Friday, November 30, 2012

The U.N., the Palestinians and "Lincoln"

Sixty five years ago yesterday, the UN General Assembly’s  acceptance of the 1947 Partition Plan (listen to that historic vote) paved the way for the birth of the state of Israel.  It was not by accident that Nov. 29 was chosen as the date for a strong endorsement of Palestinian aspirations for statehood by that very same body, as yesterday they voted to upgrade the he UN has voted to upgrade Palestinian Authority to "State Observer" status.

It’s hard to say what this means, or whether it is ultimately bad, good or irrelevant to the prospects for two states to live side by side in peace, which most Israelis still claim to want.

Marc Schulman, whose commentary is almost always spot on, assesses the situation as a major diplomatic defeat for Israel on two levels:

On the first, and albeit more distant level, the change produces a new and more problematic starting point for any future negotiations with the Palestinians. Instead of negotiating towards an independent Palestinian state, the UN has now recognized it as such… More problematic is the fact that Israel lost the complete support of almost all of the European nations in this vote. The reason seems clear. There is a distinct sense that when it comes to the question of Israel-Palestinian negotiations, it is the Netanyahu government that seems unwilling to truly negotiate. Netanyahu is simply not believed when it comes to his willingness to negotiate. Of course, having Avigdor Lieberman as Foreign Minister, (a man that is unwelcome everywhere in the world but Eastern Europe), does not help bolster Israel's diplomatic efforts.

It would have been nice if Mahmoud Abbas had given Israelis (the people, more than the politicians) reason to believe that he is ready to make peace. If only Abbas had seized the moment and reached out to his neighbors as David Ben Gurion did on May 14, 1948. That certainly did not happen.  But neither has the door completely closed to a two state solution.  When we look at the two separate Palestinian entities, the P.A and Hamas, one still embraces acts of terror and the other relies on a diplomatic track.  These two entities are not two sides of the same coin, even if they profess to want unification; they are two different coins – two coins that hate each other. Abbas’ words may be wrong-headed and even libelous, as some Israelis have stated, but, as Shimon Peres has said so often, it’s deeds that count.  The plain fact is that Abbas has, for the most part, turned the terror spigot off and has said unequivocally that he has no intention of turning it on again. In the current Middle East, for better or for worse, that is the very definition of a moderate.

The Palestinian civil war is a microcosm of what’s going on in Egypt and the entire Middle East.  The role of the west here, and that includes Israel, is to make sure that those who eschew terror are the ones who win.  The model for success is not Gaza, where rockets reign, but the West Bank, where economic growth has brought a better life for the people (despite a recent slump).  In his civil war against Hamas, Abbas has to win.  Significantly, Israel is assisting the P.A. to overcome its current economic challenges.  

I saw the film “Lincoln” last week and see parallels between the Palestinian Civil War and ours.  Lincoln understood that reunification with the South could never happen on the South’s terms: i.e., with the continued legitimization of slavery.  His great fear was that the war would end before slavery was constitutionally abolished; he knew that that change could only occur before the return of those southern states - and their votes - to Congress.  So the thirteenth amendment was passed while those states were still on the outs, and by the time the southern states returned, abolition was a fait accompli, or as Israelis like to say, a “fact on the ground.”

Most Israelis agree that it is incumbent to make a thriving West Bank such a fact on the ground. But it would be even better to make a thriving, terror-free West Bank based Palestinian state a fact on the ground too.  That can only happen while Hamas is on the outside, a non player in the diplomatic arena.  Hamas is the South in this civil war, the entity that wants to continue existing with their version of the "Peculiar Institution," in this case terrorism rather than slavery. If moderation wins, Hamas will ultimately have to capitulate, because the Gazan people will see the advantages gained by their West Bank brethren and will force them to.  Egypt's President Morsi is now seeing first-hand that moderate forces can be very powerful when they speak with a clear voice - which is happening on the streets of Cairo right now.  The last word on the Arab Spring has yet to be written.  Like Lincoln, Israel and Abbas need to put facts of moderation on the ground.  This is happening economically.  It needs to happen at the negotiating table too.  

Can that happen? Can there be an agreement on the West Bank, before Gaza re-enters the equation? Obviously, Israel would need security guarantees.  But those could be worked out in negotiations.  Or not.  The point is, you need to get to negotiations to find out.  With an increasingly right wing Knesset list after this week's primaries, Netanyahu's new Likud is much less likely to do that.

Back in the early days of Oslo, the cry was "Gaza first," meaning that Jericho and Gaza would gain a modicum of autonomy, and we would see how that goes before moving to the next stage of the peace process.  Now, I think the cry needs to be "Gaza last,"  as we work toward the establishment of a West Bank only Palestine.

No comments: