BY INDER MALHOTRA
LAST week, after Israel’s brazen occupation of it for 45 years, Palestine won a victory at the United Nations General Assembly that was not just famous but spectacular.
No fewer than 138 countries voted for upgrading its status to “non-member state” as against a measly nine, led by the United States, which voted against. The New York Times’ headline said it all when it declared: “UN Assembly snubs US and Israel; Palestine gets non-member status”. It was a “triumph for Palestinian diplomacy and a sharp rebuke to the US and Israel”, the paper added.
No less importantly, except for Canada, no major country sided with America, its supporters being such nations as Palau, Panama and Micronesia. Even Britain that obediently follows the US could not do so this time around and abstained, as did Germany because of its abominable sin of the Holocaust in the days of the Third Reich. For the rest large European countries – France, Spain, Italy and Switzerland – voted in support of the much suppressed and oppressed Palestine. This split between the US and its European allies over the Palestine issue is a welcome sign.
New Status to Palestine
Moreover, it was not lost on anyone that the world body conferred statehood on Palestine on the 65th anniversary of the day on which the UNGA had voted for the partition of the former British mandate of Palestine into two states – one Jewish and the other Arab. Israel had celebrated the earlier decision as its “birth certificate”. No wonder, addressing the assembly’s member nations, the President, Mr Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestine Authority said: “The General Assembly is called upon today to issue a birth certificate of the reality of the state of Palestine”.
The international community, having decided to confer the new status on Palestine, has a duty to start the process of gradually promoting the two-state formula of which an internal part is foolproof security for Israel along the 1967 borders. But, alas, this is easier said than can be done.
Israel’s most arrogant and intransigent Prime Minister, Mr Benjamin Netanyahu, has already acted to make any kind of agreement with Palestine virtually impossible. He has, of course, “rejected” the General Assembly resolution. He has also announced a plan to build 3,000 Jewish settlement homes in the West Bank, and, viciously, in East Jerusalem that, according to the template of the two-state formula, is to be a joint capital of both Israel and Palestine.
The plan is to build Jewish settlements in this sensitive and controversial area called El. This would almost certainly sound the “death knell” for the two-state solution. For, it would disrupt all connection between the Palestinian cities like Ramallah and Betlehem with Palestinian neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem. Mr Hagit Orfan, an Israeli, who runs “Settlement Watch project of Peace Now”, has called the El housing scheme a “deal breaker”. Yet the US President is making no effort to restrain Israel; in sharp contrast, Britain and France have reacted so strongly as to threaten to withdraw their embassies from Tel Aviv. India should also speak up; it need not be mealy-mouthed.
Mr Netanyahu’s reprehensible policies are no surprise because everyone knows his nature that enables him also to override sane voices in his own country and government, and perhaps win the election due next month. What is startling, however, is President Mr Barack Obama’s submissive endorsement of the anything the Israeli Prime Minister wishes to do. This becomes all the more puzzling because before his re-election last month Mr Netanyahu did all he could to ensure Mr Obama’s defeat. In the words of former national security adviser, Mr Zbiginew Brezezinski, “Netanyahu humiliated the US President on American soil” and yet was applauded by both Houses of the Congress. To be sure, the Jewish lobby in the US is very strong. But Mr Obama got no less than 72 per cent Jewish votes and, in any case, he has no re-election to seek.
Surprisingly, he seems not to be paying any attention to his once crucial objective of “reaching out” to the Muslim world. The Arab upheaval during the last two years may have obscured the Palestinian issue but it is likely to be up front again. Of course, the Arabs countries have to accept their share of blame for the present plight of Palestine. They pay it only lip service and seldom keep their promise to help it financially. But now that Israel has withheld the $120, 000 a month taxes it collects on behalf of Palestine, the Arab responsibility has become all the greater. Let them put their money where their mouth is.
Big Worry for Israel, US
A big worry of both Israel and the US is that Palestine may use its new status to try to join the International Court of Justice and thus press it to investigate the illegalities of Israeli occupation, building of settlements on Palestinian soil and other activities. Sadly, America has threatened the UN with the stoppage of American funds to it, just as it stopped funding the UNESCO when it admitted Palestine as a member. This is strange championing of peace, justice and democracy.
Mr Abbas and other leaders of the Palestinians also have their task cut out for them. To end the long and bitter division between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza has got to be their top priority. Ironically, it was Israel that, by its savage eight-day invasion of Gaza – resulting in 166 deaths, including of women and children, as against only six killed in Israel – have given the Palestinians an opportunity to reunify. This needs to be done at the earliest. Delay would be disastrous. The other thing the Palestinians have got to accept is that there can be no two-states without Israel’s secure existence side by side. It is pointless therefore to talk about “wiping Israel off the map” or “throwing the Israelis into the sea”.
For their part Israeli leaders, other than Mr Netanyahu, would do well to heed his predecessor, Mr Yehud Olmert, who told CNN’s Ms Christina Amanpour only the other day that he was “very close” to an agreement with Mr Abbas on the two-nation settlement, that this is the only solution for the vexed dispute, and that the time is on “Palestine’s side, not Israel’s”.