a state of uncertainty

Pete Jones writes on the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations

A ‘Palestinian Spring’ was declared by Mahmoud Abbas in his request to the UN to recognise full Palestinian statehood, but it looks quite different to the revolutions across the Arab world that he was alluding to. Rather than the victory of a people over the machinery of a totalitarian state, the ‘Palestinian spring’ may prove to be just the latest example of Palestinian hope for liberation being used as a political football. Whether statehood would be a ‘good thing’ for Palestine is tough to predict.

What statehood would mean for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is unclear, what advantages it would bring even less so. The theory is that it would grant Palestine more leverage in future peace negotiations; the talks would be between two recognised states, and the Palestinians would be able to both show that Israel is occupying a sovereign state and have recourse to the international criminal court. This doubtless fuels Israeli (and therefore American) opposition to the bid, but there are further complexities.

Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) are desperately unpopular in many parts of the West Bank and Gaza. Already seen as grown flabby on Western cash given in return for policing their own people, the PA was further humiliated when the ‘Palestine Papers’ exposed the knee-bending obsequiousness of Saeb Erekat, the chief Fatah negotiator in peace talks. Recovering from such setbacks looked near-impossible until the changed diplomatic landscape in the wake of the Arab Spring led to a superficial reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. This façade of unity has allowed Abbas to make his statehood bid. Fatah has encouraged mass demonstrations of support for the bid in the West Bank and many Palestinians seem enthused by the prospect of full recognition as a state. So far it has proved a political triumph for Abbas, who is suddenly being described as a hero for resisting American and Israeli pressure to back down on the issue.

However some Palestinians question what difference statehood will make to the intractable situation on the ground, where Israel is – and will still be – very much in control. Opponents of the bid argue that state status will mean that the PLO will no longer be able speak for the Palestinian nation (including the refugees and diaspora); instead, a Palestinian government will only represent those living within the state’s boundaries. The question of Palestinians’ right of return to land stolen from them during the creation of Israel – considered by most Palestinians to be the most important of all their demands – will no longer be on the negotiating table, as the Palestinian state will be unable to speak for the refugees.

The plan may also backfire. If the US moves to stop Palestine winning enough votes for full UN membership, Palestine may be broadly recognised as a state but will lack sovereignty. The Palestinian pseudo-state would remain a lame duck at the negotiating table, and one can almost hear Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, after the next round of failed peace talks, saying “they have their state recognition, what more do they want?” Finally, there is the chance that Palestinian success at the UN will inspire settler violence or that failure will see Palestinian frustration boil over into a third ‘intifada’, or uprising.

International solidarity with Palestine tends to manifest itself in boycott, taking its cue from the Palestinian Boycott Divestment and Sanctions National Committee (BNC). Tellingly, the BNC, a broad civil society coalition, was unable to reach a consensus of firm support or opposition to the statehood bid, stating only that “recognition of Palestinian statehood is clearly insufficient, on its own, in bringing about [sic] a real end to Israel’s occupation and colonial rule.” Despite this, a number of Western organisations – most prominently Avaaz – have taken it upon themselves to encourage Western support for the bid: ‘Save the 2-state solution’ cries Avaaz, either unaware or unconcerned that many Palestinians still hope to reclaim the land they were forced from in 1948.

The urgent need to have ‘a position’ on the international issues of the day compels organisations to take sides but this question of statehood is a purely Palestinian concern. While Palestinians are divided on the issue and Abbas seems to be engaged in little more than political posturing, it feels inappropriate to demand either support for or opposition to the so-called ‘Palestinian Spring’ statehood project.