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Time for William Hague to be brave over Palestine

2011 September 21
by Paul Vallely

Fevered brinkmanship is the order of the day at the United Nations in New York as the deadline approaches when the Palestinians will apply to be recognised as an independent state. The UN General Assembly will almost certainly say Yes. Faced with that Israel, and its allies in the White House, are engaged in frantic behind-the-scenes deal-making to try to scupper a vote by the more powerful UN Security Council to recognise its statehood too. Were that to happen, the United States would be forced to veto the move, exposing the fact that it is international might rather than right on which Israel now depends.

Israel has legitimate concerns about its ability to live peacefully alongside Palestinians who refusal to accept Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people. But the idea that the peace process will be damaged by Palestinian moves to win international recognition is risible. No serious peace negotiations are going on, nor have they for two decades thanks to Israeli delaying tactics and insistence on building illegal settlements on Palestinian land. Under Israel’s current prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, an approach which was previously obstructive has at time been downright provocative. His aim has not been to force the Palestinians to the negotiating table – but force them to their knees as a client state or compliant work force confined to what in apartheid South Africa were called bantustans.

In the face of that the Palestinians have made significant progress. The IMF, World Bank and UN have declared their assiduously-built infrastructure is at last fit for an independent state. Now Israel is “reserving the right to respond” – threatening to annexe the West Bank or withhold the tax and tariff funds that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinians. Since that represents two-thirds of the Palestinian budget without it the Palestinian Authority would effectively be paralysed. There have been rumblings that the US Congress might axe its annual $500 million in aid to the Palestinians, which is already only a mere sixth of the $3bn it gives to Israel.

These are dangerous times. But if the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas backs down from his moves at the UN on Friday demonstrations to support the statehood initiative could become a new intifada of violent confrontation with Israel. That mood could spread across a region newly alive, through the Arab Spring, to calls for self-determination. It will provoke uproar among Muslims worldwide, threaten regional stability and increase the risk of another war. Indications of anti-American defiance have come already from Washington’s traditional ally, Saudi Arabia, which this week said it will give the Palestinian Authority $200m to ease its liquidity problems.

Palestinian and American diplomats are now working determinedly to enlist the nine votes each side needs in the Security Council. Palestinians see that forcing the US to exercise its veto would be a moral victory. Washington hopes to enlist enough dissenters that its naked veto will not be necessary. At present China, Russia, France, Lebanon, South Africa, Gabon, Brazil and India are expected to vote with the Palestinians. The US has won only Germany and a big US-aid recipient, Colombia Portugal, Nigeria and Bosnia Herzegovina remain undecided. That could leave Britain with the casting vote.

Until now the Foreign Secretary William Hague has appeared ambivalent. He does not want to abandon our American allies but he knows an anti-Palestinian vote will not sit well with British voters’ sense of fair play. He should resolve to address years of mistreatment of the Palestinians and do what is right.

In the end the Israel/Palestine problem will only be ended by direct negotiations among the two parties to the conflict. But with a recognised Palestinian state those negotiations would be between more equal parties. US politicians are too in hock to the powerful Jewish lobby in their country to press for an equitable resolution. It is time for the rest of the world to take a stand.

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