Jake Lynch and Majd Beltaji

The decision by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas not to seek re-election in January, and the vote at the UN General Assembly paving the way for the Security Council to consider the Goldstone Report, should, between them, prove a turning point in the Palestinian struggle for self-determination.

Even the patient Mr Abbas has now apparently given up hoping for US-led diplomacy to sustain even the gentlest of pressure on Israel, after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton effusively praised an offer to slow down further construction in its illegal West Bank settlements, rather than cease altogether as President Obama had previously requested.

The US predictably led opposition in the UN vote, with Australia also disgracefully voting to reject Goldstone’s meticulous compilation of the evidence, attesting to war crimes on the part of both Israel and Hamas, and possible crimes against humanity by Israel. Not that anyone in Canberra has actually deigned to give an explanation. Back in March, when reports emerged that Israeli soldiers had reported shooting women and children under orders from their commanding officers, the Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, was appearing on a live studio discussion programme, Q and A, and the host, Tony Jones, astutely put him on the spot over them. The Australian government was “in favour of a proper investigation”, he said; but there has been nothing since.  

Washington would no doubt veto any move at the Security Council to refer the case to the International Criminal Court, and there the matter would end. Or would it? United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution 377 A, the ‘Uniting for Peace’ resolution, states that, in cases where the United Nations Security Council fails to act in order to maintain international peace and security, owing to disagreement between its five permanent members, the matter shall be addressed immediately by the General Assembly.

Uniting for Peace was adopted on November 3, 1950, after fourteen days of Assembly discussions, by a vote of 52 to 5 (the nays were Czechoslovakia, Poland, the USSR and two of its republics – Ukraine and Byelorussia – with their own representatives). There were 2 abstentions: India and Argentina. Its ‘bite’ is in the following passage:

“Resolves that if the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression, the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately with a view to making appropriate recommendations to Members for collective measures, including in the case of a breach of the peace or act of aggression the use of armed force when necessary, to maintain or restore international peace and security”.

It’s also known as the Acheson Plan, after American Secretary of State Dean Acheson, a dedicated Cold Warrior. Some mistake, surely? Actually no – its first use ‘in anger’ was to mobilise the UN to stop the British and French invasion of Egypt over Suez, in 1956, and the prime mover, at the General Assembly, was none other than the United States.

Israel is America’s ‘unsinkable battleship’

The underlying problem with US-led mediation in the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the reason why it has not produced any meaningful progress for Palestinians, is that, in words attributed to Caspar Weinberger, Defense Secretary under Ronald Reagan, “Israel is America’s unsinkable battleship in the Middle East”. The “pendulum [began] swinging” towards the attack on Gaza, in the words of then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, speaking to reporters on the tarmac of Tel Aviv airport directly after touching down from a ‘surprise’ visit to Washington. As I’ve written in previous columns, he’d evidently been summoned to receive his orders: do something to Hamas before George W Bush leaves office.

Martin Indyk, the Australian who was twice the US Ambassador in Tel Aviv, this year produced a largely self-serving memoir, but in one of its more lucid moments, reflected on the Camp David summit of 2000 that American diplomacy was “capricious” precisely because of the “asymmetry” in its relations with the two parties involved.

Washington’s official pronouncements tend towards a misguided emphasis on compromise: if only both sides could be induced to give ground, that would allow  ‘moderates’ to come together ‘in the middle’. Anything to fudge the illegality of the occupation and the settlements and the imperative for them to cease forthwith, regardless of agreement on any other issue. Indyk recalls how, in exploratory talks at Camp David, a red-faced President Clinton undermined each Palestinian negotiator in turn by shouting at them in apparently genuine puzzlement and frustration as they refused to make further ‘concessions’.

Two states or one?

Abbas’ announcement has revived speculation that Marwan Barghouti, the jailed former Fatah Secretary-General in the West Bank, may stand for the presidency, when the elections – now postponed indefinitely – take place. At his trial in 2003, Barghouti sent a warning to Israel that if an independent Palestinian state could not be established on the borders of 1967, there would have to be “one state for two peoples”. As Ali Abunimah observes in his latest contribution to the Electronic Intifada, the institutionalisation of Jewish supremacy in such a state would lose whatever legitimacy it has left: a commodity already draining away after the killing of civilians in Lebanon in 2006, and Gaza, both in 2006 and in 2008-9:

“Already difficult to disguise, the loss of legitimacy becomes impossible to conceal once Palestinians are a demographic majority ruled by a Jewish minority. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand that Palestinians recognize Israel’s ‘right to exist as a Jewish state’ is in effect an acknowledgement of failure: without Palestinian consent, something which is unlikely ever to be granted, the Zionist project of a Jewish ethnocracy in Palestine has grim long-term prospects”.

Hanan Ashrawi, the former legislator and laureate of the Sydney Peace Prize, this week gave an interview to the Sydney Morning Herald’s thoughtful Middle East correspondent, Jason Koutsoukis, identifying what she called a “new era… people are now saying that the moderate approach has failed and that two states is no longer an option… much of the approach that has come before will be discarded”.

The respected opinion pollster, Khalil Shikaki, found as recently as June of this year that a majority of Palestinians – 61% – still supported a two-state solution. This has been a strategic asset in Israel’s hands, but a wasting one. The end game of Clinton’s mediation efforts came with the ‘parameters’ of the Taba summit in January 2001, when both he and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak were about to leave office. The underpinning principle was that UN Security Council Resolution 242, affirming the pre-1967 Green Line as the basis for mapping the border between two states. By the time negotiators sat down, however, Israel had already privately expressed “reservations”, in a letter from Barak’s Chief of Staff, Gilead Sher, to the Americans; a communication whose existence is revealed for the first time in a new book by the historian and advocate of a two-state solution, Benny Morris. As long as Washington is there to provide an unconditional recourse for Israel to ignore the provisions of international law, such efforts appear doomed to founder.

The present UN-sponsored peace plan, the ‘Road Map’, provides for an “International Conference to support Palestinian economic recovery and launch a process, leading to establishment of an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders”, following “an end to Palestinian violence”. That precondition was being met, with the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire last year, then Israel broke it in the now notorious November 4th incident in which six Hamas members were killed, leading to a resumption of rocket fire from Gaza and the events chronicled by Goldstone. The report should go to the International Criminal Court, given that no serious effort is underway, in either Israel or Gaza, to bring perpetrators to justice; but the US is once again standing in the way.

At the UN, the General Assembly has been the setting for all the really significant forward steps for the Palestinians, from the recognition in 1974 of their right to self-determination, to 1988 and Yasser Arafat’s Proclamation of the State of Palestine and historic acknowledgement of the State of Israel; “in Geneva”, he said, rather than New York, “after an arbitrary American decision barred me from going to you there”.

Even in countries that traditionally provide cover for Israel’s serial breaches of international law, like the US and Australia, public and political opinion is shifting. A poll commissioned by the Sydney-based Coalition for Justice and Peace in Palestine showed far more Australians thought Israel’s attack on Gaza was “unjustified” than believed it to be “justified”. Yes, the US Congress overwhelmingly rejected Goldstone, but with 46 fewer pro-Israeli votes than a year earlier when the House considered Operation Cast Lead itself.

The journalist and author, Antony Loewenstein, reflected on the recent inaugural conference of the new American Jewish lobby group, J-Street, held in Washington DC in late October, that “although most of the many panels did not engage on issues such as boycott, divestment and sanctions, a one-state solution, the siege on Gaza and complicit IDF soldiers in the West Bank, I heard countless audience members speak about the concept of justice for all, not Zionist benefits only for Jews”. There is ‘another’ America, of course, besides the superpower represented in Weinberger’s militaristic formula, and it is an America that well understands the concept of civil rights.

Palestinian rights and aspirations cannot be put on hold, however, while we get our act together. It’s to the General Assembly, the body most genuinely representative of world opinion, and other international organizations such as the ICC, that they must once again turn.


Jake Lynch is Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney.

Majd Beltaji works as a PR officer for the Palestinian Centre for Peace and Democracy.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 15 Nov 2009.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: BACK TO BASICS FOR PALESTINIAN STRUGGLE, is included. Thank you.

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