James Renton: Palestine's UN Bid: Lessons from the History of Zionism

Roundup: Historians' Take

James Renton is Senior Lecturer in History at Edge Hill University and the author of The Zionist Masquerade: The Birth of the Anglo-Zionist Alliance, 1914-1918

The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, is expected this Friday to submit to the United Nations Security Council an application for full membership. Success would mean the recognition of Palestinian statehood. The Obama administration has been desperate to stop this from happening. The US would be forced, they say, into vetoing such a bid; an act that would severely damage Obama’s reputation in the Arab world. US and European diplomats are trying desperately to talk Abbas out of it. Political sweeteners have been offered, along with dire warnings. 

The US government claims that a unilateral step of this kind will damage the chances of a negotiated peace with Israel. The only real path to peace, they argue, is through talks with Israel. Worse, a failed bid would raise and dash expectations on the Palestinian street, with the possibility of violence as a result. And here is the final argument against: legal recognition of statehood will not affect the facts on the ground. 

In fact, the bid is a clever move that has the potential to change the rules of the game. The Israeli coalition government of Binyamin Netanyahu has made clear by their actions that they do not want to see the establishment of a Palestinian state. Over the last two years, they have strived to avoid meaningful negotiations. Despite some tough talk, the weak Obama administration failed to resuscitate the dialogue between the two parties. The resulting impasse has finally killed off the Oslo process that began in 1993....

The new approach of the Palestinians echoes the successful Zionist strategy of the early twentieth century. By the time of the First World War, many Zionist leaders believed that their aims could not be realised without the declared support of the major powers of the day. They understood that the success of their movement required the decisive imposition of a legal and political reality from the outside. The war brought them the public backing that they were after. In November 1917, a month before Britain occupied Jerusalem, the British government declared its support for a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. Until the Jewish State was established in 1948, the Zionists used this statement, the Balfour Declaration, as the basis for their claims in the Holy Land. It became their Magna Carta, cited at every opportunity. 

Armed with the Declaration in 1917, the Zionists faced a choice as to how they would advance their cause further. They did not choose to negotiate with the Palestinian Arab elite, who were adamantly opposed to political Zionism. Instead, they focused on pressuring Britain to fulfil their pledge, and to adopt the best possible post-war peace settlement for Zionism in Palestine. Having issued the Declaration, and under unrelenting Zionist pressure, the British government felt morally bound to adhere to it; their good name, their prestige, depended upon its implementation....

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