This is my latest weekly column in “The Guardian” online, in the series “Power and Nations”.
Whenever an international problem starts being called a “process”, one should immediately become suspicious that the problem itself will not be solved. Indeed, the naming of a problem as a “process” is a way to obscure lack of progress with endless anaesthetising conferences, meetings and statesmanlike speeches.
The climate change “process” demonstrates this dismal rule: after years of preparatory meetings, and two major global conferences in Copenhagen and Cancún, this “process” has yet to agree any concrete action to limit carbon emissions. And, of course, the mother of all empty processes is the Middle East “peace process”.
There has been much talk about Israel and the Palestinians in recent days. Speeches by President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu have offered almost mutually exclusive visions of the outlines of a possible Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Virtually the only element common to both was that neither offered any suggestion about how to reach any deal. Netanyahu refused any engagement with a Fatah–Hamas government. Obama’s two speeches said not a word about convening any kind of Israeli-Palestinian negotiation. The US president seems to be despairing of this “process”.
For their part, the Palestinians have concluded some time ago that the “peace process” is a hollow vessel. Hamas chose, instead, the dead end of violence. The Fatah-led government in the West Bank has, by contrast, pursued the project of building a viable Palestinian state in the areas under its control. Internationally, the PLO has been steadily recruiting states around the world to recognise the Palestinian state, an effort planned to culminate in September at the UN general assembly where, the Palestinians hope, the general assembly will adopt a resolution accepting the existence of a Palestinian state.
The PLO has not yet formally adopted this strategy and, in the absence of clarity, misunderstandings about this “UN recognition strategy” have multiplied. Some rightwing commentators have suggested that such a decision at the UN will amount to the “delegitimisation” of Israel, failing to acknowledge that Israel’s current status at the UN would remain unaffected, and a resolution would not alter the fact that no UN member state has ever accepted Israel’s occupation of the West Bank or Gaza, or that Jerusalem’s status is yet to be determined. Meanwhile, Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz called the Palestinian strategy a “UN declaration of a Palestinian state” and the Economist, too, seems to think that the UN can recognise a state. This is not the case. The UN does not recognise states; only other states can. The UN can, however, agree to make a state a member, once it has been recognised by others. But contrary to much commentary, even this is far from straightforward.
As is usual, all the serious decisions at the UN are in the power of the security council, which is required to recommend a state for membership to the general assembly. And here lies one problem with the PLO’s strategy: that recommendation will not be forthcoming thanks to an American veto, as Obama’s speech made clear, with emphasis.
Realising this potential obstacle, the PLO may choose to vest its hopes in various procedural devices to get around the security council, including what is called the “Uniting for Peace” procedure. Under this procedure, first used by the US in 1950 to circumvent a Soviet block on UN intervention in Korea, the general assembly can take on an issue of international peace and security when its members agree that the security council has failed its own responsibility to do so.
The UN has never accepted a new member using procedural devices like this. And it may be a precedent that many member states, including Palestine’s many sympathisers at the UN, do not want established. Russia, for instance, may be loath to open the door to Kosovo’s membership, which it currently refuses to recognise. But worst of all, even if such a resolution were to attract enough supporters (as would be likely), bypass the security council (which is less likely) and become a full member state of the UN or, perhaps, an observer state as a fallback, it would do little to end Israel’s occupation.
The PLO seems to be calculating that UN membership will grant Palestine new legal status with which to fight Israel’s occupation and define the final settlement. These outcomes are by no means guaranteed. In any case, the Palestinians hope that the UN strategy will provide vivid evidence of Israel’s international isolation, compelling Israel to come to the table – or compelling the Americans to make them. As such, the strategy makes sense and the PLO cannot be blamed for trying something, anything, given Netanyahu’s obdurate refusal to contemplate a deal – a two-state solution based more or less on the 1967 borders – that every one else in the world regards both as reasonable and long overdue.
But the putative UN strategy is flawed. Both Israel and the US have endured almost total isolation at the UN for decades, to no palpable effect on their policies except to intensify their rejection of the UN as a place to address the dispute. September’s vote, if it goes through, will doubtless have the same consequence.
Since the 1967 security council resolution (pdf), which demanded Israel’s withdrawal from territories it had occupied during the six day war, reams of international law and countless debates at the UN have promised much to the Palestinians, but delivered nothing. The only time Israel has actually withdrawn from the occupied territories was as a result of a negotiated agreement with the PLO following the 1993 declaration of principles.
In unfortunate resemblance to both the current Israeli and US approaches, the Palestinian UN strategy offers nothing about how to reach a settlement with the one country whose recognition of Palestine really matters: Israel. Instead, September’s looming confrontation at the UN promises an outcome all too familiar to those who follow this ill-fated “process”: argument and antagonism to nil material effect. As Rashid Khalidi has wisely argued, the Palestinians should not rely on traditional routes, including American diplomacy, to achieve their state: the non-violent protests of the “Arab spring” offer a better, if uncertain, prospect.
The endless speechifying and diplomatic manoeuvring of the misnamed “peace process” has occupied statesmen, diplomats and commentators for decades, providing a simulacrum of progress when none, in fact, exists. The next few months will see yet more activity and diplomacy, risking distraction from the reality of continuing settlement building and mounting frustration of ordinary Palestinians living under an occupation that promises no end. With tension rising between Israel and its neighbours, and with it the risk of international conflict, no one can regard this situation as acceptable.
And no one should allow themselves the illusion that more rhetoric and an empty process, at the UN, in Washington or anywhere else, will solve it.