Beyond Symbolism

Last week in New York, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa cast Indonesia’s vote in favor of Palestine’s bid for non-member state observer status. After the vote — which favored Palestine 138 to nine, with 41 abstentions — he told the press that the upgrade of Palestine’s status in the UN righted a historic wrong and would increase the momentum of the peace process between Israel and Palestine.

It was vindication for Indonesia, which campaigned hard for the Palestinian bid.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s knee-jerk reaction was to denigrate the vote even before it could take place. “The decision,” he said, “won’t change anything on the ground.” But many decent Israelis supported the Palestinian bid, including former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The US permanent representative to the UN, Susan Rice, who may be the next secretary of state, predicted that the Palestinian euphoria over the diplomatic win would not last.

“The Palestinian people will wake up tomorrow,” she said, “and find that little about their lives has changed.” If she really meant that and was not just making music for Netanyahu’s ears, she will be disappointed.

To say that the vote was merely symbolic and did not change anything on the ground is to provoke the question: is the UN General Assembly so insignificant that the will of more that three-fourths of its membership counts for nothing?

In fact, Palestine’s new status opens the doors of UN bodies that were once closed to it. And in truth, Netanyahu fears that with Palestine’s new status, it can one day drag Israel before the International Criminal Court to answer to charges of crimes against humanity.

The reality is that since well before the vote, things on the ground have changed.

At one time Arab strongmen raged with rhetoric damning Israel’s atrocities in occupied Palestine — but they did nothing to help the Palestinians. Most of those strongmen have gone with the wind of the Arab spring and one more, Assad, will eventually go. To survive, the rest will have to improve their acquaintance with democracy and public opinion. And public opinion in the Arab world stands firmly for helping Palestine.

When Israel and Hamas were pummeling each other with missile fire recently, Netanyahu itched to order an invasion of Gaza. That’s what he did in a similar situation four years ago. Why not this time?

My guess is that he got a phone call from US President Barack Obama, who was attending a summit in Phnom Penh. To reinforce the message, State Secretary Hillary Clinton flew to the Middle East to tell him in effect: Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Turkey aren’t ruled by strongmen any more. We need their people on our side. If you don’t sign a truce, we lose them and America’s name in the Middle East is mud. Obama might as well throw your Zionist lobby in the United States under the bus!

Thus, Netanyahu deferred his dream of pulverizing Gaza and agreed to a cease-fire. And Hamas, the hard-line faction that rules Gaza, though militarily bloodied, emerged politically triumphant.

Meanwhile sympathy for Palestine turned a UN vote on its bid for upgraded status from an expected flood of support into a political tsunami that isolated the United States, Israel and six others from the mainstream of international sentiment.

How can there be peace between Israel and Palestine? First, the cease-fire must hold. Netanyahu must strengthen politically to be able to negotiate toward a two-state solution. He must now deliver the social services that the Israeli people direly need, instead of playing war freak.

At the same time, the Palestinian factions must unite, form a coalition government and earn a true mandate from their own people. They will then be politically strong enough to negotiate.

Then peace will have a chance.

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