What will UN recognition mean for Palestine?

The upheavals across the Middle East have helped the cause of Palestinian liberation.

Palestinians in Ramallah celebrate the UN vote on observer status (Oren Ziv)Palestinians in Ramallah celebrate the UN vote on observer status (Oren Ziv)

THE UNITED Nations (UN) General Assembly vote to recognize Palestine as a nonmember "observer state" sparked celebrations in the streets of Ramallah in the West Bank--and bitter complaints from Israel and its devoted ally, the U.S.

Many Palestinians and their supporters connected the vote with the cease-fire agreement one week earlier that ended Israel's latest onslaught against Gaza--as twin signs that the decades-long battle for Palestinian liberation has gained new momentum in a Middle East reshaped by the Arab Spring upheavals of the last two years.

In concrete terms, the cease-fire deal is far more important. Israel was forced to give up unprecedented concessions to Palestinian demands in negotiations brokered by the U.S. and Egypt--including a promise to ease the Israeli and U.S. economic blockade imposed on Gaza since 2006. By contrast, UN recognition of an "observer state" presided over by the Palestinian Authority is symbolic at best.

Nevertheless, the lopsided margin in the UN General Assembly was celebrated as a rebuke to the Israeli and U.S. governments, which both opposed even observer status. Neither actually has anything to fear from the outcome of the vote. But the two Palestinian victories--especially the Gaza cease-fire--show that the U.S. and Israel are scrambling to contend with a realignment of forces in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab revolutions.

The upheavals across North Africa and the Middle East have pried apart the network of alliances that Washington has used to exert its dominance for decades--leaving the U.S. and its Israeli watchdog more isolated and exposed as imperialist oppressors who are opposed by the vast majority of people in the region. In the context of the wider pan-Arab uprising, the cause of Palestinian liberation enjoys better prospects than it has in more than a generation.

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BY ITSELF, UN observer status is very unlikely to accomplish any tangible advances for Palestinians.

On the contrary, Palestinian critics of the PA's bid point out that the "state" recognized by the UN has drastically restricted powers in, at most, 18 percent of historic Palestine--while the "racist status quo" of Israel as a Jewish-only state has been ratified, in the words of Columbia University professor Joseph Massad, writing in the Guardian:

[T]he vote effectively abandons the UN understanding of the "Jewish state" as one that has no right to discriminate against or ethnically cleanse non-Jews. The new arrangement confers the blessing of this international forum on the Israeli understanding of what a "Jewish state" entails--namely, the actually existing legal discrimination and ethnic cleansing practiced by Israel--as acceptable.

Nevertheless, Israeli leaders opposed UN recognition, with one calling it "pure diplomatic terror." Afterward, the Israeli government responded spitefully by pledging to withhold tax revenues it collects on behalf of the PA--and to expand illegal settlement-building, with the aim of connecting Jerusalem and the West Bank settlement town of Maale Adumim. This would effectively slice the West Bank in half, making a further mockery of the idea that the PA presides over a "state."

As Electronic Intifada founder Ali Abunimah asked in an Al Jazeera commentary:

Other than ritual condemnations, will there be real, specific action--including sanctions--by the 138 countries that voted for "Palestine" to force Israel to halt and begin to reverse its illegal colonization of the 1967 Occupied Territories? Sadly, that is unlikely, an indication that the UN vote was nothing more than a hollow gesture and a substitute for effective action to halt Israel's crimes.

But the U.S. nevertheless backed Israeli opposition to the observer status vote. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice argued that Palestinians would be worse off for daring to seek recognition: "Today's grand pronouncements will soon fade, and the Palestinian people will wake up tomorrow and find that little about their lives has changed, save that the prospects of a durable peace have only receded."

The irony of such complaints is that Israel and the U.S. are attacking the initiative of a PA leadership under President Mahmoud Abbas that has embraced the U.S.-brokered "peace process" and made historic concessions on Palestinian demands in pursuit of a "two-state" solution. Meanwhile, Israel used the cover of negotiations to carry out countless massacres and targeted assassinations, and to nearly double the number of Israeli settlers.

Under the Oslo "peace process," the PA has become a caretaker of Israeli interests, particularly with its opposition to Hamas, the Islamist party that won elections in 2006 for the Palestinian Legislative Council and that dominates Gaza. As Abunimah writes:

The Abbas PA's record of collaboration with Israel, against the interests of the Palestinian people is long, shameful and well documented. It includes plotting secretly with Israel, the U.S. and the former Mubarak regime in Egypt to overthrow the elected Hamas-led Palestinian Authority after 2006, colluding with Israel to bury the Goldstone report into Israel's war crimes in Gaza in 2008-09, begging Israel not to release Palestinian prisoners so as not to give credit to Hamas, and more recently, Abbas' public renunciation of the Palestinian right of return, a reflection of his longstanding position in negotiations.

Abbas has already shown that little will change because of the UN vote. For example, supporters of gaining UN observer status had claimed that at least the PA could become a signatory to the Rome Treaty that established the International Criminal Court (ICC), raising the possibility of criminal charges against Israeli officials responsible for war crimes committed in Gaza and the West Bank.

Yet one day after the vote, Abbas reaffirmed his continued deference to Israel on this issue: "We now have the right to appeal to the ICC, but we are not going to do it now and will not do it except in the case of Israeli aggression."

In other words, Abbas conceded that the PA wouldn't pursue one of a very few possibly meaningful consequences of gaining observer status. And if the ruins of Gaza after another Israeli assault or the promise to expand settlements in the West Bank don't count as "Israeli aggression," it's hard to imagine what does.

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THE PA's true role--and the true meaning of UN recognition--will become clearer as time unfolds. But for now, Abbas is wearing the mantle of success for winning the General Assembly vote. He's helped in this respect by the fact that it came so soon after the much more significant victory achieved with the Gaza cease-fire.

In addition to stopping the Israeli onslaught, including the threat of a ground offensive, the cease-fire agreement also calls for easing restrictions on the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza. Jillian Kestler-D'Amours explained at Electronic Intifada how the concessions extend into the details of the deal: "According to local reports, Palestinian fishermen have been allowed to fish at a distance of six miles from the Gaza shore, up from three miles, for the first time in three years, and farmers allowed to work their lands within 300 meters of the boundary fence with Israel."

Whether Israel will abide by the terms and for how long is another matter. But it's indisputable that the agreement is much more favorable to Hamas and Gaza than anything imaginable before the war started.

With these concessions to the determined resistance of the Palestinians of Gaza, Israel and the U.S. stand more exposed than ever for their unwillingness to recognize what the rest of the world accepts--that neither bullying nor bombing nor strangling Gaza will push aside Hamas. Britain's Financial Times reports that Hamas is now recognized as "a legitimate regional player":

Hamas may still be listed as a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the EU, but few dare to treat it that way now. In the Arab and Muslim world, Hamas lost its pariah status long ago: its leaders have long been welcome guests in royal palaces and presidential residences from Turkey to Qatar and from Tunisia to Jordan...In the end, Hamas appears to have forced Israel, the U.S. and others to engage with it largely on its terms--as a powerful political force that will no longer be ignored.

Meanwhile, the regional realignment in the Middle East has left Israel more isolated. The Egyptian Revolution of February 2011 toppled Hosni Mubarak, whose dictatorial regime was crucial to enforcing the subjugation of Gaza. Egypt is now led by President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement that gave rise to Hamas in the late 1980s.

Likewise, Turkey, also once a close ally of Israel, can now be counted among Hamas' allies--Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan denounced Israel's assault on Gaza as "ethnic cleansing" and "terrorism."

So even as many Palestinians welcomed the PA initiative for "observer state" recognition, the political framework that the PA has accepted for two decades--of negotiations and continual concessions under the rubric of the Oslo "peace process," with the goal of a "two state" solution--is crumbling.

When Palestinians and their supporters celebrate the Gaza cease-fire, they are celebrating the determination of a resistance in Gaza that has inspired hope for an alternative to endless Israeli violence and endless PA surrender.

SocialistWorker.org has always argued that the two-state solution, even when widely accepted by Palestinians as "realistic," was doomed to fail. On the one hand, the only possible outcome is a Palestinian state in name only, entirely at the mercy of the U.S. and Israel. And on the other, the logic of the Zionist project invariably drives Israel to undermine and reject even a neutralized Palestinian mini-state.

By contrast, the goal of a one-state solution--of a unitary democratic and secular state in all of Palestine, with guaranteed equal rights for members of all religious, ethnic and national groups--has gained a greater hearing among Palestinians and their supporters.

Admittedly, achieving this goal will require more than the resistance of Palestinians alone. It will depend on international solidarity with the cause of Palestinian liberation and the rising of the Arab working class across the Middle East.

Yet on exactly these points--once dismissed by our critics as "utopian" and "unrealistic"--the last two years have seen a qualitative leap forward.

The global movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, initiated by Palestinian civil society organizations, has been embraced by activists around the world, who look to the model of the international movement against apartheid a quarter century ago. Recently, the BDS movement won another victory when music legend Stevie Wonder canceled a concert to benefit the Israel Defense Forces after pressure from activists.

Meanwhile, the revolutions and rebellions in Egypt and other countries have posed the alternative of a mass popular struggle in the Middle East--for democratic rights against repressive regimes, but also against imperialist domination by the U.S. and allied forces, and for economic justice in a region characterized by enormous wealth for the few and grinding poverty for the many.

The potential for Palestinians to achieve much more than "nonmember observer status" at the UN is much clearer today--and should inspire all our struggles for justice and freedom, in the Middle East and around the world.