Friday, 19 October 2012

Palestinians' bid to recognise Israel

Later this year, on 29 November, Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority (PA), plans to ask the UN General Assembly to vote on recognizing Palestine as a sovereign state within the pre-1967 borders. If successful, this would have the effect of upgrading the PA delegation at the United Nations from non-member ‘observer entity’ to non-member ‘observer State’. The PA hopes that the convincing majority which the make-up of the General Assembly guarantees it, will pave the way for widespread recognition of a Palestinian state.

But an intriguing anomaly lies at the heart of Abbas’s projected bid.

In their zealous backing for the Palestinian cause, do all the supportive nations fully appreciate the implications of recognizing a Palestinian state within pre-1967 borders? For, simply put, the corollary of a sovereign Palestine within 1967 borders is a sovereign Israel outside them.

Hamas, the de facto government of the Gaza strip – an integral element in any future Palestinian state − understands completely the implications of what Abbas proposes to do, and is totally opposed to it. Hamas utterly rejects the concept of two states in the Holy Land. It believes there should be just one − a fundamentalist Islamist state, with Israel eliminated from the map of the Middle East.

To be brutally honest, that is probably what Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party also want (Abbas has been pictured on a number of occasions next to a map of the old British Mandate Palestine surmounted by the Palestinian flag, and with no mention of Israel; he has, moreover, said many times that he will never acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state). It is only that the Fatah-led PA choose to reach their ultimate objective by more devious means than total refusal to recognize the existence of the “enemy” while simultaneously pursuing armed resistance to it.

Some 36 countries represented in the UN General Assembly, not all of them with Muslim majorities, are more in sympathy with Hamas than with Fatah, for they do not recognize Israel as a state. They range from Algeria to Venezuala, Bolivia to Pakistan. Moreover, Egypt’s new president is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an extreme Islamist organization supported by Hamas. Turkey supports the Brotherhood. So does Libya and Tunisia. So does Hezbollah, lodged firmly in Lebanon’s body politic.

Do these and like-minded states actually appreciate that support for a sovereign Palestine in a two-state solution is support for the sovereignty of Israel? And if they do, how many will oppose Abbas’s bid for recognition? My guess is none, for all believe that in granting Abbas the recognition he seeks, they will be giving Israel a poke in the eye. And how many will follow through the logic of Palestinian recognition of Israel by doing so themselves? Unfortunately, logic is not in great supply in international diplomacy.

The fact is Abbas is not only fighting for recognition of a Palestinian state; he is fighting a rearguard action against Hamas to retain control of the West Bank.

When Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, the idea was that Abbas as PA President, would call free and fair elections across the Palestinian body politic. The elections gave Hamas 74 seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council, and the ruling Fatah party 45. Without an overall majority, President Abbas accordingly formed a national unity government led by Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas.

But sharing power with Fatah did not suit Hamas. In four days in mid-June 2007 their ‘Executive Force’ seized control of the entire Gaza Strip in a bloody coup d'état. Abbas responded by dissolving the national unity government and forming an emergency government led by Salam Fayyad, based in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Efforts at reconciliation between the two power blocs within the Palestinian body politic began as early as 2008, but they consistently failed. All such efforts are attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable. For in Hamas’s eyes, Abbas’s peace initiatives − ineffective though they have been − have placed the PA beyond the pale. Hamas remains what it has always been – an extreme Islamist and terrorist organization committed to the destruction of Israel. It is also committed to winning the power struggle within the Palestinian body politic, overcoming Fatah, and taking control of the whole of the Palestinian entity.

So Abbas, in making his UN bid, will be speaking only for West Bank Palestinians, and only for those prepared − for the present at least − to live alongside a sovereign Israel. Of course, in by-passing face-to-face negotiations and taking unilateral action, Abbas will have thrown a spanner in the diplomatic works of the peace process. Every agreement between the two sides, including the Oslo Accords which currently govern relations between them, has at its heart the premise that negotiations between the parties is the only acceptable path to a settlement.

Abbas has embarked on a perilous journey. If he gets his UN recognition for a sovereign Palestine within the 1967 boundaries, he will ipso facto have confirmed Palestinian recognition of Israel. He is gambling that a PA success at the UN will, in the eyes of the Palestinian man-in-the-street, out-trump Hamas’s persistent refusal to recognize Israel or relinquish its indiscriminate rocket attacks on the civilian population. For the battle against Hamas is one battle that Abbas must win.

It’s a long shot.

Published in the on-line Jerusalem Post magazine on Monday, 22 October 2012:

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