Paul Pillar

Diverting Attention from the Tragedy of Palestine

The United Nations always has had, and rightfully so, a strong role in handling the conflict between Arabs and Jews over land in Palestine.  When the Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I, Britain assumed administration of Palestine under a mandate from the League of Nations.  In the aftermath of World War II, when an overburdened Britain declared that it was ridding itself of the burden of Palestine, and with the League of Nations having died, it was appropriate that the successor international organization, the United Nations, would address the issue.  A special committee of the United Nations drew up a partition plan under which Palestine would be divided into a Jewish state and an Arab state.  The UN General Assembly approved a modified version of the plan in November 1948.

The plan was generous to the Jewish side, as reflected in heavy Zionist lobbying (especially lobbying in the United States) in favor of it, and Arab states voting against the plan in the General Assembly.  Although Jews constituted only one-fourth, and Arabs three-fourths, of the population of Palestine at the time, the proposed Jewish state would get over half the land.  Subsequent armed combat made the disconnect between population and land even greater.  The land controlled by the Jewish state went from 55 percent of Palestine in the original plan of the UN committee, to 61 percent in the modified version that the General Assembly voted on, to 78 percent after the armistice of 1949, to 100 percent after the war that Israel initiated in 1967.

The UN partition plan remains Israel’s founding document: an international charter for the creation of the State of Israel.  This is too easily forgotten among more recent rhetoric about the United Nations being allegedly an anti-Israeli forum.  The same partition plan also was a charter for creation of a Palestinian Arab state.  With the subsequent events determined by Israel’s superior armed might, that part of the charter has gone unrealized.  It represents unfinished business.  So members of the United Nations appropriately have remained, as is said in diplomatic parlance, seized of the matter.

One continuing manifestation of remaining seized of that unfinished business is a quarterly Security Council meeting in which any UN member state is allowed to speak and in which the agenda item is “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”.  Palestine has in fact been the prime focus of these gatherings.  But in the most recent such meeting, held last week—and with the United States chairing the Security Council this month—U.S. ambassador Nikki Haley declared that she was going to talk not about Palestine but instead about Iran.  Israeli ambassador Danny Danon, even though his country is one of the direct parties to the conflict over Palestine, eagerly devoted most of his speech to attacks on Iran.

The other participants in the debate focused more on the Palestinian problem, in accordance with the unfinished business, with traditional regional concerns, and with the published agenda item.  There were, to be sure, some other criticisms of Iran, including from Iran’s local rivals in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but even with them the problem of Palestine was not far from the surface.  The Emirati representative, for example, stated that finding a resolution to the Palestinian question was a “fundamental priority” of his government, and that the UAE was deeply concerned about how the absence of a resolution was denying people in the occupied Palestinian territories their inalienable rights.

The current Israeli government repeatedly plays up the idea that with so much other turmoil in the Middle East, it is somehow not appropriate to focus international attention on the unfinished business in Palestine.  The Israeli position involves not just a casting of doubt on the ability of diplomats to walk and chew gum at the same time, but also an assertion that most people in the Middle East don’t care much any more about the plight of the Palestinians.  Many American sympathizers of the Israeli government speak in much the same terms and talk about insufficient ripeness in being able to do anything about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This is one of what has been a series of excuses for inaction.  At other times the principal excuse may have been that there has been too much disunity on the Palestinian side for that side to produce an effective interlocutor—conveniently ignoring how Israel has done all it can to foment that disunity, even withholding tax receipts due to the Palestinian Authority when the Fatah-run PA has made any moves toward healing the breach with Hamas.  Now the regional turmoil excuse, with that turmoil so obvious in Syria and elsewhere, has become the favored excuse du jour

In a note distributed before the Security Council meeting, the United States asked countries to consider, "Who are the regional players that most benefit from chaos in the region?”  One honest and accurate answer to that question would be: the Netanyahu government, because of the excuse that chaos provides in deflecting international attention and pressure away from the Israeli occupation and colonization of Palestinian territory.

The assertions about Middle Easterners no longer caring much about the Palestinian problem are simply not true, as evidenced by government statements, temperature-taking among Arab publics, and exploitation of the issue by extremist groups.  Although undoubtedly there has been some diversion of attention toward other troubles, the reasons for widespread resonance of the Palestinian issue are still present.  These reasons include sympathy with co-ethnics and co-religionists, a more broadly felt sense of injustice, and awareness of the destabilizing potential of letting the problem fester, including especially the extremist exploitation of the issue.