On Thursday 29 November, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to endorse Palestine’s bid to gain “non-member observer state” status — a recognition of Palestine’s de facto statehood which entitles it to participate in UN debates and join international bodies such as the International Criminal Court.
138 countries supported the bid, with nine opposing it, including America and Israel. 41 nations, including Britain and Germany, abstained.
The bid was driven by Mahmoud Abbas, the PLO/Fatah president of the Palestinian Authority, which notionally governs in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Hamas, the Islamist party which rules in Gaza, eventually publicly supported the bid after initially wavering between indifference and hostility.
Photographs from the celebrations show both PLO/Fatah supporters and others waving Hamas flags — a significant fact in itself, given the hostility between the factions following Hamas’ repression of Fatah in Gaza.
The vote cannot force Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, end settlement building, or end the siege of Gaza.
Indeed, in a direct act of retaliation, Israel authorised the building of 3,000 new settler homes in the West Bank on Friday 30 November, and on 3 December it seized $120 million of Palestinian tax revenue. As Shimon Schiffer pointed out in Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, “even on the day after the new status, Abbas will not be able to leave Ramallah without the authorisation of the DCO [District Coordination Office, an administrative unit of the Israeli occupation] that controls the West Bank.” Israeli troops are also reported to have killed two Gazans since the “ceasefire” began.
The UN vote will not change much immediately on the ground, and is largely symbolic. But it is an important symbol. It could break the deadlock in terms of serious negotiations around the national question, establishing an explicit international consensus that may pressurise Israel to resume serious negotiations about a two-state settlement.
Although America, Israel’s major international ally, opposed the bid, it has condemned the new settlement building project. A statement from National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said: “We believe these actions are counterproductive and make it harder to resume direct negotiations or achieve a two state solution.” Other governments have taken a firmer line with Israel following the vote.
Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper reports that Britain, Sweden, and France had summoned their Israeli ambassadors to pass on official condemnation of the new building project.
Alistair Burt, the British Secretary of State for the Middle East and North Africa, said: “The UK deplores the recent Israeli government decision to build 3,000 housing units in the West Bank settlement, and to unfreeze development in the E1 bloc. This threatens the viability of the two state solution and we call on the Israeli government to reverse the decision.”
Germany and Russia also issued condemnations, and Ha’aretz reports a “senior European diplomat” saying: “This time it won’t just be a condemnation, there will be real action taken against Israel”. Sky News reports that British government figures are considering proposing the suspension of EU trade agreements with Israel.
The UN vote seems to have given some EU governments more confidence in putting diplomatic pressure on Israel. A shifting international consensus could encourage America to translate its words of condemnation into the actual exertion of some pressure.
The UN vote was greeted by jubilant celebrations in the West Bank, with Palestinians (including Hamas supporters) also taking to the streets to celebrate in Gaza. In a speech at the UN, Abbas referred to the vote as Palestine’s “birth certificate”.
All three major political elements in Israel/Palestine — the Israeli government, Hamas, and Fatah/PLO — are reactionary from a socialist point of view. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, himself a hard-line neo-liberal, is in an alliance with the racist, expansionist far-right party Israel Beiteynu (Israel Our Home), led by Avigdor Lieberman, and likely to win next year’s elections.
Hamas is a clerical-fascist party with links to the Iranian theocracy (itself a regional-imperialist power). And Fatah/PLO is a corrupt and largely-discredited bourgeois nationalist elite.
In spite of all of this, the UN vote will give those on the ground in both Israel and occupied Palestine fighting for alternative politics a reference point around which to build a movement. For Palestinians and internationalist Israelis, making the logic of the UN vote a reality is the obvious, immediately-implied political demand to unite around and pressure the Israeli state to concede.
Nominal statehood is not enough. A nominally independent Palestine that left the wider power imbalance intact would be a step forward, but would still leave the Palestine the subjugated neighbour of a militarily and economically superior Israel.
Genuine independence will come when Israel is forced to recognise an independent Palestine in contiguous territory, dismantle the settlements and evict settlers who refuse to live under Palestinian rule, and pay massive reparations to ensure the economic viability of a Palestinian state.
All of that is a long way off. But the UN vote creates a framework in which it is more possible.
The bid is a compromise for the Palestinians, but it is a reiteration of a compromise they made many years ago (most decisively in 1988, when the Palestine Liberation Organisation — the main umbrella body for radical nationalist groups — accepted Israel’s right to exist and endorsed a two-states framework).
The existence of the state of Israel, and the existence of a significant Jewish population in historic Palestine, are largely the results of a historical tragedy for which the Palestinian people are not to blame.
Although there was some “colonial”-type Zionist settlement of Palestine, the bulk of Israel’s founding population were not proto-imperialist settlers, but refugees from genocide with nowhere else to go (Britain and America having largely shut their doors). The way in which the state of Israel was established was criminally unjust, but to attempt to undo it by rewinding the film of history and expelling the Jewish (now Israeli-Jewish) population would be to pile another injustice on top of the first.
That is neither desirable not practically possible; the UN vote is a ringing international message to Israel that the way to guarantee its own stability is to end its colonial oppression of the Palestinians and allow them the independence and self-determination they were promised in 1947, but which they were never granted.