By Ernest Corea
The Israeli government’s desire to extract revenge from the Palestinians for the recognition that the international community has bestowed on the Palestinian Authority (PA) is offensive and inconsistent with the norms of appropriate diplomatic conduct.
The planned revenge is doubly repugnant because Israel wants to direct its punitive ire at Palestinians for action taken by 138 of the world’s established nations.
On Nov. 29, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) decided by democratically determined majority vote to welcome the Palestinian Authority into its fold as a “non-member observer state,” not yet a member state but up from the amorphous status of an “observer-entity.” The vote was 138 to 9 with 41 abstentions.
Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Finland, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, and Spain, were among the nations that supported the change-of-status resolution. The nine negative votes were cast by Israel and the US, as well as Canada, the Czech Republic, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, and Panama. UK, Germany, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK were among the fence-sitters.
The resolution was particularly memorable because it was adopted on the sixty-fifth anniversary of the adoption by the UN of a resolution calling for the establishment of two sovereign states, Israeli and Palestinian, co-existing side by side on the territory that was under British management. The Israelis have their state. Palestinians do not. They hope that the decision of Nov. 29 will bring them a bit closer to the goals of freedom and statehood.
Israel has different ideas, as its asymmetrical and ill-tempered response (see below) has amply demonstrated. Israel’s reaction, not surprisingly, has already caused concern in several countries.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas said at the UN shortly before the vote to change the Palestinian status was taken: “We did not come here to delegitimize a state established years ago, and that is Israel. Rather, we came to affirm the legitimacy of a state that must now achieve its independence, and that is Palestine.”
Despite his conciliatory tone, Netanyahu was quick to denounce Abbas for having made a “defamatory and venomous speech that was full of mendacious propaganda against the Israel Defense Forces and the citizens of Israel.”
The next morning, the New York Times reported that Israel was moving to build housing in “a controversial area of East Jerusalem known as E1, where Jewish settlements have long been seen as the death knell for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Israel’s show of petulance was widely identified as customary, retaliatory, and disproportionate, once again leaving Netanyahu’s cynical approach to the “two state solution” fully exposed.
A source in the Prime Minister’s Bureau said Israel was planning more steps against the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.
Haaretz reported as well that France, Sweden and the UK summoned the Israeli ambassadors in their countries on Dec.3 to convey their condemnation of Netanyahu’s decision to authorize settlement construction in the E1 area.
Ambassadors Daniel Taub in London, Yossi Gal in Paris, and Isaac Bachman in Stockholm were reportedly told by the three European governments that Israel must rescind its decision to go ahead with the controversial construction plan. British Secretary of State for Middle East and North Africa, Alistair Burt, is said to have told Ambassador Taub:
“The UK deplores the recent Israeli government decision to build 3,000 housing units in the West Bank settlement, and to unfreeze development in the E1 bloc. This threatens the viability of the two state solution and we call on the Israeli government to reverse the decision.”
Germany and Russia joined the chorus of disapproval, Germany’s official spokesman Steffen Seibert saying at a news conference: “We appeal to the Israeli government to desist from this procedure (for building more settlements).” Seibert explained to the news conference that the new settlement plans reduced the extent of land that would be available for a Palestinian state. The plans thus undermined efforts to revive peace talks.
The US issued a statement asserting that it had “made clear to the Israeli Government that such action is contrary to US policy.” Asked on Dec. 3 whether there was “any kind of coordination” between the US and its allies (such as, for instance, France and the UK) on this issue, the US State Department’s Deputy Press Spokesman responded:
“Well, I think there’s – obviously, we all share the same settlement – sediment –sentiment, excuse me, which is that we consider these kinds of actions, these kinds of unilateral decisions, to be counterproductive and make it harder to resume direct negotiations.”
Israel’s planned construction program was likely to be discussed when Netanyahu visits Chancellor Angela Merkel on Dec. 5. “The Chancellor expects Mr. Netanyahu for dinner and talks on Wednesday evening… We expect an open discussion between friends,” the German spokesman said. Meanwhile, Russia said it viewed plans for expanded construction with serious concern.
Back at the UN, meanwhile, party time is over. The speeches have been made, votes have been registered, jubilation has erupted and eventually receded. No delegate left his seat and danced a jig of triumph as a Middle Eastern representative did when the UN decided by majority vote that China’s seat had to be occupied by China and not by a pretender regime. Plenty of triumph was on view, and could be heard, nevertheless.
The fact that the PA decided to break through the impasse of stalled negotiations by moving discussion and action into the highest possible international arena, and not to continue “running on the spot,” implied that they were willing to take the risk of seeking multilateral judgment.
Dr. Hannan Ashrawi, a highly regard Palestinian representative, explained when Abbas brought the matter before UNGA last year that the purpose of seeking UN action is a corrective measure in the face of an “endlessly prolonged peace process that has lost its credibility.”
Ashrawi said that during the peace process, “Israel has been allowed to act with impunity, particularly with respect to its continued settlement construction.” Emphasising that “we do not want the Palestinians to lose hope,” she said that approaching the UN implies a firm commitment to a non-violent resolution of issues, as enjoined by the UN Charter.
“We are adopting a positive and constructive legal approach by turning to the international community and saying we are a part of you. Any solution has to be based on international law,” she said. Up to now, the risk has paid off.
The fact that the issue was put to the vote at all despite strenuous efforts to have it sidelined and postponed for a later date shows that the international community has grown tired of the stalling efforts that have accompanied almost every effort to resolve matters through bilateral negotiation.
The size of the majority by which the resolution elevating the Palestinian Authority’s status was adopted made this clear. So did the near-universality of the yes-vote. A north-south breakdown of votes, which some UN sources had predicted would have robbed the outcome of some of its significance.
The PA’s elevated status has been described as more symbolic than real. It is, indeed, symbolic of the desire nurtured by at least 138 nations to start moving towards justice for the Palestinians and security for all.
Moreover, the way is now open for the UN to play a more influential role in the negotiating process, which it should, considering its significant participation in creating the state of Israel.
Netanyahu’s lust for revenge is a glitch that must not be allowed to prolong injustice. His supporters and patrons should remind him that guns, money, and technology can bring his people militarized power, but cannot give them lasting peace.
The writer has served as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon ‘Daily News’ and the Ceylon ‘Observer’, and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore ‘Straits Times’. He is Editorial Adviser to IDN-InDepthNews and President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council.