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December 7, 2012

U.S. policy at U.N. hurts prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace

By Stephen Zunes

Up until the mid-20th century, Western attitudes regarding national freedom was that the independence of white Western nations was a given, but independence for nonwhite, non-Western nations could only be under conditions granted by the occupying powers.

The time at which these nations could be free, their specific boundaries and the conditions of their independence could only be reached through negotiations between the colonial occupiers and approved representatives of the conquered peoples. It was not the purview of the United Nations or any other international legal authority to adjudicate such matters, so went the argument, since the rights of those in the colonies were limited to what was willingly agreed to by the colonizers.

This appears to be the attitude of the Obama administration, which became one of only nine countries in the 193-member U.N. General Assembly late last month to vote against upgrading Palestine's status at the United Nations to "non-member state." Though an overwhelming majority of countries would have likely supported granting Palestine full membership, the threat of a U.S. veto made this impossible.

The Obama administration has faced strong bipartisan pressure by Congress to take such a hard line. In resolutions backed by California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and Santa Cruz area Reps. Sam Farr and Anne Eshoo last year, both houses of Congress went on record calling on the president to lead diplomatic efforts to oppose U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state except on terms agreed to by Israel.

Israel certainly has legitimate security concerns, which is why the U.N. Security Council Resolution 242--long seen as the basis of Israeli-Palestinian peace-- calls for security guarantees from Israel's neighbors as a prerequisite for Israel's withdrawal from occupied Arab territories. However, the Palestine Authority (PA), under the leadership of the moderate President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, has already agreed to such security guarantees, including a demilitarized state, the disarming of militias and the stationing of Israeli and international monitors inside Palestine. Indeed, there have been virtually no attacks against civilians inside Israel from areas of the West Bank controlled by the PA since Abbas became president in 2005.

The PA is only seeking statehood within 22 percent of historical Palestine, the part seized by Israel in 1967 and which is recognized by the international community as occupied territory. Under international law, peoples under foreign belligerent occupation have a legal right to national self-determination. However, the Obama administration and Congress apparently believe that this 22 percent is too much and the Palestinians should settle for even less.

By contrast, the Israeli government under the right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made clear that Israel would only consider allowing for a Palestinian "state" in a series of tiny non-contiguous urban cantons surrounded by Israel.

Palestine declared itself an independent state back in 1988 and was soon recognized by more countries than recognize Israel. The United States, however, insists they are somehow still not yet ready to have their state recognized by the UN until after a peace agreement with Israel. By contrast, when Israel sought to join the UN in 1949, the U.S. didn't insist that it wait until the Palestinians and other Arabs signed a peace agreement with them first.

It is this failure to support legitimate Palestinian national aspirations under the leadership of the moderate PA which has contributed to the rise of extremist groups like Hamas, which argue that such moderation doesn't work. Opposing legitimate nonviolent diplomatic initiatives such as those at the United Nations to establish a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel only encourages the violent extremists who wish to see Israel destroyed.

Dr. Stephen Zunes is a Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, where he chairs the program in Middle Eastern Studies. Recognized as one the country’s leading scholars of U.S. Middle East policy and of strategic nonviolent action, Professor Zunes received his PhD. from Cornell University, his M.A. from Temple University and his B.A. from Oberlin College. He has previously served on the faculty of Ithaca College, the University of Puget Sound, and Whitman College. He serves as a senior policy analyst for the Foreign Policy in Focus project of the Institute for Policy Studies, an associate editor of Peace Review, a contributing editor of Tikkun, and chair of the academic advisory committee for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.