Reaction to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ speech to the UN General Assembly today was swift and sharp. One of the most incisive
Israeli columnists, Chemi Shalev of Ha’aretz, broke it down very well. He considered Abbas’ speech to be a welcome gift to the Israeli right. And I agree with him. But that’s not really the point.
Abbas has often used the UN podium as a way to be more direct and combative than he usually is regarding Israel, de-emphasizing the “partner for peace” charade and instead being more of an advocate for and leader of the Palestinian cause. But this time, he really turned up the heat. His reference to the attack on Gaza as “genocide” was calculated to play very well in Ramallah and Gaza City, and he willingly sacrificed the rest of the world’s approval.
Using the word “genocide” to describe Israel’s actions is hardly new. Anyone involved in the issue hears it all the time. But is it an accurate description?
Michael Ratner, the President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights believes Israel’s actions do amount to genocide. The link above lays out Ratner’s case quite clearly. But I disagree with him, and case law on the question of genocide in the International Criminal Court seems to disagree with him as well.
The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG) defines genocide as: “…any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Now, it is easy to state that Israel would love to see the Palestinians gone. But have their actions been motivated by the “intent to destroy” them? If so, they’ve done a lousy job of it as the Palestinian population has grown significantly and consistently over the years.
But genocide need not mean wiping the people off the face of the earth, but rather destroying them as a people, through means which include at least one of the measures listed above. Again, though, this doesn’t seem to be what Israel has done since, despite the political split between Fatah and Hamas and the dispersion of the Palestinian people around the world, the Palestinian people’s nationalism has never been stronger.
Killing over 2000 people and inflicting massive destruction on the infrastructure of Gaza is horrific, it was clearly a war crime, a crime against humanity. The creeping annexation and efforts to “encourage” Palestinians to leave could amount to ethnic cleansing. These are all terrible acts. They are more than bad enough to merit attention, action both political and legal, and sanctions. But they are not genocide.
Genocide is a rarely used term. It applied to the Holocaust, the Armenians, Rwanda, and to Native Americans, among others. But according to Ratner, most wars, which invariably affect civilians disproportionately and are often ethnic or religious in basis, are genocides. At the least, virtually all war crimes in such circumstances are. It seems to me, from relevant International case law, that the standards are higher than that, and they should be.
I believe that is an important point, because Israeli crimes are very bad, but labelling them something they are not is unhelpful in the extreme. I wish very much Abbas had not used the word. But he did, and the reason he did is that for most Palestinians, that word resonates as true. And that is who he was speaking to.
Requiem for Oslo
Abbas also pronounced the Oslo peace process dead, in a most welcome development where one of the leaders of the “three parties” to the talks (the PA, Israel and the US) finally told the truth that is so obvious to any observer who is serious and doesn’t make her or his living off the desiccated corpse of Oslo.
Abbas’ eulogy for Oslo went like this: “It is impossible, and I repeat – it is impossible – to return to the cycle of negotiations that failed to deal with the substance of the matter and the fundamental question. There is neither credibility nor seriousness in negotiations in which Israel predetermines the results via its settlement activities and the occupation’s brutality. There is no meaning or value in negotiations for which the agreed objective is not ending the Israeli occupation and achieving the independence of the State of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital on the entire Palestinian Territory occupied in the 1967 war. And, there is no value in negotiations which are not linked to a firm timetable for the implementation of this goal.”
With that statement, Abbas has committed himself to staying away from any talks not linked to a specific outcome. This was, of course, one of the most serious flaws in the Oslo Accords, one that critics as far back as 1993 were pointing out: they never committed Israel to the creation of a Palestinian state. The Accords only stipulated a permanent agreement, never defining it. Yitzhak Rabin never mentioned a Palestinian state. Many believed that he was opposed to its creation, and certainly that was the position of his government.
Abbas’ statement is not one that is going to be forgotten in the Palestinian Territories. If he reneges on it, he will be taking an enormous political risk domestically.
A gift to the Israeli right?
Shalev, in his Ha’aretz piece, laments what he sees as a grave mis-step by Abbas. “Abbas has certainly made Netanyahu’s own life easier,” Shalev wrote. “The Palestinian leader’s speech gives Netanyahu plenty of fodder for an equally strident General Assembly rejoinder on Monday and allows him to comfortably skip the Palestinian chapter in his own meeting with Barack Obama on Wednesday.”
Very true. But Shalev’s point leads to another question: who cares? Yes, Bibi can now make the case to both the American government and the Israeli people that Abbas is not a “partner for peace,” but what difference will that make? He made that case when Abbas was acquiescing to talks while settlements continued to grow, badly undermining Palestinian faith in both their president and the entire notion of a negotiated, two-state solution. In the more than five years since Netanyahu’s original election, Abbas has tried to show the world that it is Netanyahu that is unreasonable, that he is the man of peace and that Israel, with its constant flood of new conditions and unilateral actions is the problem.
And it’s largely worked. Most in the US government believe him, and most in Europe do as well. And it has changed nothing. The fact that Bibi is seen as opposing a two-state solution by virtually everyone has not stirred the US or EU to action. In fact, Abbas’ conciliatory stances have only served to make it more jarring when he does refuse to continue with the charade of endless talks, as he did when he finally stopped playing John Kerry’s game earlier this year.
Shalev, as an Israeli, is quite naturally focused on how Abbas’ actions play out in Israel, and he makes a very valid point when he says that Abbas’ UN speech is going to further set back the already meager peace forces in the Israeli political realm.
“Caught in the middle, as usual, are the dwindling ranks of Israeli moderates and other supporters of a negotiated two state solution,” Shalev wrote. “[A]fter Netanyahu nixed the idea of a withdrawal from the West Bank and declared the Arab Peace Initiative obsolete, along comes Abbas and drives what could turn out to be the final nail in what has come to be known as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.”
It’s a worthwhile Israeli lament. For Israel, the only hope to save the country’s future from a right-wing vision of permanent oppression and conflict, with which will eventually come increasing social disintegration and escalating economic barriers, is the peace camp.
But it’s a slim reed to hang one’s hopes on. The Labor Party has, historically, done much more than Likud to bring us to the current impasse, and it has never been willing to confront the hard realities of its own history and the facts on the ground. Without that, their own internal contradictions will prevent them from ever leading an opposition to a Prime Minister who, while far from universally respected, has been more secure in his position politically than perhaps any PM since David Ben-Gurion. Meretz has become much more rational and determined since Zehava Gal-On took it over, but despite its recent rise, it has not been able to kindle any hope that it could ever be a major party in Israel.
It is possible that some sort of major shock will shift Israel’s political consciousness toward real compromise, real adherence to universal principles and, thereby, to a real possibility of peace. Possible, but very unlikely. And that’s why Shalev’s point about Abbas damaging the “Israeli moderates” again elicits the response, “who cares?” Given the irrelevance of Israeli moderates, let alone anyone credibly labeled as left-wing or progressive, it is unreasonable for a Palestinian, Israeli or anyone else interested in a durable, practical and just solution to this conflict to wait for such a solution from within Israel. As has long been the case, the only hope, and that is slim at best, is outside pressure.
That’s why it is important that Abbas abandon any path that relies on Israeli politics or American intervention. Israel is too free to act with impunity and the United States is structurally incapable of playing a positive role. Only international pressure, particularly from Europe and through the international legal system, holds out any hope for a solution. The Palestinians should have pursued an international strategy long ago, certainly as soon as their provisional statehood was recognized by the UN. Even now, Abbas is moving much too slowly along that path, apparently holding out hope that the US will take real action rather than see the international community, and particularly the international legal system, assert itself.
So, the reaction that Chemi Shalev has makes good sense from his perspective. But those of us who are not Israelis desperately holding out hope for a resolution that allows Palestinians to build a future but also preserves Israel more or less as it is, need to be more objective. We need to understand that, while Abbas certainly angered many of the very countries he so desperately needs with his speech yesterday, in the long run it is an important step in the painful process of turning toward a strategy that has some hope of success. The diplomats and world leaders will calm down in time, and they might, just might, be responsive to Palestinian pleas for intervention somewhere down the road. It’s not a terribly hopeful path, but it’s a lot better than anything that was ever possible under Oslo.