Washington long ago—under Henry Kissinger– elbowed the United Nations completely out of the lead role that, by all rights, it should play in spearheading the search for lasting peace between Israel and all of its neighbors, including the Palestinians. And under George W. Bush, Washington was even able to formalize the subordination of the U.N. to Washington’s diktats in the matter, through its inclusion as a junior member in that new and at some levels quite anomalous outfit, the “Quartet”.
But the U.N. is not only a set of principles and policies; it is also, certainly, a bureaucracy. And there are two little chunks of it whose budgets are still justified primarily in terms of the contribution they can make to the pursuit of Palestinian rights.
This means holding conferences. Lots of them. The Division on Palestinian Rights is sponsoring the one I have just been participating in, here in Malta. Next month, they’re having one in Vienna; and in May they’ll be in Istanbul. The pace seems dizzying.
So you can certainy ask, “What are all these conferences good for?” And when I am at one—this one has been my third—there are always some periods of time when I ask that question. These usually come when some elderly Palestinian or other Arab participant bloviates, usually from the floor, for ways longer than is necessary or helpful.
But still, jaw-jaw is always better than war-war, so one grits one’s teeth and bears it.
These gatherings do also have some significant uses, however. I would describe them roughly as follows:
- 1. They are useful as locations for networking. Hey, today I got to have lunch with Alon Liel, an Israeli peace negotiator whom I’ve long wanted to meet, and Mohammad Barakeh, M.K., an ethnic Palestinian who is the head of Hadash, the former Israeli Communist Party, which is the premier joint Arab-Jewish party in the whole Israeli political spectrum. I couldn’t easily have done that if I stayed home in Washington DC, could I? I also met around half a dozen other really interesting people, and reconnected with numerous people whom I’d known before in one context or another.
2. They are useful as a way of keeping alive the idea that the principles of international law still, in spite of all the backsliding of recent decades, need to be applied to this conflict as much as to any other. That gives a glimmer of hope to many Palestinians. Not that international law has ever really done much for the Palestinians in modern time. But it yet might. And meantime, the sloughing off of the international-law framework, as was intentionally undertaken by successive U.S. administrations from Kissinger on (and by Norway, circa 1993), has very palpably harmed Palestinian lives and interests. So let’s keep the international-law framework alive, and carry on blowing fresh air onto its embers from time to time!
3. They are useful as a way of continually exposing new audiences in different places around the world to the facts of life—and to some of the high-ranking actors—in the Palestinian-Israeli arena.
4. They also usefully help to (re-)build the constituency, both among the Palestinians and Israelis themselves and in the rest of the world, for the international-law approach.
Well, for all these reasons, the right wing in Israel really hates these conferences. Heck, they hate everything to do with the United Nations and the whole idea of an international law regime that starts from the concept that everyone in the world is equal.
So guess what happened with the present conference. In addition to Liel and Barakeh, the conference organizers had invited at least three other significant Israeli figures, including the Israeli co-head of the Geneva Initiative, Yossi Beilin, former Education Minister (and current MK) Yuli Tamir, and an MK from the Kadima Party. But heavy-handed pressure from Avigdor Lieberman’s Foreign ministry was successful in “persuading” Tamir and the Kadima MK not to take part. So from Israel the only participants we had were Barakeh, Beilin, and Liel.
Mohammad Barakeh, by the way, is under constant pressure from the Israeli authorities. He has a court appearance due in early March, when he has to answer a total of four charges the state prosecutors have brought against him. They are all, he told us, related to intensely political actions he took. “What about parliamentary immunity?” I asked him over lunch. “Did they take it away from you?” He replied that it hadn’t been taken away completely; but the regulations were changed so that if he wants immunity he has to ask the court for it. And he said he didn’t want to do that: He thought it would just give the government yet another chance to attack him.
(I’d met Barakeh once before, when our mutual friend Abu Leila—Kays Abdul-Karim, a Palestinian parliamentarian from the DFLP—introduced us during one of the regular weekly anti-Wall protests in Bil’in, last March. But there was too much tear-gas around for us to have any kind of a conversation then.)
One notable aspect of these U.N. conferences is that the Palestinian representation at them is highly skewed toward towards Fateh and its current allies. This is because Fateh still strongly dominates all the organs of the PLO, the body that runs the “official” Palestinian diplomatic effort worldwide. Thus, if you meet a Palestinian ambassador anywhere around the world, you can know that he (or in rare cases she) either is a long-time Fateh stalwart, or is beholden to Fateh in some way, or—in the rare cases of people of independent mindset—is constantly wrestling with her or his conscience as well as with the Fateh bosses in Ramallah.
This fact, and the fact that the Arab-state participants at these events are also stalwarts of their respective countries’ ruling parties or cliques, gives the proceedings a sometimes bizarre and unrealistic flavor.
Case in point: The extreme rarity of any mention during the sessions I attended, of the horrendous current situation in Gaza, or of Hamas.
Certainly, Hamas got no mention at all that I heard (and I didn’t get into the room till mid-afternoon of the first of the two days) from any of the Palestinian or other Arab participants. The only mentions I heard came from the representative of the Russian Federal Government, Mr. Ziad Sabsabi and from Dr. George Vella, the Maltese MP who chairs the Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean’s ad-hoc Committee on the Middle East. (PAM was co-sponsoring this conference.)
Sabsabi spoke right after the U.S. Ambassador to Malta, Douglas Kmiec, contributed a slightly preachy lecture to the proceedings this morning. On balance, it was great that Kmiec took part in the proceedings at all, in notable contrast to Washington’s attitude to these UN conferences under both G.W. Bush and also, I think, Bill Clinton. (Kmiec went to lengths to negotiate an arrangement whereby he did not have to—gasp!—sit under the big conference banner proclaiming that this was a U.N. conference on the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, but instead could speak from a specially organized lectern. Sabsabi sat at the long podium, under the banner, with all the rest of the presenters.)
Kmiec went to some lengths to lambast Hamas for its “undemocratic” record and mindset. Sabsabi, by contrast, spoke with great approval about the visit Hamas head Khaled Meshaal recently made to Moscow and the many helpful things he had said there. That was an interesting vignette right there.
One of the speakers whom I missed by flying in late for the meeting was the Turkish Deputy prime Minister, Cemil Cicek. Turkey is like Russia in that it maintains relations with hamas. Cicek didn’t mention Hamas directly in the printed version of his remarks that I picked up, though he did say a couple of sentences about the need to heal the rift between the two big Palestinian movements.
Cicek was also—along with Vella and Sabsabi– one of the few delegates to talk about Gaza. According to the printed version of his remarks, he said,
I also deem it our collective responsibility to help address the suffering and hardship the Gazans are facing. One year on from the Israeli attacks on Gaza, the wounds of the humanitarian tragedy in Gaza are yet to be healed. This is unacceptable.
This certainy reminded me of what happened when his boss, Rejep Tayyip Erdogan, was in Washington DC in December. Erdogan talked there at great length about the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza and publicly called on the U.S. and everyone else to work to lift the Israeli siege on the Strip. Afterwards, one Arab guy who was there noted to me that you would never find an Arab head of state prepared to say such things in public in Washington… Well, neither did you find many of the Palestinian or other Arab participants in this UN conference who were prepared to speak out about it. That was left, instead, to participants from Russia, Turkey, and Malta. Strange old world we live in.
I wonder, though, why there seemed not to be any representatives from Syria at the meeting. Was it because there were Israelis present? If so, that would be a pity, because as it was, the Arabs who dominated the proceedings were more-or-less “official” Egyptians and Jordanians (and pro-Fateh Palestinians).
All of that led to the fact that none of them wanted to say a word about Gaza or Hamas. So what could they talk about? Really, what all of them wanted to do was re-rehearse all the age-old Palestinian and Arab grievances against Israel from decades past.
Of course, if Fateh and Hamas can ever get their reconciliation agreement, then sharing power within the PLO will be a crucial part of that… And that might finally lead to the official “Palestinian” representation in international diplomacy having a more reality-based, up-to-date, and relevant character.