The world overwhelmingly recognized Palestine as a “non member observer state” at the United Nations last month to loud cheers in Ramallah and hisses in Jerusalem.
The UN General Assembly vote for Palestine with 138 countries in favour, including India, was a rebuke to Israel, which had tried coercive diplomacy to kill the resolution but failed. The resolution recognized Palestine’s borders as the 1967 lines, potentially giving Palestinian negotiators ammunition to fight Israel’s controversial settlements policy.
The United States, Canada and a few tiny countries stood with Israel but their company, however august, cannot mitigate Israel’s isolation. And what did it say for the mighty U.S. when its automatic vote for Israel left it in the company of Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau? Europe took leave by either abstaining or voting against Israel.
Israel first tried to kill the resolution, then tried to defeat it with intensive diplomacy across the world and then scoffed at it saying it was symbolic and pointless. The unnecessarily hysterical campaign, articulated crudely by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, did Israel no good.
It was a lesson in how not to conduct diplomacy. Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, issued this warning: “Every member state that lends its hand to supporting Palestinian unilateralism at the UN will be responsible for the grave consequences that follow.”
Interestingly, the vote came 65 years to the day after the UN General Assembly had voted to open the path for Israel’s establishment. But that bit of history was far from the mind of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which was busy issuing threats against the Palestinian Authority (PA). There was talk of squeezing the PA financially, perhaps even toppling it and canceling the Oslo Accords in a bid to prevent the vote.
But prevent it could not and instead of accepting international opinion, Israel announced a series of punitive measures to punish the Palestinians, including building 3,000 more homes in the occupied lands.
The Israeli overdrive to malign PA President Mahmoud Abbas clearly backfired, ensuring not only a coalescing of world opinion that his moderate Fatah faction must be strengthened in the face of Hamas but also forging a Fatah-Hamas unity of sorts on the UN bid.
Realists on both sides recognize the UN vote does nothing to change the situation on the ground. Israel has been and will continue building settlements on Palestinian land until both sides begin negotiations in earnest. But what the UN vote does is provide a clear marker on future borders, something that was desperately needed after U.S. President Barack Obama basically abandoned his project to push Israel toward a solution. Obama banged against the great wall of Netanyahu, got a pushback from pro-Israel forces in the U.S., lost face and left the Palestinians out to dry.
It is unclear if he plans to pick up the baton again and lead the two sides towards lasting peace. It will be no easy task – under Netanyahu, Israel has become the land of “No.” It doesn’t want to negotiate peace with the Palestinians unless they recognize Israel as a Jewish state; it doesn’t want the world to take a stand; it doesn’t even want its chief patron, the United States, to give advice.
In the world according to Netanyahu, the Palestinians are not allowed to fight for their freedom – either in the way Hamas does by firing rockets into Israel or with diplomacy as Abbas did at the UN. Israel called the decision to go to the UN a “unilateral” move, a characterization that made many heads shake in disbelief. Israel building on occupied land is a unilateral move, something that embarrasses all its friends, including the U.S.
There is much to admire about Israel – its innovation, its tenacity and its constant evolution – but its settlement policy is not one of them. Neither is its intransigence vis–à–vis the Palestinians. Given the turmoil in the region, dubbed by many as the “Arab troubles” rather than the Arab Spring, Israel has the option of settling its internal situation and being better prepared to face external developments.
When Israel opposes the UN resolution, it strengthens radical forces within the Palestinian movement. Looked at a different way, a Palestinian state recognized by the world presents Israel with a negotiating partner with international backing.
Netanyahu could have been the first to congratulate Abbas on November 29 with an invitation to renew negotiations for a two-state solution. Since he didn’t and Israel’s only response has been umbrage, the question is whether Israel wants to make peace with the Palestinians or continue the status quo, which is working in its favor.
This article was written exclusively for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can find more exclusive features here.
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