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May 25, 2011

The Arab spring and challenges to Netanyahu

Prof. Baha Abu-Laban

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In the face of the geopolitical reality and democratic promise of the Arab spring, there is global restiveness concerning the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the continuing, uncertain, social, economic, cultural and political future of the Palestinian people.

It may be that the days of blind acceptance of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s national priorities, foreign policy promises and occupation edicts are on the wane.

After 63 years of Palestinian diaspora, 44 years of continuing Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, and nearly 20 years of failed negotiations, Benyamin Netanyahu continues to drag his heels on being serious about negotiating an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Yet there are signs that the tide may be shifting, albeit slightly, in support of the Palestinian people. These are evidenced by the significant international success of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, by the outcry against Operation Cast Lead (the invasion of Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009), by the increasing number of European and Latin American countries that have recently recognized a Palestinian state, and by the strong negative reactions to Israel’s 2010 attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla.

These challenges to the Israeli state may reflect a loosening of Netanyahu’s grip over the agenda for the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In a May 16, 2011 New York Times op-ed article, the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, commemorated the tragedy of the 63rd anniversary of the 1948 nakba (or catastrophe), when some 750,000 Palestinians were forced to flee the violence in their country and become stateless refugees. Abbas affirmed his intention to petition the UN General Assembly, this September, to recognize “the State of Palestine on the 1967 border”, and to admit the new state “as a full member of the United Nations.” After all, Abbas argued, in November 1947, the UN General Assembly voted in favour of a two-state solution, and the long-ago recommendation to create a Palestinian state still remains unfulfilled.

By going to the General Assembly, Abbas stated that he would like to internationalize the conflict as a legal issue and not merely as a political one. According to Abbas, this would allow the Palestinians to “pursue claims against Israel at the United Nations, human rights treaty bodies and the International Court of Justice.”

Further, Abbas stated that negotiations with Israel, while desirable as a high priority initiative, have reached an impasse and, hence, there is an urgent need for a peaceful and just end to the conflict. The op-ed piece emphasized that the choice “is not between Palestinian unity or peace with Israel; it is between a two-state solution or settlement colonies.”

Once admitted to the United Nations, Abbas argued, a Palestinian state would be prepared to negotiate all core issues with Israel, including a just resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem.

Facing the prospect of a United Nations General Assembly vote on Palestinian statehood, what was Netanyahu’s response Abbas’s op-ed piece?

Reportedly, Netanyahu accused Abbas of “blatantly distorting historical known facts” (Reuters and Haaretz Service, Haaretz, May 17, 2011). In particular, Netanyahu rejected Abbas’s assertion that the Palestinians were expelled from their land in 1948, claiming “it was the Arab armies, with Palestinian help, who attacked the Jewish state in order to destroy it.”  Netanyahu further claimed that “the refugees were an outcome of that war, not a cause”; and that “some Palestinian leaders themselves urged the Palestinians to vacate the land in order to make it easier for the Arab armies to fight for the destruction of Israel”.

While Netanyahu’s claims may serve him as a diversionary strategy taking attention away from the complexities and injustice of the current situation, these claims are belied by historic record. Scholarly research evidence confirms Abbas’s assertions and not those of Netanyahu.  For example, Ilan Pappé’s well researched and meticulously documented book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006), supports Abbas’s arguments. Pappé’s most significant thesis in the book is that the overwhelming evidence points to the Zionist militias’ plans to cleanse Palestine of as many of its indigenous inhabitants as possible long before the proclamation of the Israeli state, and certainly before the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948. It is worth noting that Pappé, who currently teaches at the University of Exeter, is an Israeli Jew. He used evidence housed in the Israeli national archives that was made available to the public shortly before the publication of his book.

Events on the ground further confirm Abbas’s version of history. For example, the city of Jaffa, a large Arab Palestinian city, was emptied of most of its Arab inhabitants as a consequence of the violent attacks of Zionist militias many weeks before the end of the British mandate in Palestine. Two nearby Arab Palestinian towns, Lydda (Lod) and Ramle, faced a similar fate.

Also, the well known massacre of Deir Yassin, an Arab village near Jerusalem, committed by Zionist paramilitary groups on April 9, 1948, not only slaughtered inhabitants of this Arab village, but also simultaneously, as the news spread, terrorized the Arab population of Palestine and forced many to flee. The Zionist goal of ethnic cleansing was thus on the ascendancy long before the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

Other diversionary claims reportedly made by Netanyahu include the accusation that “the Palestinians rejected the United Nation’s partition plan in 1947”; and baseless assertion that “the Palestinian leadership saw the establishment of a Palestinian state as a way to continue the conflict with Israel rather than end it”. A senior Israeli government official, probably reflecting Netanyahu’s sentiments, chimed in by saying: “Abbas has chosen a strategy to establish a Palestinian state and used his improved position to wage a diplomatic and legal war against Israel”.

Netanyahu’s foreign policy conditions for ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as reflected in his address to the Knesset Plenum on May 16, 2011, include: “The demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people; a commitment to end conflict; a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue that did not require absorption within Israel’s borders; the establishment of a Palestinian state only in accordance with a peace deal that did not infringe on Israel’s security; that said Palestinian state be demilitarized; the preservation of large settlement blocs within the West Bank; and the insistence that Jerusalem remain the undivided capital of Israel.” (See Haaretz Service, Haaretz, May 17, 2011)

Needless to say the Palestinian Authority does not accept these conditions.

While one may be justified in assuming that Netanyahu speaks for the extreme right wing of the Likud party, who then speaks for the centre or the centre left in Israel? Here is a small sampling of what Israeli commentators are saying.

In an unsigned editorial appearing in the May 16, 2011 issue of Haaretz, it is stated that Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s address to the Knesset plenum on Monday (summarized above) “strengthens the Palestinian claim that direct diplomacy with Israel is a dead end, and justifies the Palestinians’ petition to the United Nations.” The editorial asserts that Netanyahu’s diplomatic plan is full of obsolete positions and “devoid of vision and detached from the new reality developing in the region.”

Further, the editorial continues, “He [Netanyahu] refrained from mentioning the 1967 borders as a starting point for a final-status arrangement, and committed to demanding a military presence along the Jordan River, to perpetuating the annexation of East Jerusalem and to demanding Palestinian recognition of Israel as the home of the Jewish people…The prime minister even made cancelling the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas a condition for resuming negotiations.”

The editorial concludes by stating that the proposed Israeli policy will likely isolate Israel and subject it to negative sanctions not unlike those imposed on apartheid South Africa.

Commenting on Netanyahu’s foreign policy address to the Knesset, the Israeli journalist Aluf Benn observed: “Netanyahu’s remarks are good for fans of nuance and iteration, but are meaningless on the ground.”

It seems clear that there is a noteworthy body of opinion within Israel, however small, that yearns for a new policy direction vis-à-vis the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

On the eve of Netanyahu’s visit to the United States, including an appearance before a joint session of the U.S. Congress, he has unambiguously stated his position on how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On the other hand, adding to Netanyahu’s apprehensions, U.S. President Barack Obama, in a major policy speech delivered at the State Department on May 19, 2011, again endorsed a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He further observed, as no other U.S. president before him had, that as a starting point for peace negotiations, a Palestinian state would be established on the 1967 border, with provision for land swaps. Significantly, Obama’s speech was designed to undermine Netanyahu’s diplomatic plan, as it was timed one day before Netanyahu’s pre-arranged address to the U.S. Congress and meeting with the U.S. president. This new American position presents yet another challenge to the Israeli Prime Minister.

The current climate is one of promise and the need for a farsighted approach has never been more pressing.

Palestinians and their supporters would do well to capitalize on the small stream of Israeli and American support and take to their pens and their keyboards to thank their supporters and to mount a media campaign against Netanyahu’s reactionary policies and for settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Arab Spring of 2011 that has swept across the Middle East and North Africa may yet benefit the long-suffering and oppressed Palestinian people.

Prof. Baha Abu-Laban is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Alberta.

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