How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
The Palestinian Authority's bid to the United Nations for Palestinian statehood is, at least in theory, supposed to circumvent the failed peace process. But in two crucial respects, the ill-conceived gambit actually makes things worse, amplifying the flaws of the process it seeks to replace. First, it excludes the Palestinian people from the decision-making process. And second, it entirely disconnects the discourse about statehood from reality.
Most discussions of the UN bid pit Israel and the United States on one side, fiercely opposing it, and Palestinian officials and allied governments on the other. But this simplistic portrayal ignores the fact that among the Palestinian people themselves there is precious little support for the effort. The opposition, and there is a great deal of it, stems from three main sources: the vague bid could lead to unintended consequences; pursuing statehood above all else endangers equality and refugee rights; and there is no democratic mandate for the Palestinian Authority to act on behalf of Palestinians or to gamble with their rights and future.
Underscoring the lack of public support, numerous Palestinian civil society organizations and grassroots leaders, academics, and activists have been loudly criticizing the strategy. The Boycott National Committee (BNC) -- the steering group of the global Palestinian-led campaign for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel that has been endorsed by almost 200 Palestinian organizations -- warned in August that the UN bid could end up sidelining the PLO as the official representative of all Palestinians and in turn disenfranchise Palestinians inside Israel and the refugees in the diaspora. A widely disseminated legal opinion by the Oxford scholar Guy Goodwin-Gill underscored the point, arguing that the PLO could be displaced from the UN by a toothless and illusory "State of Palestine" that would, at most, nominally represent only Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Others, such as the Palestinian Youth Movement -- an international coalition of young Palestinians -- declared that it stood "steadfastly against" the UN bid because it could jeopardize "the rights and aspirations of over two-thirds of the Palestinian people who live as refugees in countries of refuge and in exile, to return to their original homes." Many, like the PYM, fear that unilaterally declaring a state along 1967 borders without any other guarantees of Palestinian rights would effectively cede the 78 percent of historic Palestine captured in 1948 to Israel and would keep refugees from returning to what would then be recognized de facto as an ethnically "Jewish state."
Of course, there may be no clearer evidence of the distance between the UN bid and the actual will of the Palestinians than the secrecy of the process. Today, just days before the application is filed with the UN, the Palestinian public remains in the dark about exactly what the PA is proposing. No draft text has been shared with the Palestinian people. Instead the text is being negotiated with the Palestinian Authority's donors as if they, not the Palestinian people, are its true constituency.
More fundamentally, though, the entire discussion of statehood ignores the facts on the ground. For starters, the PA fails the traditional criteria for statehood laid out in the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States: it controls neither territory nor external borders (except for the tiny enclaves it polices under the supervision of Israeli occupation forces). It is prohibited under the 1993 Oslo Accords from freely entering into relations with other states. As for possessing a permanent population, the majority of the Palestinian people are prohibited by Israel from entering the area on which the PA purports to claim statehood solely because they are not Jews (under Israel's discriminatory Law of Return, Jews from anywhere in the world can settle virtually anywhere in Israel or the occupied territories, while native-born Palestinian refugees and their children are excluded). The PA cannot issue passports or identity documents; Israeli authorities control the population registry. No matter how the UN votes, Israel will continue to build settlements in the West Bank and maintain its siege of Gaza. As all this suggests, any discussion of real sovereignty is a fantasy.
Nor is the strategy likely to produce even formal UN membership or recognition. That would require approval by the Security Council, which the Obama administration has vowed to veto. The alternative is some sort of symbolic resolution in the UN General Assembly upgrading the status of the existing Palestinian UN observer mission -- a decision with little practical effect. Such an outcome will hardly be worth all the energy and fuss, especially when there are other measures that the UN could take that would have much greater impact. For example, Palestinians would be better off asking for strict enforcement of existing but long ignored Security Council resolutions, such as Resolution 465, which was passed in 1980 and calls on Israel to "dismantle the existing settlements" in the occupied territories and determines that all Israel's measures "to change the physical character, demographic composition, institutional structure or status of the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem, or any part thereof, have no legal validity" and are flagrant violations of international law.
Ultimately, any successful strategy should focus not on statehood but on rights. In its statement on the UN bid, the BNC emphasized that regardless of what happens in September, the global solidarity struggle must continue until Israel respects Palestinian rights and obeys international law in three specific ways: ending the occupation of Arab lands that began in 1967 and dismantling the West Bank wall that was ruled illegal in 2004 by the International Court of Justice; removing all forms of legal and social discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel and guaranteeing full equal rights; and offering full respect for Palestinian refugee rights, including the right of return. Palestinians and Israelis are not in a situation of equals negotiating an end to a dispute but are, respectively, colonized and colonizer, much as blacks and whites were in South Africa. This truth must be recognized, and pushing for such recognition would resonate far more with the Palestinian public than empty statehood talk.
Indeed, such a strategy has worried Israel enough that it has enlisted the U.S. in the fight against what Israeli leaders term "delegitimization." "Delegitimizers" are supposedly not seeking justice and full human and political rights for Palestinians, but rather seeking the collapse of Israel -- much like East Germany or apartheid South Africa -- through political and legal assaults. According to Israel and groups supporting it in the United States, virtually all Palestine solidarity activism, especially BDS, is "delegitimization." Some Israelis, including even former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, have warned that fighting a movement calling for universal civil and political rights would only make Israel look more, not less, like an apartheid state, worsening its situation. But Israeli elites have come up with no plausible response to the reality that within a few short years -- because of Palestinian population growth and Israeli settlement construction -- a Jewish minority will be ruling over a disenfranchised and subordinated Palestinian majority in a country that cannot be partitioned.
The plans for truncated and circumscribed Palestinian statehood, which successive American and Israeli governments have been prepared to discuss, fall far short of minimal Palestinian demands and have no hope of being implemented (as the dramatic failure of the Obama administration's peace effort in its first two years underscores). Even President Obama, in his speech to the Israeli lobbying group AIPAC last May, called the status quo "unsustainable." But he offered no
These, then, are the lines along which the battle for the future of Palestine are going to be fought, no matter how many U.S. envoys head to Ramallah and Jerusalem to try to revive negotiations in which no one believes. Meanwhile, the UN bid should be seen not as the means to give birth to the Palestinian state but as the formal funeral of the two-state solution and the peace process that was supposed to bring it about.