It is very possible that in late September or early October, the United Nations Security Council will vote on whether to recognise Palestine as a state and accept it as a member of the United Nations. The president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mohammed Abbas, will address the General Assembly of the United Nations on September 23. According to the PA foreign minister, Riyad al-Malki, Abbas will hand a request for that recognition to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who will pass it on to the Security Council.
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, and other officials have made it clear that the US will veto such a request. When this happens, the PA, which has observer status, can ask the UN General Assembly to give it observer status as a state, a heightened level of recognition by the UN. Palestinian leaders have estimated that they have the support of at least 100 member states for such recognition.
The Israeli government and current Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu have threatened that UN recognition would drastically set back negotiations between Israel and the PA.
The US veto of any recognition of a Palestinian state amounts to a policy statement that a Palestinian state can exist only if it has Israel’s permission. Such a state can never be really sovereign. This situation is impossible, and exposes the fact that the negotiations Israel says it is prepared to enter into are only about how the Palestinians can have such a non-sovereign state, i.e. a non-state.
It is also clear from Israel’s policies on the ground that the only form of non-state that Israel is prepared to accept is one like the Bantustans that apartheid South Africa tried to impose on the country’s Black majority. Any map of Israel-Palestine that shows all Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the Israeli-only road corridors and the land-stealing “security wall”, clearly shows that the Palestinian Arab population is being organised more and more to live in Bantustans. No doubt a map of the growth, actual and planned, of new housing for non-Arab Israelis in Jerusalem would show the same pattern.
Recognition of a Palestinian state that does not need the permission of Israel or the United States would be a good thing. Hopefully the PA does present its proposal to the Security Council and, if it is vetoed, take the question to the General Assembly.
It is hard to imagine any resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people that does not include an element of negotiations – although it is not impossible. But negotiations over what? The leaked “Palestinian Papers” indicated that the Abbas leadership may have been willing to make so many concessions that they were prepared to negotiate the establishment of a Bantustan non-state rather than a sovereign state.
The strategy adopted by the Abbas leadership – and increasingly accommodated to by Hamas – relies on negotiations and sees other political activity, such as mobilisations or even armed activity, as a secondary tactic. According to Abbas: “Our first, second and third priority is negotiations ... No matter what happens at the UN, we have to return to negotiations.”
This reflects two major aspects of the situation. First, the PA leaders are bourgeois nationalists, i.e. they wish to establish a Palestinian state that will accommodate a capitalist economy and privilege a moneyed elite. While they will support and use mass mobilisation as a tactic, turning it off or on to affect the atmosphere for negotiations, they will not base their campaigns on such mobilisations, because ongoing organisation for mobilisation develops the grassroots as an empowered independent base.
Second, it is also true that the objective situation of the Palestinian people’s struggle makes a strategy based on mass mobilisation very challenging. At the moment, most of the Palestinian people prefer a single, democratic state covering all of historical Palestine as the ultimate outcome of the struggle for liberation. However, while the main location of Israeli state power is outside the territory where the Palestinian masses might be mobilised, and while encroachments by settlers are fenced off and militarily defended, mass campaigning against the occupation within current Palestinian territory will either be primarily a show of support – always necessary and useful – or be confrontations with the Israeli army.
These difficulties are not arguments against a strategy based on mass campaigning (in which negotiations may be an element) and in favour of one based on negotiations (in which mass protests may be just an atmosphere-influencing tactic). Such a terribly bad balance of forces locally (also given the assistance Israel receives via the acquiescence of most of the Arab states) only means that mass campaigning must be international.
This is precisely the framework of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign that has emerged out of Palestine since 2005. A BDS National Committee (BNC) has been formed in Palestine, comprising a broad range of people’s organisations, to spearhead a global campaign of popular participation to demand boycotts and sanctions against Israeli interests and divestment from Israeli-linked businesses.
The BNC’s own minimum demands, formulated as part of its initial call and encapsulated also in an August 2011 statement on the issue of UN recognition, are:
A. Ending Israel’s occupation and colonisation of all Arab lands occupied in 1967;
B. Honouring the right of Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality by ending the Israeli systemof legalised and institutionalised racial discrimination (which conforms to the UN definition of apartheid); and
C. Respecting and enabling the implementation of the UN-sanctioned right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and lands from which they were expelled.
At the level of legality, these demands continue to accept two states. But winning the demands would undermine that, because discrimination against Palestinian Arabs in Israel and arbitrary exclusion of refugees are policies that are essential for Israel’s survival as the Jewish state that it de facto is and which Netanyahu wants recognised de jure.
The statement also explains: “The BNC welcomes the recognition of a great majority of states around the world that the Palestinian rights to statehood and freedom from Israeli occupation are long overdue and should no longer be held hostage to fanatically biased US ‘diplomacy’ in defense of Israeli expansionism. However, recognition of Palestinian statehood is clearly insufficient, on its own, in bringing about a real end to Israel’s occupation and colonial rule.”
Examples of South Africa, Timor
More and more people are familiar with this campaign. In Australia, there are groups supporting BDS activities in almost all cities, and their successes have already earned attacks from pro-Israeli groups. As interest in BDS grows and there is more discussion, there has also been more comparison with the boycott campaign that helped to end apartheid in South Africa. The extremely bad balance of forces on the ground in South Africa was partially countered through the internationalisation of the campaign.
This overall situation also recalls, in some respects, the struggle for the end of the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. In East Timor the balance of forces on the ground was also hopeless. The leaders of the national liberation movement did use mass mobilisation as a tactic – in 1990-91 in East Timor – but their overall strategy relied on lobbying, diplomacy and negotiation. The repression in East Timor was so intense that ongoing mass mobilisation was probably impossible. In Indonesia, where many Timorese were studying, protest actions were undertaken, but again as tactical moves, meant to attract media publicity and not aimed at building up strength. There were vigorous debates with some Timorese, in cooperation with Indonesian radicals, who wanted to escalate the level of mass mobilisation. However, the Xanana Gusmao leadership opted for a much more cautious approach.
Nevertheless, that minority in Indonesia and East Timor, cooperating with other groups internationally, especially in Portugal and Australia, maintain a sustained level of mobilising activity between 1991 and 1998. Within Indonesia, a separate mass campaign forced out the Indonesian dictatorship in 1998. The success of the mass campaigning against the dictatorship opened the way for more open campaigning for a self-determination referendum in East Timor. The mobilising in Portugal and Australia also prepared the ground for larger mobilisations in 1999, when it was necessary to defend the results of the freedom referendum.
Both the South African and East Timor examples show that even when a moderate bourgeois leadership of a national liberation movement sticks to its lobbying, diplomacy and negotiations strategy, mobilisation-based campaigning, usually organised by other leaderships often in a tense alliance with the bourgeois leaderships, can be crucial in winning national liberation, despite the bourgeois leaders ending up in control of the state. That is generally inevitable until there is a radicalisation around issues of democracy and justice among the people of the oppressed nation.
The BDS campaign and its increasing support internationally are a major new development. Recognition of a Palestinian state in the UN would strengthen all campaigning, even if the PA leadership itself ends up treating it as nothing more than a bargaining chip in negotiations.
The BNC’s August statement ends: “The BNC calls upon people of conscience and international solidarity groups to proceed with building a mass BDS movement in the US and elsewhere in the world’s most powerful countries before and after September. Only such a mass movement can ensure that whatever diplomatic recognition that transpires at the UN in September on Palestinian statehood will advance the rights of the Palestinian people and raise the price of Israel’s occupation, colonialism and apartheid by further isolating it and those complicit in its crimes. A mass solidarity movement that can hold elected officials, especially in the US, accountable to the people, rather than to a Zionist lobby serving Israel’s colonial and belligerent agenda that directly conflicts with the interests of the peoples in these countries, is the only hope for a comprehensive and sustainable peace based on justice.”
Demand a sovereign state: don’t negotiate it. The recognition of a Palestinian state alongside Israel cannot be anything more than an interim measure; it is not a solution to the current conflict. Eventually, depending on how rapidly the BDS campaign advances and how seriously social unrest in Israel grows, the popular demand will be for a referendum of all residents, the diaspora and refugees on the future of historical Palestine.