By Saliba Sarsar
Secretary of the Board, HCEF
A majority of the UN member states voted for the admission of Palestine as an observer state.
On Nov. 29, which marked the 65th anniversary of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181, which called for partitioning British-mandate Palestine into independent Arab and Jewish states and a special international regime for the city of Jerusalem, the U.N. granted Palestine the status of a “nonmember observer state.”
The 138-9 vote, with 41 abstentions, pleased neither the United States nor Israel. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton regarded the vote as “unfortunate and counterproductive” toward peace. Israel’s Vice Prime Minister, Silvan Shalom, described the resolution as “meaningless” and the vote “a very big mistake” because it violated prior agreements Israel signed with the Palestinians.
In retaliation, a day after the vote, Israeli officials announced plans for 3,000 new housing units in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, as well as expanding the E1 settlement area. Such expansion would join the huge Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim to Jerusalem, further splitting the Palestinian territories.
While the vote gives a psychological and legal boost to the Palestinians and their leaders, especially on the West Bank, it does not change the facts on the ground, mainly the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands since June 1967. The change has to come from serious negotiations between the leaders of Palestine and Israel, preferably sooner than later.
The Palestinians have come a long way in their search for self-determination and statehood. This will remain incomplete if they do not continue their state-building program, as envisioned by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and if they do not resolve the division between the ruling Fatah Party on the West Bank and its rival Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement) on the Gaza Strip. Perhaps the U.N. vote was a diplomatic coup for Fatah after Hamas attracted Arab and world attention in the recent Hamas-Israel conflict, but its impact will be temporary if the division persists.
The Israelis have come a long way in their search for security, but that has not generated peace. While security walls and “iron domes” can enhance defense by shielding the country, they do not provide total protection. Standing tough against Hamas and objecting to the U.N. vote might enhance the status of right-wing parties in Israel and assist in the re-election of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, but they do not bring Israel any closer to a peace settlement with the Palestinians.
The United States, as superpower and friend to Israelis and Palestinians, must see beyond the U.N. vote and help heal the wounds that have festered for decades. If it is serious about the two-state solution, which is in its best national interest, it must do its utmost to compel both sides to the negotiating table.
Now that President Obama has won a second term, he should reinvigorate the peace process by building an American, European and Arab-Israeli coalition for peace, re-establishing confidence and trust between Palestinians and Israelis through economic and security cooperation, and setting clear expectations and a time line for negotiations.
The Israelis and Palestinians are not as far apart as experts make them out to be. All issues are resolvable if there is vision, intentionality and political will. Negotiations must lead to permanent solutions, not delays and obfuscations.
If Palestinians and Israelis fail to oblige, then the president must flex U.S. diplomatic, political and financial muscles. Doing otherwise will only diminish the voice of moderation and embolden extremists. It will communicate the wrong message to U.S. allies and opponents alike.
Palestinians and Israelis must go beyond fear and pain, beyond delegitimization and disempowerment of the other. It’s time for both “to breathe new life into the peace process, which is now on life support” as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated.
Peace must be the path and the destination. Only then will the applause, handshakes and flags be meaningful. Only then will the Palestinian and Israeli people live alongside each other in full dignity and security, and be able to enjoy their lives, liberties and pursuit of happiness. Israel and Palestine are mutually inclusive.
Saliba Sarsar is professor of political science and associate vice president for global initiatives at Monmouth University.