After the overwhelming “yes” vote on Mahmoud Abbas’ bid for Palestinian non-member observer state status at the United Nations on November 29, a friend in Canada wrote to me wondering if I would go and dance in the street in Tel Aviv. I might have been out there dancing if there had been any sign that anyone else was out there that night. I hate dancing alone.
Few in Israel were vocally in support of the bid. Strange, since it was a modest proposal that did nothing to harm Israel and only spoke of raising the status of Palestine in the eyes of the United Nations from an “entity” to a “state,” which seems like a reasonable step toward the “two-state solution” that so many Israelis claim to support. It was also a proposal that would not have any immediate impact on the ground in terms of ending the occupation — although it might have an impact on the way in which we think about what is possible.
The 138 yea votes to 9 nays that the world cast at the U.N. spoke loudly for the right of the Palestinian people to sovereignty. Only Israel, the United States, Canada and a few much smaller countries voted against it, taking a stand against Palestinian freedom — and, by extension, any hope for Israeli freedom.
Some Israelis did speak out in favor of the bid, including former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the more than 300 people, led by the leftist political parties Meretz and Hadash, who rallied in support of the bid last Thursday.
The rally took place in Tel Aviv outside the building where David Ben Gurion first declared Israeli independence exactly six and a half decades earlier in 1948. The rally drew on the historical significance of November 29, and in so doing recognized the fact that Jewish self-determination and Palestinian self-determination depend on each other.
Whatever voices were cheering for the Palestinian victory last week, however, have been once again drowned out by the “facts on the ground.” In response to the world’s resounding support for Palestinian freedom at the U.N., Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans for 3,000 new settlers’ homes and that building would recommence in the E1 region east of Jerusalem — possibly putting an end to the last chance for a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank, just as the international community stood up to affirm support for one. The response from the U.S. to that move has been verbal disapproval but no action. Some EU nations are talking about recalling their ambassadors as punishment.
The Israeli street is silent. Aside from some voices in the (progressive) press, not many are even talking about the U.N. bid anymore in this country. Netanyahu’s announcement is only a slightly sped-up version of the norm in the West Bank. Building plans and home demolitions in East Jerusalem and the West Bank are proceeding as they did before. The occupation continues despite the clarity with which most of the world has spoken on behalf of Palestinian freedom. Israel has continued to succeed in preventing a nonviolent mass movement against the occupation from taking hold, despite the many Palestinians, Israelis and international supporters trying to create one.
Meanwhile, on the Palestinian street, the international press has been reporting about the big outdoor parties and extravagant ceremonies in honor of Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. My friends, colleagues and trusted sources in the West Bank all say otherwise, though. A cafe patron near Ramallah’s Arafat Square explained to me that despite the fact that the PA orchestrated the celebrations by closing the schools and calling for people to leave work to celebrate, these festivities were even less well attended than last year’s rallies in favor of U.N. inclusion.
Perspectives about this milestone in Palestinian society vary. The feelings of cynicism that I witnessed in Ramallah contrasted with a fireworks display near the Hizma checkpoint and the projection of the news at a major hub just outside the Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem. There was a sense of excitement throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem about the world’s declaration that Palestine is a state, even if it didn’t change the facts on the ground at all.
Still, pessimism is the most common view I have heard on both sides of the Green Line. Many activists and youth throughout the West Bank agree with Ali Abunimah of The Electronic Intifada, who views Abbas as nothing more than a puppet for the Israeli occupation. Insistence on, and faith in, a just two-state solution is faltering more and more these days. It seems less and less realistic with each additional settler in the West Bank. However, every attempt to pursue other proposals for Palestinian human rights are met by Netanyahu’s government with an increase in settlement building and a further decrease in the available options.
While the prospects are dim, the Palestinians’ desire for self-determination runs deep. Israelis must come to learn that they won’t find any lasting safety in refusing it; real freedom for one people requires ensuring it for both peoples. For me, this goes to the core question of what it means to build a society that truly reflects the foundational Jewish values of truth, justice and peace.
These values are reflected in the history of Jewish participation in movements for economic justice across Europe and North America, as well as in the vision of socialist-Zionists like Martin Buber — who maintained throughout his life, well into the 1950s, that Jewish liberation is inextricable from Palestinian liberation. Those pillars of Jewish ethics are central to Jewish thought, tradition and culture.
In Israel today we see those values reflected in the pages of just a few news sources — +972 Magazine, for example, and at times in the pages of Haaretz. We see those values reflected in the activist networks through which people are fighting the occupation daily. We see them in the uniquely Israeli youth movements such as Hashomer Hatzair (The Young Guard) who have continued the struggle for a just society for generations. We see them in the ranks of political parties like Hadash and Meretz who stood up for Palestinian self-determination last Thursday. But they’re still not nearly enough.
Whatever hope came from the U.N. vote is an uncertain hope, a hope in a symbol that belies the reality. Still, that symbolic forward motion can become something real if we take this as an opportunity to organize around what has emerged as a near unanimous view around the world: that recognition and freedom are essential to true justice and true peace here in Israel and Palestine.