Why Canada should support the Palestinian membership bid at the UN

And why Israel should too

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas prepares to make bid to the UN General Assembly on Nov. 29 (Thaer Ghanaim/Getty)

In the West Bank several years ago, I asked a Palestinian activist how he proposed convincing Israel to make some sort of concession to Palestinian sovereignty. I forget now the specific point we were discussing. But I do remember his response. Israel, he said, cannot be convinced of anything. It must be compelled — non-violently, he added.

Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, he said, is old-fashioned colonialism, and throughout history colonizers have never given up their colonies simply because they felt like it. They were pressured to do so. There may be exceptions to the rule, but broadly speaking, he’s right. Colonies are freed when the costs of keeping them outweigh the benefits.

I’d argue that Israel has long since passed this point with the West Bank. Controlling the territory without giving citizenship rights to the Palestinians who live there erodes Israel’s democratic legitimacy; annexing the place and enfranchising all its inhabitants would soon make Jews a minority in all of Israel.

This was clear to the Zionist leader and politician Zalman Aran, who, following Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, said controlling the West Bank “will do us more harm than good. We will choke on it.” Four decades later, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert voiced similar concerns that the failure of a two-state solution would lead to a South African-style campaign for equal voting rights for all residents of Israel and the West Bank, and if were that to happen, “the state of Israel is finished.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly favours a two-state solution but rejects Israel’s 1967 borders as a basis for negotiations, calling them unrealistic and indefensible. Hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews now live beyond those borders in settlements throughout the West Bank and their numbers have grown steadily since Israel captured the territory in the 1967 Six-Day War. Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority governing the West Bank broke down in 2010 when Israel refused to extend a 10-month freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank unless the Palestinians recognized Israel as a Jewish State, which they refused to do. About one fifth of Israeli citizens are not Jewish.

With negotiations stalled and Palestinian civilians frustrated because of the lack of any real progress toward statehood, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is trying other tactics. Tomorrow at the United Nations, he will ask the international body to upgrade Palestine’s status to “non-member observer” state.

Israel’s response in the run-up to this vote — which will be supported by a majority of member states, including several from the European Union — has been hot and hyperbolic. It threatened sanctions and the withholding of tax revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. Earlier this month, a position paper leaked from the Foreign Ministry proposed “toppling” Abbas if the Palestinian bid was approved.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper reportedly piled on, meeting with Abbas in New York to threaten “consequences,” which included closing the Palestinian delegation office in Ottawa and sending the Palestinian envoy home.

It is only in recent days, according to a report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, that Israel prepared to back down. As it became clear that more Western nations would support the motion, Israel saw decreasing value in punishing the Palestinians for it. It still opposes the motion, but plans a much more muted response.

“We examined different ways to react, but eventually the ministers realized that almost whatever we do will hurt Israel at least as much as it will hurt the Palestinians,” a diplomatic source told Haaretz.

Israel’s position is worth examining in more detail. Israel’s argument is that a Palestinian state must be negotiated and that this motion avoids that process. They also fear that the Palestinians will use their upgraded status to press their case at the International Criminal Court. These are not illogical concerns, but they miss the bigger and more important picture.

The Palestinians are currently divided between Abbas’s Fatah party, which governs the West Bank, and the Islamist group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and has spent much of the last six years sending rockets against Israeli civilians.

Hamas has just emerged from an eight-day war with Israel militarily weakened but arguably strengthened politically. It showed it could rocket Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and it survived Israel’s air campaign against it. It negotiated a ceasefire with Israel, and in doing so drew international attention and involvement, including from the United States. At no time did Israel publicly discuss toppling it.

Unlike Hamas, Mahmoud Abbas has committed to non-violent measures. “As long as I’m sitting here, in this position, I will not allow an intifada. We will act only through diplomatic and peaceful means,” he told Israel’s Channel 2 News earlier this year.

He also implicitly gave up Palestinians’ “right of return” that would allow Palestinian refugees and their descendents who were forced from their homes in the 1948 Israeli war of independence to return to live in Israel.

“I want to see Safed,” he told Channel 2, referring to his boyhood home in Galilee. “It is my right to see it, but not to live there. Palestine now for me is ’67 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital. I believe that the West Bank and Gaza is Palestine and all the other parts are Israel.”

During the final years of former Palestinian chairman Yasser Arafat’s leadership, Israelis often claimed they didn’t have a legitimate negotiating partner for peace. They were probably right. They have one now in Abbas, yet Israel considered toppling him over what is essentially a symbolic diplomatic publicity stunt at a time when Abbas needs to demonstrate his utility to ordinary Palestinians who may be looking to Hamas.

If Abbas is removed, or is marginalized to the point of irrelevance, it is difficult to imagine a Palestinian leader who is more amenable to Israeli interests taking his place at the negotiating table. If Fatah crumbles in the West Bank, Hamas will rise. Abbas needs a boost right now. Canada should vote for his motion at the United Nations. For that matter, so should Israel.

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