Palestinians should confront Israel in the battle for ideas

by Yaniv Reich on November 22, 2009

Israel’s government has done just about everything it can to undermine the peace negotiations it claims to want so fervently. In desperation Palestinian Authority officials have argued that in the absence of a peace partner, they should take their case directly to the UN. Other Palestinian leaders, such as the currently jailed Marwan Barghouti, have said Palestinians should begin a “constructive mix of negotiation, resistance, and political, diplomatic and popular action”. In this context, Tony Karon provides a brilliant strategic recommendation. He argues that Palestinians have for too long attempted to battle Israel on precisely those grounds where Israel was and is strongest—US political opinion and military confrontation. Instead, Karon asserts, Israel’s panicked reactions to the Goldstone report and the prospect of unilateral Palestinian moves in the UN demonstrate Israel’s greatest weakness: a call for equal rights in accordance with international and human rights law.

His article is worth reading in its entirety, but here is the extended argument:

The Palestinians would be well advised to think through the implications of the mix of tactics suggested by Mr Barghouti. For most of the past two decades, they have failed to make headway because they have chosen to challenge Israel on terrain where the Jewish state is strongest: armed confrontation, and in the corridors of power in Washington. Israel has easily prevailed on both fronts.

But it is far less confident when confronted by unarmed protesters demanding their rights, defending their homes from demolition to make way for Jewish settlements, challenging the “security” wall that pens them into their villages, fighting Israel’s apartheid regime on the West Bank and demanding rights that, in denying them, make a nonsense of Israel’s claim to be the region’s only democracy. In this respect, the UN could become an important vehicle for the Palestinians to press their case.

Sure, Israel professes contempt for the UN, insisting that it is inherently biased and therefore unworthy of being taken seriously. But that is bravado: Israel’s frenzied attempts to stop the UN discussing the Goldstone Report, bullying the Obama administration into leaning on Mr Abbas to withdraw Palestinian backing for a discussion of the issue, demonstrates just how sensitive Israel is to what happens at the UN and its image in international public opinion.

The Israelis saw what happened to South Africa: international public opinion turned against a repressive regime being propped up by the governments of the western democracies, eventually forcing those governments to distance themselves from the offending country. The Israelis are desperately afraid of such international isolation.

Going to the Security Council with something as abstract (and pointless) as a declaration of statehood is unlikely to get anywhere. But the Goldstone example shows that the Palestinians may do better to focus on specifics such as Israel’s decision to build new settlements on occupied land in East Jerusalem.

On Palestinian statehood the US can argue that the matter is best left to negotiation between the two sides, but on construction in East Jerusalem it cannot plausibly shield the Israelis; the US itself, together with the entire international community, has condemned such construction. And putting Washington on the spot by daring it to wield its veto may be a useful means of shaking the US out of the torpor of ignoring Israel’s transgressions of international law in the name of a peace process that no longer exists.

Mr Obama is no more likely than any other US president to deliver for the Palestinians. But he may find it difficult to stand in the way of them claiming their incontrovertible rights. Smart strategy for the Palestinians means taking on Mr Netanyahu outside his comfort zones: resisting the temptation to launch a new campaign of violence, but also no longer waiting for the US to play honest broker.

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