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|Volume 10 |Issue 37 | September 30, 2011 ||
Mahmoud Abbas' Moment in Time . . .
Syed Badrul Ahsan
Susan Rice, America's ambassador to the United Nations, sat stony faced as Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas made his pitch for his people's membership at the General Assembly of the global body last week. As diplomats from other nations applauded Abbas or listened to him with keen interest, Ms Rice restrained herself from displaying any emotion and appeared to be informing the world that what Abbas was saying on that podium was all pointless. And it was because the Obama administration had already made up its mind to shoot down Palestine's bid for membership of the UN. It was unwilling to annoy or upset Israel, a state American administrations since May 1948 have consistently described as their country's closest ally. Rice was unhappy with Abbas. For his part, Binyamin Netanyahu was happy that the White House had closed ranks behind him as he made a fresh new move to torpedo Palestinian aspirations.
Go back to the irony once again. Barack Obama began his presidency through trying to be tough on Israel. Arriving in Washington on a premise as well as promise of change, the new American leader was clearly driven by near missionary zeal as he sought to present a new face of his country before the Arab world. His address at Cairo University was at the time considered a turning point for Washington. Then again, there was the Nobel Prize for Peace which came to Obama even before there were any definitive signs that he had made or was making any contributions to global stability. It was a falsely confident Obama who thought he could browbeat Netanyahu and his supporters, in both America and Israel, into agreeing to make peace with the Palestinians.
Since that moment, defined as it was by acrimony between America's president and Israel's prime minister, things have gone back to square one. Having lost control of the House of Representatives at the mid-term elections and barely holding on to the Senate, President Obama is a terribly weakened leader today. The economy batters America. On a larger scale, it continues to pound away at the president, who must now worry about his prospects of re-election in November next year. Obama has therefore done the conventional: he has thrown in his lot with Israel and the powerful Jewish lobby supporting it within America. No president or candidate for the presidency can afford to alienate the Jewish community and expect to win an election. Which explains that threat of a veto being exercised to excise the Palestine membership bid at the UN out of the current deliberations. Which explains the impassive presence of Susan Rice at the UN.
Mahmoud Abbas will not have his wishes taken into account, at least not at this point in time. You are reminded here of the innumerable times when the People's Republic of China was thwarted by America's use of the veto every time it sought to come into the United Nations. Washington kept up the illusion that tiny Taiwan, with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek as its leader, was the real China or that someday the Nationalists defeated by Mao Zedong's forces in 1949 would return to the mainland in full glory. The illusion ended in 1971, when the Chinese marched into the UN and Taiwan was given its marching orders. So there is the analogy here. The Palestinians will someday stride into the United Nations and no one will or can tell them they do not have the right to be there.
You need only listen to the Indians cheering the Palestinians on in their quest of UN membership. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has just reiterated the long-standing policy of his country to stand beside the Palestinians in their struggle for a homeland. You tend to get cheered at the gesture, for it is demonstrative of a continuity of policy, policy that was initiated by Jawaharlal Nehru in the early days of Indian freedom. Consider too the unambiguous manner in which Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been shaming Netanyahu and his government over their doings in recent times. Something of a happy surge thus comes into feelings.
These are remarkable times, for the people of Palestine as also for people who have historically been steadfast in their support of nations' right to self-determination. Mahmoud Abbas has defied the Americans, the Israelis and the skeptics by going ahead with his plan. The defiance has set nearly everyone scrambling to bring some sense into the affairs of the Middle East. The Quartet — with the EU, UN, US and Russia in it — has now served notice on Israel and Palestine: they must resume negotiations within a month and target a deal by the end of next year. The problem here, if you care to notice, is not the Palestinians. It is the Israelis, with all their intransigence and unabashed flouting of international norms and ethics, who have kept changing the goal post.
And they can keep doing that, for all one knows. The difficulty, though, is that they will then risk a bad darkening of the skies and public mood around the world. The mob assault on the Israeli embassy in Cairo should have been a pointer.
The writer is Editor, Current Affairs, The Daily Star.
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