Tuesday, 4 October 2011

A Game Changer

By Asad Zaidi

If you’re a regular onlooker in Middle East politics you’d be forgiven for thinking “here we go again”. Once more a Palestinian leader addresses the UN on his nation’s plight. Once again an Israeli Prime Minister sticks by his country’s occupation and once again a US President is shown to be almost farcically impartial. And to an extent, you’d be right. Mahmoud Abba’s submission of a bid for statehood will be vetoed at the Security Council by the US. Meanwhile, Netanyahu and Obama have denounced the bid, repeating the tired platitudes that recognition can only come from bilateral talks.  However, if you are that casual onlooker, you’d be wrong to think nothing has changed.

A slight yet noticeable tremor has begun that has the potential to spark a seismic shift in the politics of the Middle East’s most intractable conflict. For the first time in two decades, since the Madrid Conference ushered in the Peace Process in 1991, the Palestinians have turned their back on talks. It was these negotiations, set up by the heavily biased “peace broker” that is the United States that have stalled at every occasion.  They have provided an excuse for Israel to set about, with relish, the dismantlement of the Palestinian dream for self-determination.  Thus, last week’s rejection of that process could potentially mark a radical new development. With the bid for nationhood, Palestinians have turned to international multilateralism, knowing full well that nothing has come from US lead negotiations. And so, with this in mind, Mr Abbas addressed General Assembly.

In a stirring oratory, Abbas made his mark.  He spoke of the Arab Spring that the Palestinian cause was part of, of the repression that the Palestinians had dealt with for decades, and the dead end negotiations. He spoke of offering a hand for a new beginning with the Israeli people and argued that, despite the occupation, the Palestinians wanted peaceful coexistence with Israel. This was a powerful gesture, making a point to address the worries of Israelis, speaking of the process of state building and the careful construction of institutions that would enable security and prosperity. Critics will look at the speech’s limitations.

Arguably, Abbas’s speech left too many unanswered questions.  How would being a member state in the United Nations help the Palestinian cause? What would happen if the UNSC voted in favour? What would happen if the UNSC voted against?  These were missing from the President’s speech.

Nevertheless there was enough substance in his speech for the Arab street to be heartened by his efforts. Celebrations erupted in Ramallah and across the West Bank. For a leader long seen as weak, Abbas was heralded as a hero and it was with some surprise that news correspondents and twitter commentators told the world of Abbas’s newfound popularity amongst a traditionally sceptic public. Not only did this speech re-energise the PLO and its base (long seen as ineffectual and corrupt), but it also leaves unanswered the position of Hamas and puts in sharp focus the role of Israel and the US.

In stark contrast, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech conveyed exactly what Abbas is up against. Rank with clichés that barely hid the mask of bullish contempt he has shown for the Palestinian bid for nationhood, Netanyahu ignored speaking head on about the bid or even settlements, preferring to admonish those who didn’t fight the “crocodile of militant Islam” (what the poor crocodile was doing in Netanyahu’s clunky metaphors is anyone’s guess). He used the old narrative that it was Iran and not Israel that was the biggest threat to the Arab awakening, even warning of how an Arab spring could lead to “An Iranian Winter”.

What followed was a carefully rehearsed talk on the struggle of the Jewish people. Scouring from his perch on the podium for any anti-Semites in the audience, Bibi went on to emphasise Israel’s tiny stature, smaller in width, we were told, than Manhattan and with much nastier neighbours. With his reference of New York landmarks, at times one could be forgiven for thinking this speech was written by an American rather than an Israeli.

The Zionist narrative of history Obama had so perfectly recited just two days earlier was virtually regurgitated by the Israeli PM. The statehood bid was a distraction, IF ONLY Abbas could meet him for a few words in the back offices, something could be worked out. The settlements weren’t the problem, couldn’t Abu Mazen see this? Had he forgotten the monumental sacrifice Israel had undertaken to repatriate its settlers from Gaza in 2000, and to what end? The wild dogs (or perhaps crocodiles) of Hamas had taken the “keys of Gaza” (forgetting to mention how they had won democratic elections of course). Forget the land, sea and air blockade of Gaza, forget the hundreds killed in Operation Cast Lead and the thousands imprisoned in Israeli Prisons, hadn’t Mahmoud Abbas heard of Gilad Shalit?

Abbas had only to acknowledge the Jewish state of Israel, acknowledge all existing preconditions on peace that would limit the nature of the future Palestinian state and then and only then, perhaps, maybe, a few settlements could be moved so a hastily assembled strip of Bantustans could emerge (demilitarised, mind you) as a Palestinian “state”. This state, we were told, would be congratulated before all other countries by Israel.

Netanyahu’s defiant speech does not hide the unsettled position Israel now finds itself in. The “only democracy in the Middle East” moniker (If an occupying state can ever be labelled democratic) is no longer true and the events of the Arab Spring have overtaken Israel. It has lost the initiative and the Palestinian statehood bid is yet another part of this wave of events in the Middle East that leave Israel looking like a reactionary and rejectionist force wading against a tide of change.

Indeed, even former US President, Bill Clinton has argued that Netanyahu has been to blame for the failure of the peace process, with his steadfast refusal to move an inch, even to freeze settlement expansion as a sign of goodwill before talks could begin. However what is clear is that the Palestinians have presented up a game changer, something that puts a spanner in the works of the easy bilateralism that has allowed Israel to do as it pleases, backed by the United States who have vetoed resolutions condemning Israel a staggering 42 times.

What Netanyahu’s speech tells us only reaffirms what many of us already knew; Israel is not serious on peace. Since the Oslo Accords, settler expansion in the occupied territories has rocketed to half a million (Israel Central Bureau of Statistics). The Palestinians achieve nothing by waiting for the occupation to grow around them and leave them with fewer and fewer bargaining chips.

Ultimately, although there are many questions left to be answered, Mahmoud Abbas and his delegation have taken a first, brave step to break out of a cycle of dead end negotiations and have opened up a multilateral debate on the international arena. What happens now and if momentum can be held so that the Palestine issue remains in the spotlight, will be crucial to how this process continues.

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