Originally published on Tikkun Daily
The word was only supposed to be spoken once. Enough. In a prepared speech, upon the printed page, it was typed just once. Enough.
And yet, by the time Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had neared the conclusion of his historic speech on Friday before the United Nations General Assembly – as throngs chanted in the West Bank and his English translator choked back tears – Abbas couldn’t say it just once. For the word embodied the essence of Abbas’ speech, the essence of the Palestinians’ U.N. bid for statehood, the essence of a decades-old struggle for legitimacy and self-determination. And so he paused on the word and intoned it thrice. Enough. Enough. Enough.
The word represented both a personal and a collective yearning – the need for years of occupation to end and for independence, for a Palestinian Spring, to begin. Just after repeating this word, Abbas said:
The time has come for our men, women and children to live normal lives, for them to be able to sleep without waiting for the worst that the next day will bring; for mothers to be assured that their children will return home without fear of suffering killing, arrest or humiliation; for students to be able to go to their schools and universities without checkpoints obstructing them. The time has come for sick people to be able to reach hospitals normally, and for our farmers to be able to take care of their good land without fear of the occupation seizing the land and its water, which the wall prevents access to, or fear of the settlers, for whom settlements are being built on our land.
But the word enough didn’t simply represent a desire for years of occupation and suffering to end. For Abbas, giving a speech in defiance of U.S. pressure to abandon the Palestinians’ Security Council bid, the word also had diplomatic implications: Enough of the U.S. being the central broker in decades of failed negotiations. Enough of this cyclical status quo.
The speech, and the U.N. bid itself for full membership in the Security Council, are being viewed by some as merely symbolic, given that the Obama administration has vowed to veto the Palestinian bid in the Security Council. The symbolic nature of this diplomatic effort is being critiqued given that nothing on the ground would likely change even if the Palestinians’ were to gain legitimacy through a General Assembly resolution.
However, such critiques, while entirely valid, fail to recognize this: symbols can be powerful and, sometimes, transformational.
This was evident on Friday, as thousands of Palestinians in Ramallah, watching Abbas’ speech live in the city’s public square, applauded when he took the stage and began speaking, holding up his portrait. When Abbas raised before the camera the PA’s official request submitted to the Security Council for full U.N. membership, the crowds roared. And when he quoted the words of a cherished poet before the U.N., they cheered wildly:
My people desire to exercise their right to enjoy a normal life like the rest of humanity. They believe what the great poet Mahmoud Darwish said: Standing here, staying here, permanent here, eternal here, and we have one goal, one, one: to be.
Most Palestinians understand the symbolic nature of what is occurring, and not everyone is pleased by this process for a variety of reasons. However, those who cheered and chanted in the streets well after Abbas had finished speaking did so, in part, because their leader had finally stood before the world and demanded that the Palestinians’ national aspirations be realized. They sang because Abbas articulated to the world their experiences and aspirations. They danced because Abbas looked everyone in the eye and said:
Our people are waiting to hear the answer of the world. Will the world allow Israel to occupy us forever? Are we an unwanted people? Or are we a missing state?
Or, in other words: enough.
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The Obama administration, which has vowed to veto any such efforts by the PA, has been engaged in frantic attempts to avert this move by the Palestinians. Why? Vetoing a Palestinian statehood bid at the Security Council will significantly damage one of President Obama’s main foreign policy goals: to cast the U.S. as a champion of Arab freedom and democracy in a turbulent and shifting Middle East.
This is why Washington has initiated last-minute talks with Abbas, trying to convince him to forgo the Security Council. The Obama administration understands that rejecting the Palestinians’ statehood bid on what will no doubt be a highly-dramatized world stage will do significant damage to this central foreign policy goal, and will likely further erode America’s already-shaky standing in the Middle East.
And this is precisely why Abbas is gambling with a move that is almost certain to fail. The Palestinians will force America to demonstrate to the world, once and for all, what most have known for some time – that the U.S. cannot be looked upon as the dominant brokering power in Middle East peace efforts.
According to a report from Haaretz, it was actually America’s final offer to avert a U.N. showdown which convinced Abbas and the Palestinians to directly challenge the Obama administration before the world:
A last-ditch U.S. attempt to sway the Palestinian Authority away from its planned statehood bid at the United Nations and toward resumed negotiations with Israel achieved only in convincing the Palestinians that recognition in the UN was their only possibility, a PA official said on Saturday.
Speaking to reporters in Ramallah, Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath said that a plan delivered at the last minute by U.S. envoys David Hale and Dennis Ross did not meet several Palestinian demands, thus convincing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that the U.S. was not serious in trying to negotiate peace.
The offer made by the U.S. did nothing to address Israel’s illegal settlement construction or the occupation, and reportedly leaned toward legitimizing the settlements by describing them as “demographic trends since 1967.”
Shaath told Haaretz that “David Hale and Dennis Ross came with a paper that was the last straw that he [Abbas] could take. It seems that it was designed to be rejected.”
And so now, Abbas will reject American overtures before the world and force the Obama administration to either a) actualize Obama’s oft-stated desire for the Palestinians to have a state of their own, or b) damage its standing as a player in the Middle East by vetoing Palestinian statehood in the Security Council.
Abbas’ speech on Friday in Ramallah, in which he announced the Security Council gambit, made explicit that the effort was in no way meant to delegitimize Israel. In fact, Abbas was clear to note that the Palestinians are committed to a negotiated settlement with Israel, and stated that the Palestinians’ first desire, after concluding its U.N. efforts, was to return to the negotiating table with Israel and hammer out a peace settlement.
However, the upcoming showdown with the U.S. sends a clear message: the negotiating table to which the Palestinians will return must allow for additional place settings – it must make room for diplomatic players other than just the U.S. and Israel.
This move to the U.N. Security Council is about dignity. It’s about delegitimizing the occupation. It’s about delegitimizing Israel’s continued, illegal settlement construction that has whittled away much of the West Bank. And it’s about standing up to U.S. hypocrisy – a hypocrisy which has prompted the Obama administration to condemn the Palestinians’ U.N. effort as unilateral while characterizing the true unilateral affront – settlement construction – as “demographic trends.”
In all likelihood, once the U.S. vetoes Palestinian statehood in the Security Council, Abbas will shift to the General Assembly, where he will win a resounding (though largely symbolic) diplomatic victory through a non-binding resolution recognizing Palestinian statehood.
Will such a victory change anything on the ground immediately? No, and nobody expects it will. However, what will likely change is America’s standing with regard to its role as a broker of Middle East peace, a change that is long overdue.
Granted, Obama is under unwavering domestic pressure to reject all Palestinian efforts at the U.N., and is in a very difficult political position. In short, he must calculate whether the diplomatic damage caused by a Security Council veto will be trumped by the domestic political damage an abstention or even a “yes” vote would cause as 2012 and the coming election loom.
That said, bold leadership from Obama has always been required to actualize his bold, rhetorical support of Palestinian self-determination, leadership that has unfortunately been lacking.
Unless an unexpected shift occurs, the U.S. is about to consummate a dramatic diplomatic failure. The Palestinians are gambling that the U.S., given the stakes involved, just might blink in the face of possible diplomatic isolation. But even if the U.S. stays the course and vetoes the PA’s statehood bid, the Palestinians will be sending a clear message: they will no longer accept the status quo as they seek the same thing millions of others across the Middle East are demanding – freedom and self-determination.
Follow me on Twitter @David_EHG