The United Nations vote on Nov. 29 that accorded the Palestinian Authority “nonmember observer state” status was a rare piece of positive action and forward progress in the long history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Although the vote, which passed overwhelmingly — 138 for, nine against and 41 abstentions — is largely symbolic in that it doesn’t change boundary lines on the ground or actually establish greater Palestinian control over its territory, it is important and useful in a number of other ways.
And although Israel and the United States opposed the U.N. resolution, its passage may prove beneficial to both countries.
First, that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would choose to pursue higher diplomatic status and recognition at the U.N. is positive on the face of it. His request was legal and nonviolent, and executed within the existing frameworks of international diplomacy. It affirms the value and rewards — especially to the Palestinians — of working within the U.N. politically, as opposed to relying exclusively on violent or military initiatives.
That is no small factor. The Palestinian people are currently divided physically and politically. In the Gaza Strip, a tiny land area 25 miles long and 4 to 8 miles wide, 1.6 million Palestinians are governed by Khaled Mashaal of the Hamas political faction; while 20 miles away in the West Bank, an area the size of Delaware, 2 million Palestinians are led by President Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah wing of the Palestinian Authority.
Hamas came to power legitimately in 2006 in a democratic election, but feuding and intermittent street fighting between Hamas and Fatah occurred for roughly 18 months before the defeated Fatah leadership finally evacuated to the West Bank.
Since that time, Fatah has proved to be relatively responsible about maintaining and seeking peace and coexistence with Israel, while Hamas has a much more complicated and checkered identity and record.
President Abbas accepts Israel’s right to exist, and he has repeatedly affirmed the need for nonviolent initiatives to create two states alongside one another. Hamas, on the other hand, does not recognize Israel, and has not renounced violence. It permits random rocket attacks against Israel, and it allows fundamentalist Muslims a large role in determining the norms of everyday society in the Gaza Strip.
In the competition between Hamas and Fatah — between violence and diplomacy — Israel and the rest of the world should be giving young Arab Palestinians reason to choose Fatah. The sense of disempowerment in the Strip, and the constant friction with Israel, are realities that add to the radicalization of Muslim youths.
By contrast, Abbas’ win at the U.N. may help empower the moderate majority of Palestinians.
At the same time, the vote puts pressure on Israel to take steps that advance the peace process. It is quite clear that the world is becoming impatient with Israel. Its constant settlement expansions in the West Bank and East Jerusalem seem incredibly counterproductive and self-destructive. Already with 520,000 settlers in the Palestinian territory of a future state, Israel just compounds the intractability of this conflict with every new, illegal, in-your-face outpost it builds.
Israel’s response to the U.N. vote — saying it will build yet more settlements — was the response of almost a rogue state. Thumbing its nose at world opinion, and rejecting the universal advice of true friends who are warning against what appears to be deliberate provocation, Israel seems poised to embrace its worst dysfunctions and increase its isolation.
While the jihadi and extremist Salafis of the Gaza Strip are truly frightening and deadly — and possess medieval ideologies that must be countered and marginalized — the Palestinians of the West Bank could be engaged immediately by an Israel willing to halt its own illogical expansionism.
President Abbas and 138 nations at the U.N. can see that the status quo needs changing. The stalemate that the Palestinians exist in simply freezes an injustice in place. While mammoth changes are warping Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and other Arab countries, it is foolish to think that the Palestinians will remain unmoved by the currents of the Arab Spring.
The U.N. vote has given Israel a major opportunity. President Abbas has signaled his willingness to take on the responsibilities of statehood — which, in this case, require sober, nonviolent governance.
President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt also gave Israel a gift — he worked to produce a cease-fire from Hamas.
This is a moment in time when the Israelis could craft a two-state deal with the Palestinians. Because the globe is a troubled place, and likely to become more so, the Israelis — infinitely more capable and empowered than the Palestinians — increasingly bewilder the world with their inability to see themselves and their actions clearly.
Brian T. Watson is a regular Salem News columnist. Contact him at email@example.com.