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>> The Financial Times


The Financial Times - September 22, 2011

by David Gardner

The diplomatic crisis at the UN triggered by the Palestinians’ attempt to win recognition as a state may or may not advance their quest for justice and self-determination. But what it has started to do is strip away layer after layer of the cant and duplicity that has enveloped the so-called peace process.

The starting point for any consideration of the Palestinians’ diplomatic gambit is that the negotiations that appeared to promise so much after the 1993-95 Oslo accords have not ended the Israeli occupation of their land. Mahmoud Abbas, successor to the late Yassir Arafat as Palestinian president, has eschewed violence and staked everything on negotiations. He has nothing to show for it except the ruin of his reputation.

Whereas Arafat was a feckless negotiator who kept the option of the gun dangerously in play and preferred the trappings of statehood to the statecraft needed to win a state, Mr Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, have chosen diplomacy and nation-building. But the occupation continues.

Going all the way back to Oslo, the peace process has served as an international smoke and mirrors screen for the inexorable expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. It cannot be stated often enough that the biggest single enlargement of the settlements took place in 1992-96, at the high-water mark of the peace process under Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, when the number of settlers grew by 50 per cent, or four times the rate of population growth inside Israel.

Since then, the colonisation of the West Bank and Arab east Jerusalem has reached the point at which no viable Palestinian state is now possible unless this is reversed. But these settlements are intended to be permanent. The so-called Palestine Papers, leaked documents to al-Jazeera in January detailing how Mr Abbas was willing to give up nearly all of east Jerusalem but was still scorned by the previous, allegedly moderate Israeli government, make this abundantly clear.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the current Likud premier who leads a coalition freighted with irredentist believers in a Greater Israel, has never himself believed in anything more than a sort of supra-municipal government for Palestinians, on roughly half the land conquered by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

The real story here, therefore, is not that UN recognition will torpedo a peaceful resolution of the conflict negotiated by these two, vastly unequal sides. There is no prospect whatsoever of that happening. It is that international recognition of the Palestinians right to a state would call Israel’s bluff and expose the hollowness of the US role as a less-than-honest broker.

The Palestinians are losing any prospect of a state, square mile by square mile. They know they have little to lose.

The Netanyahu government and the administration of President Barack Obama insist a UN vote is meaningless. If so, why have Israeli diplomats been moving heaven and earth to try to prevent it, even presenting it as an existential threat? Puzzlingly, they also describe the Palestinians’ appeal for the recognition Israel denies them, in the world’s main multilateral forum for conflict resolution, as destructive unilateralism.

What is unilateral is Israel’s relentless land grab. What is destructive is US acquiescence in it. Last year President Obama first demanded a settlements freeze, then a short pause in settlement-building. Snubbed by Mr Netanyahu, he simply capitulated. This February the US stood alone in the Security Council to veto a resolution calling for a freeze, just as it will veto Palestinian recognition if it reaches the Council.

If so, Mr Obama’s little remaining credit in the Arab and Muslim worlds will evaporate, and Mr Netanyahu will have isolated Israel further. But if the Palestinians were to win recognition, even by the General Assembly, then for much of the world Israel would no longer be occupying territory it claims is in dispute. It would be occupying another state. That would carry a price in lost legitimacy.

It is hard to see how any of this helps Israel, especially at a time when its Arab neighbourhood is in ferment. Because Israel would also lose its ability to keep simultaneously in play the ideas that it is irresistibly powerful but uniquely vulnerable – what Levi Eshkol, prime minister at the time of the 1967 war, described as the “poor little Samson” narrative replacing the perception of David against Goliath.

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