Kick the UN out of the Middle East

The cynical bid for Palestinian statehood shows how ordinary Palestinians have been made spectators of history.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics World

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As Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas submitted his bid to the United Nations for recognition of a Palestinian state, receiving rapturous applause from global dignitaries, Palestine supporters rallied outside the UN headquarters in New York. Some even organised a Hudson River flotilla, decked out with banners reading ‘Abbas: stand up to the US’ and ‘UN: recognise Palestine’.

From the outset, the US was expected to veto Abbas’s bid, so it was widely seen as dead in the water. But even if the call for international recognition was heeded, it would be yet another defeat for the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, rather than a triumph.

What has really transpired from the events at the sixty-sixth session of the United Nations General Assembly is just how exhausted the Palestinian cause is. It has revealed just how far Palestinians have gone towards giving up the power to determine their own fate, instead handing it over to the adjudication of the UN. Achieving recognition from the ‘international community’ is not the same thing as achieving self-determination. Nor would it guarantee Palestinians achieving equal rights with their Israeli neighbours. Instead, Abbas’s bid represented an acceptance of the very processes which, from the outset, have disempowered both Palestinians and Israelis from setting the terms for a tolerable common future.

Indeed, it is worth recalling that one of the UN General Assembly’s first-ever resolutions was the 1947 partition plan to divide Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. Jerusalem would, the resolution suggested, be a special protectorate, administered by the UN. The ‘international community’ has always stood in the way of a common future for the two peoples inhabiting this part of the Middle East. The separation mentality was further entrenched through the Oslo Peace Accords in the early 1990s, which instituted the idea of dividing Jews and Arabs along the so-called Green Line, a border pencilled on a map by the late Israeli politician Moshe Dayan in 1948.

For many Palestinians who rallied on the streets of Ramallah, Hebron and elsewhere in the Palestinian Territories, Abbas’s speech was understandably an opportunity to show the world that they are not willing to live under occupation. Yet the UN bid was not the result of a popular struggle for sovereignty; rather it is an initiative that has come entirely from above. It was a managerial, top-down exercise, with Abbas and his colleagues willingly being used as symbols of powerful external forces desperate to flaunt their moral credentials.

At a time when the Palestinian cause has become a kind of ethical barometer for political elites and liberal campaigners alike, where you stand on the issue of the Middle East peace process is a signifier of your moral clout. And so, in faraway Sweden for instance, the foreign minister’s decision to upgrade the Palestinian Representative to Ambassador just two weeks before the Palestinian UN bid was no coincidence. Instead, it smacked of symbolic populism and desperation to be a player in the Middle East’s affairs.

The proceedings at the UN on Friday, when both Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu delivered their speeches, showed how the whole affair was a kind of moral international stand-off. This was a political drama played out in the hallowed halls of the UN and divorced from realities on the ground, where Palestinians and Israelis watched on big screens and live television feeds, reduced to passive spectators as the international community deliberated on their futures. The cameras switched between the speakers and the Israeli, Palestinian and US delegates to show who was or wasn’t applauding whom.

This spectacle was actually cheered and boosted by campaigners in the West, who see UN recognition as the be-all and end-all of international politics. Rather than recognising that proper political change must come from the people whose future is at stake, the international campaigners’ priority is simply for the powers-that-be to admit that Palestinians are suffering, to recognise their pain and to give them a bit of land as a kind of consolation.

In fact, international supporters of the two-state solution are all seeking to entrench separation between Israelis and Arabs, campaigning for a border that divides the people of the Middle East along ethnic lines. It’s ironic that the anti-Israel ‘Apartheid’ rhetoric, invoked again by Abbas on Friday, is so persistent among the very people who support the 1967 borders.

While some played the victim card in defence of Abbas’s bid, others chose scaremongering. If the US vetoes the bill, some warned, it will lead to violence and turmoil in the Middle East. On the one hand, Palestinians were painted as eternal victims who after six decades need some ‘closure’. And on the other, they were painted as some kind of powder keg waiting to blow up. The implication was that if they don’t get their recognition, they’ll go crazy.

In his speech, Abbas said that the time has come for a ‘Palestinian Spring’. This was, of course, a reference to the revolts across the Arab world. But the peoples of Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and other nations in the Middle East and North Africa did not ask for the UN’s permission before they started their struggles to topple their leaders. They just went ahead and revolted. That’s what popular struggle means – taking your destiny into your own hands.

By validating the UN as the ultimate arbiter of what happens in the Middle East, supporters of this statehood bid disempower both Palestinians and Israelis from setting the terms of their future.

Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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