Israel, Palestine, and US Isolationism
On Monday, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization accepted Palestine as a full member. The vote to accept or reject membership to the UN’s cultural body took place in Paris and went as follows: 107 for and 14 against with 52 abstentions (which count in the Palestinians favor). In line with a US law that mandates the nation withdraw funding from bodies that recognize Palestine, the American government cut funding to UNESCO. The stalled vote on recognition of Palestine as a full member of the United Nations is set to take place within the UN Security Council this month. If all goes as promised, the United State’s veto will prevent recognition from occurring. The US reaction to events surrounding Palestinian attempts to gain bargaining power and be taken seriously in this peace process have only served to further isolate the US in the Middle East and weaken her internationally.
President Obama, like a broken record, has repeatedly stated his opposition to UN recognition based upon the argument that Abbas can’t circumvent the peace process by going to the UN for statehood. What he fails to understand is that this move is not Abbas’ attempt at unilaterally ending the peace process. Palestinians have long held little bargaining power in relation to Israel during peace negotiations, and are seeking support from the international community. Slowly, as the US and Israel have been busy isolating themselves politically during the past few years, the PA has been gaining international support. Among the votes in favor of Palestine’s UNESCO membership were Brazil, China, India, France, South Africa, Iraq, Peru, Russia, and Kenya. These “in favor” votes represent important political and economic players across the globe. It is hardly a narrow field of nations. The only nations voting against that hold any diplomatic power were Canada, Germany, and Australia (excluding the US and Israel). Meanwhile, the US was busy cutting one-fifth of the organization’s budget while Israel announced increased settlement construction in the West Bank as “punishment” for the UNESCO vote. However, continuing illegal settlement activity is nothing new and the notion that Palestinians require Israeli approval to manage their own international affairs is absurd. Israel certainly doesn’t give much thought to international opinion in regards to her own affairs.
In recent years, Israel has pushed itself further away from the international community in several ways:
1.) Continual settlement construction and expansion in the West Bank. An activity deemed illegal by international law that is classified as land theft and displaces civilians.
2.) The continuing blockade of the Gaza strip since 2007, which blocks basic goods and services from over one million civilians and non-combatants, causing poverty, poor public health, and borderline food insecurity.
3.) The 2008-2009 winter assault on Gaza which left the death of hundreds of innocents, human rights abuses, and violations of international law in its wake. All at the hands of the Israeli government.
4.) The Israeli attack on the Mavi Mara vessel bound for Gaza in May 2010, which killed nine civilians, including one American.
5.) Unmitigated attacks on Palestinians by Israeli settlers and extremists in the West Bank.
All these actions reflect an attitude that is reckless, unconcerned with peace, and oppressive. I listened to stories and witnessed occupation first hand last summer while filming in the West Bank. While travelling around settlements and skirting checkpoints on the way from Bethlehem to Ramallah, I saw crude tents and homes of corrugated metal pitched in the shadow of expansive settlements. I held the teargas canister that killed a man named Bassam in Bil’in during a protest against the separation wall. I looked out over a fence patrolled by the Israeli military that cut a community off from their agricultural land, and what is true in many places, water sources as well. I heard stories of children suffering from PTSD as a result of IDF raids in refugee camps. I heard stories of brothers, fathers, and uncles who disappeared for months or years at a time to Israeli prisons without warning. I talked with a man in the West Bank who was fighting against Israeli demolition of his family farm which was also home to a peace initiative of all things.
The problem lies in the fact that these things are all a result of government policies and sanctioned actions. While the US is busy condemning these sorts of actions in other parts of the globe, it actively funds and supports it when done on Palestinian land. Israel is the largest recipient of US foreign and military aid, as well as a close political ally. Despite all the actions listed above, the American government fails to enact any repercussions on the Israeli government besides a half-hearted public statement or chastisement from time to time. When the issues of human rights and international law arise in relation to Israel, the US remains silent.
The conflict for the US comes from the fact that there is too much at stake domestically to advocate for people’s rights and freedoms in an unbiased manner. Political power, votes, campaign contributions, and special interests are too much to give up for most politicians to advocate for the rights of Palestinians. Pushing unquestioned support of Israel gains votes, among Democrats and Republicans alike. And as a Christian, I am sad to say it is a powerful vote grabber among evangelicals. The issue of why the issue of statehood for Palestinians is so important is this: As professor Juan Cole put it, ”Statehood is the right to have rights. Palestinians not only have no rights, they don’t have the right to have them. That is why the Israeli pledges to them in the Oslo peace process could be reneged on so easily. Palestinians are the nobodies of the Levant, the non-entities, the marks and fall guys.”
With the US fully backing Israel, Palestinians have never stood a chance at gaining freedom from the peace process. US obstinace in the face of recent events has coupled to create an increasing isolation of the US and Israel in the Middle East. Israel’s neighbors in the region, as well as the international community are coming out in increasing support of Palestine. Additionally, and most important for Americans, they are looking less and less to the US for leadership. The US is losing reverence and admiration at an increasing pace among Arabs, and on this issue, among its European allies as well. The UNESCO vote as well as the upcoming UNSC vote will be testaments to these new emerging realities.
I may sound disproportionate in my criticism here, but I will be honest and say that I hold Israel and the United States to a high standard. Israel and the US are sovereign, democratic nations. I expect them the honor and respect human rights, freedom, civil liberties, and behave in a respectful and peaceful manner. While not always true of the PLO prior to 2002, as a semi-autonomous body, the Palestinian Authority has managed to take an approach to peace that respects basic human rights. Israel and the US have not.
Unless the US takes up an approach to peace that supports the rights and freedoms of both sides in this conflict with equal weight and importance, it will move into a place of isolation and possibly irrelevance in the minds of the Arab people. If things continue as they are currently, Palestinian leadership may very likely cut the US out of the peace process completely and bring new players into the game. This is unfortunate, since the US has the greatest potential to achieve the best outcome for both Israelis and Palestinians.