It may not ease the daily pain of occupation and blockade, or the endless anguish of refugee status and exile, or the continual humiliations of discrimination and second class citizenship, but the admission of Palestine to membership in UNESCO is for so many reasons a step forward in the long march of the Palestinian people toward the dignity of sunlight! This notable event in Paris illuminates the path that leads to self-determination, but also brings into the open some of the most formidable obstacles that must be cleared if further progress is to be made.
The simple arithmetic of the UNESCO vote, 107 in favor, 14 opposed, 52 abstentions, and 21 absent fails to tell the story of the one sidedness of the vote. Toting up the for and against votes obscures the wicked arm twisting, otherwise known as geopolitics, that induced such marginal political entities as Samoa, Solomon Islands, Palau, and Vanuatu to stand against the weight of global opinion and international morality by making a meaningless gesture of opposition to the Palestinian application for admission as member to UNESCO. This is not meant as an insult to such small states, but is intended to lament their vulnerability to powerful American pressures hoping to distort the perception of world public opinion by making the issue seem more contested than it is.
Such a distortion makes a minor mockery of the prevailing pretension that governments are able to offer adequate representation to the peoples of the world. It also illustrates the degree to which formal political independence may obscure a condition of de facto dependence as well as make plain that voting patterns within the United Nations System should never be confused with aspirations to establish at some future time a functioning global democracy in substance as well as procedure. As an aside, geopolitical maneuvers consistently compromise the electoral process within the UN System, especially in the Security Council, and to a lesser extent, in the General Assembly. This actuality of the UN as a political actor demonstrates the urgency and desirability of establishing a global peoples parliament that could at least provide a second voice whenever a UN policy debate touches on issues of human concern.
What may be the most impressive aspect of the UNESCO vote is that despite a vigorous U.S. diplomacy of threat and intimidation, the Palestinian application for membership easily carried the day. There was enough adherence to principle by enough states to provide the necessary two-thirds vote even in the face of this craven American diplomatic effort to please Israel, an effort bolstered by threatening punitive action in the form of refusing further financial support for UNESCO, which amounts to some $60 million for the current year, and overall 22% of the organization’s annual budget of $643 million in 2010-11 (which is projected as $653 million for 2011-12). Actually, this withholding of funds is an American policy embedded in ambiguous legislation that derives from the early 1990s, and so for once a preposterously pro-Israeli action cannot be blamed on the present Congress, although it seems obvious that this Congress would have taken the same steps or worse. The leaders of both parties have made no secret of their desire to make the most of this new opportunity to draw fresh UN blood. Indeed, rabid pro-Israel members of Congress are already showboating their readiness to do far more than the law requires so as to manifest the extreme character of devotion to Israel. This unseemly punishment of the UN (and the peoples of the world) for taking a principled stand expresses a more sinister attitude than merely the pique of being a poor loser. The American defunding move, taken without even a few words of regret, amounts to a totally irresponsible willingness to damage the indispensable work of cultural and societal cooperation on international levels just to make the childish point that there is a high price to be paid whenever the wishes of Israel suffer a defeat, with the United States ready always to serve as the dutiful enforcement agent.
Governments of other states have an excellent opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to human well-being and greater independence in global policy arenas by quickly acting to restore confidence in the UN. One way to do this is to offset this unanticipated UNESCO budget deficit with a series of voluntary contributions to the UNESCO budget. What would deliver a most instructive message to Washington and Tel Aviv would be a funding campaign that generated more money than is being withheld. It seems a useful opportunity to show once and for all that such strong arm fiscal tactics are no longer acceptable and often don’t succeed in the post-colonial world. Such an outcome would also confirm that the geopolitical tectonic plates of world order have shifted in such a way as to give increasing prominence to such countries as China, India, Russia, Brazil, and South Africa all of whom voted to admit Palestine to UNESCO. At least for the moment in this limited setting we might get a glimpse of a genuine ‘new world order’! The Security Council has proved unable and unwilling so far to change its two-tier structure to accommodate these shifts, but these countries kept on the sidelines can reinvent world politics by becoming more active and autonomous players on the global stage. It is not necessary to wait any longer for France and Britain to read the tea leaves of their decline accurately enough to acknowledge that their role on the global stage has diminished, and if these governments want an effective UN it is past time to step aside and let the rising non-West states run the show for a while, starting with giving up their claim to permanent seats at the UNSC. This is my passing fantasy. It is obvious that most states would rather see world order collapse than to defuse a governance crisis by giving way.
Perhaps more enduring than the UNESCO vote itself is the reinforced image of the wildly inappropriate role given to the United States to act as intermediary and peacemaker in seeking to resolve the underlying conflict and ensuring the realization of Palestinian rights that have been so cruelly denied for more than six decades. Observers as diverse as Michel Rocard, the former Socialist Party Prime Minister of France, and Mouin Rabbani, a widely respected Palestinian analyst of the conflict, share a sense that this discordant American campaign to thwart an elemental Palestinian quest for legal recognition and political participation, demonstrates beyond all reasonable doubt, although such a reality should long have been apparent to even the most casual serious observer of the conflict, that the time has come to remove the United States from its presiding role with respect to the resolution of this conflict. It has always verged on the absurd to expect justice, or even fairness, to flow from a diplomatic framework in which the openly and extremely partisan ally of the dominant party puts itself forward as ‘the honest broker’ in negotiations in a setting where the weaker side is subject to military rule, exile, and the continuous violation of its basic rights. To have given credibility to this tripartite charade for so many years is itself a commentary on the weakness of the Palestinian position, and their desperate need at this stage to insist henceforth on a balanced international framework if negotiations are ever to have the slightest prospect of producing a sustainable and just peace. Regrettably, the PLO and the Palestinian Authority have yet to take this step, and if Israel were only to announce a temporary and partial freeze on settlement expansion, the Palestinians would gladly return to a negotiating process that has proved to be useless.
Yet to find a new framework does not mean following Rocard’s incredibly Orientalist prescription: “The Americans have lost their moral right to leadership in resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. It is time for Europe to step into the fray.” As if Europe had recently demonstrated its capacity for rendering justice because it carried out the NATO intervention in Libya! As if the colonial heritage had been suddenly rebranded as a positive credential! As if the Americans ever had a ‘moral right’ to resolve this conflict that was only now lost in the UNESCO voting chamber! It is not clear how a new diplomacy for the conflict that is finally responsive to the situation of the parties, the region, and the world should be structured, but it should reflect at the very least the new realities of an emergent multipolarity skewed toward the non-West. To be provocative for once, maybe Turkey, Brazil, Egypt, and India should now constitute themselves as a more legitimate quartet than that horribly discredited quartet composed of the United States, the EU, Russia, and the UN.
Returning to the UNESCO controversy, it is worth noting the words of denunciation used by Victoria Nuland, the designated State Department spokesperson. She described the vote as “regrettable, premature” contending that it “undermines our shared goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.” Even Orwell might be dazed by such an archly diversionary formulation. Why was the vote regrettable and premature, and not the reverse: welcome and overdue? After all, to work for the preservation of religious sacred sites within the halls of UNESCO or to promote safe sanitation and waters for the poorest countries is hardly subversive of global stability by any sane reckoning. After enduring occupation for more than 44 years, it qualifies as comedic to insist that Palestine must not yet come in from the cold because such an entry would be ‘premature.’ And how can it be claimed that Palestine participation within the UN System ‘undermines’ the ‘shared goal’ of regional peace in the Middle East? The only answer that makes any sense of the American position is to say that whatever Israel says is so is so, and the United States will act accordingly; that is, do whatever Israel wants it to do in the global arena. Such kneejerk geopolitics is not only contrary to elementary considerations of law and justice, it is also monumentally irrational and self-defeating from the perspective of the national wellbeing of the United States and a future peace in the region and beyond.
What in the end may be most troubling about this incident is the degree to which it confirms a growing impression that both the United States and Israel have lost the capacity to serve their own security interests and rationally promote the wellbeing of their own people. This is serious enough with respect to the damage done to their own societies by such maladroit behavior, but recognizing that these two military heavyweights who both possess arsenals of nuclear weaponry are well on their way to becoming rogue states is frightening to contemplate. These are two of the few governments in the current world that continue to rest their future security almost exclusively on an outmoded reliance on hard power investments in military capabilities and accompanying aggressive ideas about the use of force as an instrument of foreign policy. The effects of this approach are potentially catastrophic for the region and the world. When Israel alienates Turkey, its only surviving friend in the Middle East, and then refuses to take the minimal steps to heal the wounds caused by its recklessly violent behavior, one has to conclude that the Israeli sense of reality has fallen on hard times! And when Israel pushes the United States to lose this much social capital on the global stage by standing up for its defiance of international law as in relation to rejecting the recommendations of the Goldstone Report or refusing to censure the expansion of its unlawful settlements or the collective punishment of Gaza, there is no longer much doubt that Israeli foreign policy is driven by domestic extremism that then successfully solicits Washington for ill-advised support.
The situation in the United States is parallel. Many excuse, or at least explain, America’s unconditionally irrational support for Israel as produced by the fearsome leverage exerted by AIPAC over electoral politics in the country as practiced by Congress and rationalized by conservative think tanks. But what this explanation says is that the United States Government has also lost the capacity to pursue a sensible foreign policy in a crucial region of the world that reflects its own national interests, much less provide leadership based on a wider commitment to a stable and just Middle East. The Arab Spring offered the United States a second chance, so to speak, to overcome its long embrace of vicious autocratic rule in the region, but this opportunity is being senselessly squandered on the altar of subservience to the vindictive whims, expansionist visions, and paranoid fears of the Netanyahu/Lieberman governing coalition in Israel.
Welcoming Palestine to UNESCO is a day of celebration and vindication for the Palestinian people, and a political victory for PLO leadership, but it is also a day when all of us should reflect upon the wider Palestinian tragedy and struggle, and encourage further steps forward, including membership in such other components of the international system as the World Health Organization, the International Criminal Court, UNICEF, and the International Court of Justice. If the US Government were to continue its defund madness as Palestine gained admission after admission, its influence and reputation in the region and the global stage would certainly take a nosedive.
UNESCO has given a momentary respite to those who were completely disillusioned by what to expect from the UN or the system of states when it comes to Palestinian aspirations (remembering all those unimplemented resolutions passed by overwhelming majorities in the General Assembly and then ignored), and instead put their hope and efforts into the initiatives of global civil society, especially the growing BDS campaign and efforts to break open the Gaza blockade by continuing to send ships carrying humanitarian goods to the Gazans. Now is not the time to shift attention away from such grassroots initiatives, but it does suggest that there are many symbolic battlefields in the ongoing legitimacy war being waged for Palestinian self-determination, and several of the more promising opportunities are situated within the network of institutions comprising the United Nations. Of course, becoming a member is the beginning, not the end, of making use of these institutional affiliations to advance the struggle of Palestine to realize the rights of all of its people, those under occupation, those in refugee camps in neighboring countries, and those in the Palestinian diaspora.