Over the last decade, the Israel-Palestine conflict has taken a back seat as US foreign policy, and indeed that of a large proportion of the ‘free world’, has been transfixed on the war on terror. The conflict re-entered the limelight last week as President Mahmoud Abbas called on the United Nations General Assembly to back a two-state solution, recognising the state of Palestine with pre-1967 borders. President Abbas’s speech was met with thundering applause, mainly from ‘smaller’ states which form the majority of the General Assembly but have disproportionately less power in the control of global affairs compared to the five most powerful states in the world which control the fifteen-member United Nations Security Council – the United States, the United Kingdom, China, Russia and France.
Many ask: why the sudden resuscitation of this conflict on the world stage? A likely answer is that after decades of circular negotiations which have produced no outcome, the Palestinian leadership has decided to seek international legitimacy as a way of strengthening their position. It is also thought that the increase in Israeli settlements on land that Palestinians view as their own has compounded their call for a solution to a conflict that, along with that in the DRC, is the most complex in the world. The consequences of the creation of a Palestinian state may include possible recourse to the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed by the Israelis on Palestinian territory. Abbas contends that being accorded state status by the United Nations will improve the Palestinian bargaining position in relation to Israel and expose Israel as an occupying power in another sovereign state. Israel, understandably, is not happy with Palestine’s bid, viewing it as a threat to future negotiations, opening the door to violence and instability and in arguable violation of the 1993 Oslo Accords. It is reported that the general Israeli view is to embrace a two-state solution eventually, although critics argue that Israelis are unwilling to make the compromises necessary to achieve this.
At the 2010 session of the General Assembly, President Obama was in strong support of a two-state solution, along the lines of the current Palestinian bid. He asserted that “[i]f an agreement is not reached, Palestinians will never know the pride and dignity that comes with their own state. Israelis will never know the certainty and security that comes with sovereign and stable neighbours who are committed to co-existence. The hard realities of demography will take hold. More blood will be shed. This Holy Land will remain a symbol of our differences, instead of our common humanity. I refuse to accept that future.” In a spectacular backtrack, thought by many to be another Obama strategy for political survival in the face of an impending presidential election, Obama has refused to support the most recent Palestinian cry for a two-state solution. He superficially argues that only negotiations can bring a lasting peace and stability. Europe is confused and divided on the issue. History, international law and principle may explain why.
All that remains is to ask – if the world, in particular the western liberal world, was hyperventilating with excitement at the Arab Spring which saw the fall of many a western foe (notably Gaddafi and Mubarak), why is there such reluctance to support the self-determination of a people seeking a springtime start to a lasting peace? Can we blame ordinary Palestinians for feeling forgotten and excluded? How does the world react to West Bank settlers who are deeply opposed to the very idea of a Palestinian state on land they believe was given to them by God? Can the skepticism of Palestinians about the “peace process” and their resentment to Jewish settlements expanding on their land be successfully tempered? Is Hamas’s threat to ‘wipe out Israel’ real?
Despite doubt after Obama’s declared support for Israel, Abbas has stated the Palestinian position. Whatever the outcome of the Security Council deliberations, Palestine has succeeded in drumming up worldwide support and much needed pre-negotiation legitimacy for its bid for a two-state solution. However, the reality of global power play suggests that this is a small peak in the series of valleys in the bid to find a solution to a conflict many believe has no solution.