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In Historic Move, Iceland Becomes the First Western European Nation to Recognize Palestinian Statehood

Originally published on Tikkun Daily.

A rally for Palestine in Iceland. Photo by Karl Gunnarsson.

A rally for Palestine in Iceland. Photo by Karl Gunnarsson.

On Tuesday, Iceland became the first Western European nation to pass a parliamentary motion recognizing Palestine as an independent state. The motion – symbolically passed on the United Nation’s annual day of solidarity with the Palestinian people – backs a Palestinian state on 1967 borders, calls on both Israel and Palestine to reject violence and notes the question of Palestinian refugees.

Calling the vote historic, Foreign Minister Ossur Skarphedinsson indicated that Iceland’s move was precipitated by the Palestinians’ application for full U.N. membership – an application which has not been accepted by the U.N. Security Council.

Icelandic lawmaker Amal Tamimi, who was born in Palestine, applauded the move as a necessary step, stating, “I hope that more countries will follow suit.

As the Icelandic parliament moved to recognize Palestine, the Palestinian Authority made clear it intends to push forward with its U.N. membership bid:

Palestinian UN observer Riyad Mansour read a message from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at UN headquarters on the occasion of the day of solidarity with the Palestinian people. He reaffirmed the Palestinian’s bid for UN membership, saying it should complement peace negotiations, provided that Israel is prepared to negotiate on the basis of the 1967 borders.

Abbas said the Palestinians are not seeking “to delegitimize Israel” by applying to join the UN “but to delegitimize its settlement activities and the seizure of our occupied lands.”

With its U.N. bid stalled in the Security Council, it remains unclear whether or not Abbas will push forward with an attempt to secure a non-binding resolution in the General Assembly affirming Palestinian statehood. Such a resolution, if moved upon, would be almost guaranteed to pass despite opposition from the United States.

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U.S. Freezes $200 Million in Humanitarian Aid to Palestinians Over U.N. Statehood Bid

Israelis march in Tel Aviv to support Palestinian statehood.

Originally published on Tikkun Daily

As the Obama administration aggressively works behind the scenes to derail Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ statehood bid at the U.N., The Independent is reporting that Congress has been involved in its own secret, targeted assault on the Palestinians.

In what can only be described as a form of collective punishment against the Palestinian people for the PA’s multilateral efforts at the U.N., Congress has blocked nearly $200 million earmarked for USAID by the Obama administration. The funding was designated for a multitude of humanitarian, educational and infrastructure projects in the West Bank and Gaza, including food aid programs for the poor, health care initiatives and pre-school Sesame Street workshops.

The funds have been secretly frozen since mid-August by several Congressional committees in response to Abbas’ defiant U.N. bid. They were slated to be transferred before the end of the fiscal year, which ended today. The potential impact to both ongoing and future USAID projects will be significant if the funds are frozen indefinitely:

The present block is threatening to delay the start of four new USAID funded projects, covering teacher-training, large-scale road and water infrastructure developments and an Enterprise Development programme designed to improve the competitiveness and capacity of the Palestinian private sector.

A series of existing projects are also at immediate risk unless the funding is unlocked in continuing negotiations between Congressional leaders and the Obama administration.

They include the purchase of supplies by the UN’s World Food Programme for food distribution to impoverished Palestinian families in early 2012, health service reform, training and equipment for the Holy Family hospital in Bethlehem, a pre-school “Sesame Street” workshop, and a Palestinian Authority political programme for developing the functions of ministers.

The move by Congress demonstrates, yet again, that it stands as one of the most anti-Palestinian governing bodies in the world. And while the Obama administration opposes this funding freeze, it has been characteristically reticent to challenge Congress on the move, tiptoeing around the issue due, in part, to its own misguided electoral fears. (While the Jewish vote is significant in several swing states, including Pennsylvania and Florida – 4 and 5 percent respectively – a small percentage of Jews are single-issue voters when it comes to Israel, particularly in the current economic climate.)

Meanwhile, in a diplomatic case of David versus Goliath, the Obama administration is engaged in a full court press to convince several countries, including Nigeria, Gabon and Bosnia-Herzegovina, to vote against the Palestinian statehood bid in the U.N. Security Council. While these three countries have bilaterally recognized Palestine, they have yet to reveal which way they will vote in the UNSC due to American diplomatic pressure.

Regardless of which way other nations vote, President Obama has pledged to veto the Palestinians’ statehood bid at the UNSC. Despite this, American officials are scrambling to erase Palestinian diplomatic gains so that it won’t be forced to exercise its veto and embarrass itself before the world. As it stands, six countries – China, Russia, India, Lebanon, South Africa and Brazil – are expected to vote in favor of the Palestinians’ statehood bid. If Abbas is able to secure a majority of nine countries at the UNSC, the U.S. would be forced to exercise its veto, a move which would further delegitimize America as an objective broker in future peace talks.

The result has been a diplomatic assault by the Obama administration against the Palestinians, an assault now compounded, and made much more complex, by Congress’ funding freeze – a freeze Israel’s government doesn’t even favor.

Update – 10/2/2011 – The Arab League is pledging to fund the Palestinians and make up for the lost U.S. aid. If they follow through, both in the short term as well as in the long term, America’s unfortunate irrelevancy in the Middle East will grow.

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“Enough. Enough. Enough.”

In a Ramallah grocery store, watching Abbas' U.N. speech.

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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U.S. Pushing “Silent Agreement” to Postpone U.N. Vote on Palestinian Statehood

On Tuesday, September 20, the Palestinian Authority unveiled a large, blue chair in Ramallah representing Palestine's seat at the U.N. Photo by Joseph Dana.

Originally published on Tikkun Daily

According to a report from Haaretz, the Obama administration is engaged in behind-the-scenes efforts to delay voting on recognition of Palestine as an independent state in both the General Assembly and the Security Council.

A “silent agreement” is reportedly in place between several Western countries to postpone the U.N. votes through a number of bureaucratic stalling tactics, the use of which are being promoted by Washington.

On Friday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to present an official request to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon which will specify the Palestinians’ desire to seek full U.N. membership through the Security Council. While a vote on the request could take place by early October, sources indicate that the potential exists for such a vote to be postponed by months.

According to Shlomo Shamir, there are several options available to the Obama administration for postponement of voting in the Security Council, including the use of closed-door consultations:

If the Palestinian request does go ahead on Friday, the United States can refer the request to a debate inside the framework of informal consultations that Security Council members hold behind closed doors – a procedure that could last weeks or months…a month ago, France distributed a draft resolution that included sanctions against Syria. The draft has not yet reached a discussion because Russia, with the support of China, has been delaying discussions of the draft at the Security Council.

Some suggest that Abbas might actually be interested in such a delay, for it would give him more time to make diplomatic progress. However, activity in the West Bank seems to run counter to such claims, for the PA is planning a massive rally on Wednesday in Ramallah in support of the U.N. statehood initiative. The Palestinians are hoping for tens of thousands to march in the streets, and anticipation for the vote is growing. According to Joseph Dana:

Schools will close early so that students can take part in large rallies in support of statehood. Roughly 80,000 government employees will be given time off as [Abbas] taps all of the resources that his governing Fatah party have in the West Bank to ensure mass turn out.

Additionally, the Palestinians are busy whipping votes on the Security Council to try and secure a majority, which would force the U.S. to use its veto – something the Obama administration is desperately working to avoid given the irrevocable damage such a vote would do to America’s already-shaky standing in the Middle East. Indications are that the African nation of Gabon, which is still undecided on the matter, may end up determining whether the Palestinians achieve a majority in the Security Council.

If the votes fall the Palestinians’ way, look for the Obama administration to begin utilizing procedural stalling tactics as a way to buy more time as Washington frantically works to derail the Palestinians’ U.N. bid.

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Abbas’ U.N. Gambit: a Bold Rejection of U.S. Diplomacy

Originally published on Tikkun Daily
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On Friday, after much speculation, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas officially announced that the Palestinians would seek full U.N. membership by going directly to the Security Council, setting the Palestinian Authority on a diplomatic collision course with the United States.

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.

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Two of Obama’s Major Foreign Policy Goals Are About to Collide

Originally published on Daily Kos

Next week, President Obama will travel to the UN General Assembly knowing that his administration will soon damage one of its main foreign policy goals: to cast the U.S. as a champion of Arab freedom and democracy.

Tragically, this self-inflicted wound will happen as a result of the United States voting against what nearly all pro-Arab freedom and democracy advocates support at this point: recognition of Palestine as a state in the UN.

Here’s the irony: achieving Palestinian statehood is also one of President Obama’s central foreign policy goals in the Middle East.

So here you have the tragedy and the irony all wrapped into one: the “trainwreck” Obama sees coming at the UN in September, where it will be one of only a few nations in the world willing to stand in the Palestinians’ way, will be created by a train the Obama administration is conducting.

The administration has, for some time, known that it would veto any effort by the Palestinian Authority to achieve UN member status in the Security Council, and that it would vote against any nonbinding recognition of statehood for the Palestinians in the General Assembly.

It has simultaneously known that doing so would further tarnish its legitimacy in the Middle East, which is why it has made every effort recently to try and convince Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to forgo the PA’s statehood efforts in the UN. (Faced with stalled peace talks and a shrinking territory in the West Bank, the Palestinians have refused to back down.)

Today, in a brilliant piece of reporting, Laura Rozen explained how the administration, in vowing to stand in opposition to the Palestinian’s looming statehood bid at the UN, has set itself up for diminished credibility and leverage in a region it desperately wants to wield its influence as the Arab Spring’s revolutions continue to reverberate.

Most interesting was her interview with a senior Middle East negotiator, Aaron David Miller:

“I think President Obama is torn,” veteran American Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller told The Envoy Monday. He doesn’t “want to be the guy who has to oppose a Palestinian state, which is something he is very much in support of.”But if U.S. representatives are forced to veto a Palestinian state resolution at the UN Security Council next week – as they vowed to do if the measure comes before that body – “you have to wonder how much lower American credibility can get,” Miller said.

Susan Rice, in an interview today with the Christian Science Monitor, admitted two things:

1) The U.S. has done everything it can to try to stop the Palestinians, and
2) The Palestinians will push forward next week and will win overwhelming support, thus isolating America in the region on the issue.

You can see a segment of her interview here:

Rozen’s article continues with some important observations about how what is about to transpire at the UN will be looked upon by some as a global rejection of America’s diplomacy efforts vis-a-vis the Palestinian-Israeli conflict:

Observers will likely interpret the UN Palestine vote as a referendum on Obama’s diplomacy in the Middle East–and analysts are already predicting that the United States’ credibility as an honest and effective broker in the peace process will likely take another hit.”I think the Palestinians are going to get a big vote,” said Bruce Jones, who formerly worked as an adviser in the office of the UN Middle East peace special representative, in an email to The Envoy Monday. “My view is that the vote will be as much a referendum on US Middle East diplomacy as on [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and the issue [of Palestinian statehood] itself.”

Of course, none of this had to happen, for the Obama administration, with enough foresight, could have used its influence with Israel to force Netanyahu’s administration back to the negotiating table. But domestic politics being what they are in the U.S., and with the 2012 election looming, the Obama administration’s leadership on this matter was not bold enough to support the bold foreign policy goals to which it has adhered.

Today, reports surfaced that significant players in the EU will support the Palestinian statehood bid in the General Assembly.

This is principally because the Palestinians are planning on including in its statehood bid language that indicates a continued commitment to a negotiated settlement with Israel. And Palestinians have argued the the UN bid could actually help jump-start long-stalled peace talks:

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refused Wednesday to back down from a bid to have the United Nations recognize Palestinian statehood, telling US officials the move did not contradict the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.Abbas told visiting US Middle East peace envoy David Hale and US presidential adviser Dennis Ross that the Palestinian approach to the UN would help “overcome the impasse (in the peace process) caused as a result of Israeli intransigence.”

The only question remaining, it seems, is whether the Palestinians will bring the matter before the Security Council, thus forcing a U.S. veto. (Something both the U.S. and the EU are trying to avoid, for Washington’s sake.)

However, here is what is clear: the Palestinians will win the world’s approval at the United Nations in a matter of days, and the United States will be among a handful on the outside looking in.

It will be painful to watch Obama damage his own foreign policy goals in the Middle East. But more painful will the further erosion of America’s legitimacy in a region convulsing under the weight of revolutions.

The is the worst possible time for a “no” vote against the Palestinians, and history may not look kindly upon what is about to transpire.

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