling or unable to cope with further defunding as complemented by Israel’s withholding from Ramallah tax revenues needed to pay the salaries of its West Bank bureaucracy. 


UNESCO has given a momentary respite to those who were completely disillusioned by what to expect from the UN or the system of states when it comes to Palestinian aspirations (remember all those unimplemented resolutions passed by overwhelming majorities in the General Assembly and then never acted upon), and instead put their hope and efforts into the initiatives of global civil society, especially the growing BDS campaign and efforts to break open the Gaza blockade by continuing to send ships carrying humanitarian goods to the Gazans. Now is certainly not the time to shift attention away from such grassroots initiatives, but it does suggest that there are many symbolic battlefields in the ongoing legitimacy war being waged for Palestinian self-determination, and several of the more promising opportunities are situated within the network of institutions comprising the United Nations. Of course, becoming a member of UNESCO is the beginning, not the end, of making use of these institutional affiliations to advance the struggle of Palestine to realize the rights of all of its people, those under occupation, those in refugee camps in neighboring countries, and those in the Palestinian diaspora. But it is likely to be also the temporary end, given PA/PLO timidity and the financial blackmail to which it is being subjected.