Why Palestine is still relevant

The UN has been reawakened to its long lapsed responsibility to find a peaceful solution to the conflict

By Richard Falk

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Published: Wed 11 Jan 2017, 7:01 PM

Last updated: Wed 11 Jan 2017, 9:03 PM

On December 23, 2016, the UN Security Council (UNSC), by a 14-0 vote, adopted Resolution 2334 condemning Israeli settlement expansion; notably the US refrained from voting. It was treated as big news in the West because the Obama presidency had finally, in its last weeks in office, refused to use its veto to protect Israel from UN censure. Especially in the US, the media focused on the meaning of this diplomatic move, wondering aloud whether it was motivated by President Barack Obama's lingering anger over Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu's attempt to torpedo Obama's efforts to reach an agreement with Iran in 2014 on its nuclear programme, or meant to challenge the incoming Trump leadership to deal responsibly with the unresolved Israel-Palestine conflict and mount criticism of US president-elect Donald Trump's reckless pledge to move the US embassy to occupied Jerusalem and side openly with extremist Israeli leadership in the years ahead.

The likely lasting importance of the resolution is the evidence of a strong international consensus embodied in the 14-0 vote, with only the US abstention preventing unanimity. Bringing together China, Russia, France and the UK on an initiative tabled by Senegal, Malaysia and Venezuela is sending Israel and the US the message that despite the adverse developments in the Middle East in recent years, the world has not forgotten the Palestinians or their struggle. It is also significant that the resolution calls upon the new UN secretary general to report back to the UNSC every three months on implementation progress and explicitly keeps the council seized of the issue. Such provisions reinforce the impression that the unresolved Israel-Palestine conflict will remain on the UN's policy agenda in the months ahead, which is itself extremely irritating to Israel.

It is widely agreed that 2334 is largely symbolic, which is a way of saying that nothing on the ground in occupied Palestine is expected to change, even with respect to Israeli settlement policy, from the passage of this resolution. Israel responded to the resolution even more defiantly than anticipated, partly because this challenge to its policies, although symbolic, was more threatening than a mere gesture of disapproval. This reaction seemed principally influenced by the US failure to follow its normal practice of shielding Israel by casting its veto. It also complements the growing civil society challenge posed by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Campaign (BDS), which has been gaining traction in recent years, particularly in Europe and North America. In effect, resolution 2334 may be the beginning of a new stage of the legitimacy war that the Palestinian people and their supporters have been waging in recent years in opposition to Israeli policies and practices, not only in the West Bank and East Jerusalem but also in Gaza and on the world stage. If Trump follows through on his provocative pledge to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, it is likely to intensify offsetting efforts to induce the UN to exert greater pressure on Israel to address Palestinian grievances in an accommodating manner.

A few days after the UN vote, the motivation for the US's change of tactics was clarified by secretary of state John Kerry. He mainly connected 2334 with the US effort to save the two-state solution from collapsing.

Wider impact of the resolution

Kerry quoted approvingly Former Israeli president Shimon Peres' self-satisfied assertion that 78% of historic Palestine should be enough for Israel, which Peres was comparing to the excessive demands for even more land by the settler one-staters. Of course, 78% gives Israel much more than the 55% it was awarded in 1947 by UN General Assembly resolution 181. At the time, the entire Arab world and Palestinian representatives rejected this UN proposal as unacceptable despite being given 45% or more than double the Palestinian territory after Israeli withdrawal from land occupied since the 1967 war. Beyond this, Kerry's inclusion of land swaps as integral to his version of the two-state solution would result in further encroachments on territory left to the Palestinians, a result obscured to some extent by giving Palestine uninhabitable desert acreage as a dubious equivalent for the prime agricultural land on which the unlawful Israeli settlements are built. At best, territorial equality would be achieved quantitatively, but certainly not qualitatively, which is what counts.

Overall, the impact of resolution 2334 is likely to be greater than it would have been if Israel had not reacted so petulantly. Even if Trump reverses the US's critical approach to further Israeli settlement expansion, the UN has been reawakened to its long lapsed responsibility to find a peaceful solution for the conflict and end the Palestinian ordeal that has gone on for an entire century since Lord Alfred Balfour gave a British colonial green light to the Zionist project to establish a Jewish homeland in historic Palestine. As well, civil society activists that have thrown their support to the BDS campaign and governments critical of Israel's behaviour are likely to feel encouraged by this expression of virtual unity within the most important organ of the UN system.

- Richard Falk is Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University

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