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Will 2011 see the creation of Palestine?

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A Palestinian rioter, left, throws a stone at Israeli border police during clashes in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan [AP]by Khaled Amayreh

Palestinian Authority (PA) officials in Ramallah are reluctant to give an unequivocal answer to the question of whether 2011 will see the establishment of the state of Palestine. International goodwill is certainly what many Palestinians are pinning their hopes on. However, international goodwill alone won't be enough, especially if Israel resorts to stonewalling and if its guardian-ally, the United States, refuses to rein in Israeli intransigence and unilateralism.

Unfortunately, Palestinian experience with the way the US deals with Israel leaves little room for optimism that Washington will adopt a responsible stance and meaningfully support the establishment of Palestine. The powerful and extremist US Jewish lobby simply will not allow the current administration -- or any administration -- to take measures not in line with Israeli wishes. Meanwhile, the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah doesn't want to trivialise the issue by making another theatrical declaration of statehood similar to the one former Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat made in Algiers in 1988.

That declaration generated a lot of hullabaloo and prompted dozens of "friendly" countries, including Islamic and non-aligned countries, to recognise Palestine. But nothing really changed on the ground as the Israeli occupation deepened further and the theft of Palestinian land continued unabated.

Sources in Ramallah indicated to Al-Ahram Weekly that the PA leadership has decided to stay on "the safe side for the time being" pending potentially positive factors that could help consolidate international support for a would-be Palestinian state. The same sources added that the PA is also trying to ensure that the United States does not nip any Palestinian state in the bud by vetoing a draft resolution the PA is contemplating asking the UN Security Council to adopt in the foreseeable future.

Some PA officials have been cautioning against viewing the American role as "deterministic and indispensable". These argue that if the Obama administration or any other US administration is hopelessly subservient to the Jewish lobby, then nothing will work. This implies that the Palestinians would have to act without seeking America's approval.

According to sources close to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, the PA believes that making cumulative gains, even if small, including diplomatic achievements, is more expedient in the long run than making highly rhetorical declarations whose ultimate benefit can't be assured.

The Weekly asked Ghassan Khatib, director of the Government Press Office in Ramallah, why the PA was reluctant to declare statehood within 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital. He said the PA would wait until summer, by which time it would formally ask the UN Security Council to recognise the state of Palestine within 1967 borders.

"Of course, we prefer consensual arrangements, but if Israel keeps obstructing peace, then we will have no choice but to seek international recognition," Khatib said.

Asked how the PA would react if the US conditioned recognition of a would-be Palestinian state on the PA giving Israel far reaching concessions unacceptable to most Palestinians, Khatib said: "The Palestinians are in no position to give any more concessions to Israel. We have already given excessive concessions when we agreed to share our historical homeland and to recognise Israel. We now stand with our backs to the wall, any further concessions by us to Israel, especially with regards to the fundamental issues, will be unacceptable to both our people and our leadership."

Israel's relentless expansion of settlements is the most direct challenge, but the occupation also has other means by which to block the emergence of a state of Palestine: the re-imposition of stiff travel restrictions on Palestinians; withholding Palestinian customs revenue; barring PA security personnel from accessing certain areas; and stopping exporting fuel to Palestinians. In short, Israel could resort to imposing on the West Bank the same punitive sanctions now imposed on the Gaza Strip.

This week, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman alluded to such punishments in order to force the Palestinians to refrain from taking the "present harmful course they are taking". "We have carrots as well as sticks, and we might use the latter effectively if we had to," said Lieberman, who also branded the PA an "illegitimate entity".

Lieberman may not fully represent the policies of the Israeli government. Earlier this week, Binyamin Benaliezer, veteran Labour politician and trade and labour minister, urged the Israeli government during a cabinet meeting to expedite the peace process, saying, "if we continue to drag our feet, even the United States will recognise Palestine. We must do everything possible to get the dialogue with the Palestinians even if it costs us a settlement freeze for a few months."

Benaliezer added: "I wouldn't be surprised if within a year the whole world supports a Palestinian state, including the United States. Then we would ask ourselves, where we were and what we were doing?"

But Lieberman, a senior coalition partner whose departure from the government could bring about its collapse, is not a classical Israeli politician. He would rather cause the current government coalition to implode than see it adopt policies that would lead to the creation of a genuine Palestinian state.

This week, Lieberman lashed out at Netanyahu when the latter described remarks by the foreign minister about Turkey and the PA as "representing Lieberman, not the government". Lieberman retorted: "I am not a spokesman for Netanyahu, I am entitled to my own opinion."

Lieberman is confident that in any new elections his party would win more seats in the Israeli Knesset than ever. Experts say his calculations may not be exaggerated.


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