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Palestine, 194th Member?

Oxford-style debate raged over U.N. membership

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At last night’s Intelligence Squared U.S. debate held at NYU’s Skirball Center, the motion was: “The U.N. Should Admit Palestine as a Full Member State.” The Oxford style of the contest—one side defends the platform, the other side opposes it, and they are judged purely on their respective success at doing what they are supposed to do, not what is “right” or how the motion fits into a larger context—made for an evening that at once obscured the larger difficulties of the Middle East conflict and highlighted that conflict’s intractability. Mustafa Barghouthi and Daniel Levy, defending the platform, defeated Dore Gold and Aaron David Miller, opposing it—they had an audience vote to show for it. But as tempers flared (including, at one point, that of moderator John Donvan, of ABC News) and each side retreated into their respective (and respectively valid) shibboleths, it became clear that the true victor whenever the “peace process” is discussed is the status quo.

The pro- side, and specifically Levy, a former Israeli negotiator currently of the New America Foundation, was able to win, ironically, by downplaying the importance of Palestinian membership. “This is not a panacea,” Levy argued at one point (it would be pointless to deny that his English accent serves him extremely well when debating policy in front of an American audience). But it would do some good, he argued: it might halt settlement-building, at least in the long run (Miller pointed out that in the short run it would likely accelerate settlement-building); it would alter “the conceptual universe” (including that of “certain people in New Hampshire tonight”), showing the doubters that there truly is international commitment for a two-state solution. Levy called it “declarative diplomacy,” at once providing an ample rationale and shrinking its importance so that the onus was on the other side either to disagree and assert that it would be a big deal—which would have been a risky gambi given the consensus that the end-goal should be a two-state solution—or to argue that this initiative would simply do more small harm than small good, a task made more difficult by its very smallness.

Miller, a former U.S. negotiator, and Gold, a former adviser to Prime Minister Netanyahu, attempted the latter. “U.N. decision in the absence of a plan will not bring the Palestinians any closer to the sovereignty they deserve,” argued Miller. He noted that Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a hero (in the West) for building real institutions (in the West Bank), “is against this proposition because he knows it will undermine the work he has done.” Miller added, “Recognition would conflate with sovereignty. That may not be legally correct, but that would be the mindset.” Gold pointed out, “You need diplomatic flexibility.” Here he feinted toward what, to my mind, was their side’s strongest argument: that U.N. membership, like borders, settlements, and the statuses of refugees and Jerusalem, is something best left to the negotiating table rather than given up for nothing.

And here we get to the aforementioned flared tempers. For negotiations work best between two sides that are in relatively equal positions to bargain, but, of course, this arguably does not accurately describe the Israelis and the Palestinians. Barghouthi compared them to two mice fighting over a piece of cheese, with the Palestinian mouse imprisoned behind bars and helpless as he watches the Israeli mouse get the whole wedge to himself. To which the rebuttal is that the mouse, trapped behind bars, has put itself on a level playing field—and an un-level moral one—by sending suicide bombers and rockets toward the Israeli mouse.

Levy and Barghouthi had answers for this, too. For Levy, once again, it’s about symbolism: Palestinian membership would be something akin to what literary theorists call a speech-act. It would force the Palestinians to get serious. “Palestine: you’re in the U.N., read the U.N. charter,” which calls for all nations to be “peace-loving,” Levy said. “Hamas, you want in? You read the U.N. charter too.” Barghouthi went a step further, noting that Hamas has recently called for renouncing violence and accepting the 1967 borders—and without noting that other elements of Hamas have done the exact opposite and that Hamas’s infamous charter remains unchanged. “That strains the bounds of credulity,” Miller retorted in the understated fashion that was his style. He was referring to Barghouthi’s claim that Hamas has reformed, but he may as well have been referring also to Levy’s claim that Palestinian membership would reform Hamas.

Gold here went for something like the jugular, asking Barghouthi if he was at a confab in Cairo late last month that included not only members of the ruling Fatah party and other relatively moderate ones like Barghouthi’s own, but also Hamas and Islamic Jihad. He had. If the debate were a larger one, this might have been the trump card, but Levy stepped in to note that U.N. recognition would confer legitimacy on the much broader and more representative Palestine Liberation Organization, and he was never pressed on the prospect that Hamas and Islamic Jihad would need to become PLO members for the thing to have any sort of legitimacy among the Palestinian people in the near to intermediate future, and so defused that particular bombshell. (He did make a rare error in all but comparing Hamas to Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leaving Gold the easy in to accuse Levy of “moral equivalence,” which he did, over and over and over again, like your uncle at the Seder table).

By the end, all that seemed clear is what we probably knew before: continued Israeli intransigence over settlements and continued division among the Palestinians—with a large portion if not the majority supporting the unsupportable Hamas—means there won’t be peace in the Middle East any time soon. I thought Levy and Barghouthi (specifically Levy) out-argued Gold and Miller, though it was Miller I found myself most frequently nodding in agreement with. You can make the argument that conferring membership might help compensate for continued settlement-building, both symbolically and instrumentally (as it might give the Palestinians access to international courts). But you are entering too many unknowns—who the Palestinian leadership is, how Israel will respond, how other countries in the region will react—for my taste.

“If we do not have a Palestine, we are saying Kaddish for Israeli democracy,” Levy pleaded at one point. Of course, that was not necessarily germane to the motion. The motion, of course, is impossible: full membership would require passage in the Security Council, and the United States will veto any such motion. So instead Levy’s cri de coeur would have to be filed away in the audience-members’ worried minds.

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This whole power imbalance argument put forth at the debate, and in many debates over Israel and Palestine, is a red herring. The conflict is really one between Israel and the Arabs and the power imbalance, if it actually matters, is clearly in favor of the Arabs.

We see this power imbalance clearly in a couple of ways. Leaders in Canada and Australia recently were advised to vote against Israel in the UN not because the Israeli position was wrong but because support for Israel would prevent the two countries from becoming UN security council members. In another instance Saudi Arabia offered bribes in the millions of dollars for some small countries to vote against Israel.

There are 300 million plus Arabs and 21 Arab countries, versus one Jewish state with 7.5 million citizens. There are maybe 13 million Jews in the world. Saudi Arabia’s GDP is something like three times that of Israel. The gap between Israel and Iran is even higher — if we want to expand the conflict to include the 57 self-described Islamic states, most of whom don’t even recognize Israel. Talk about power imbalance.

Where this imbalance shows itself most is in the Palestinians’ and the Arabs’ refusal to recognize the existence of the Jewish people — never mind Israel as the home to the Jewish people. The Arabs claim Jews are a religious group and nothing more.

The power to define is the ultimate power and that the Palestinians and the rest of the Arabs feel they have the power to define for the world and for Jews who and what Jews are tells everything about the power imbalance. It is clearly the Palestinians and other Arabs who think they have the ability to impose their will and their views on the Jews. They see themselves having the power.

What Israel has is a strong military and a resilient public. These mitigate Arab power to some extent, but they do not completely balance it out.

Ephraim says:

Israeli “intransigence” over settlements? You’re giving yourself away, and this conventional wisdom about Israeli “intransigence”, drummed into everyone’s heads endlessly by the media, poisons the well before any real debate can start.

Assuming that Israeli “intransigence” over the settlements is the “cause of the conflict” is exactly wrong, in every conceiveable way, and those who support Israel must do everything they can to dispel this pernicious myth. The settlements are the result of the conflict, not its cause. This myth rests on the assumption, for which there is not a single shred of proof whatsoever, that the terrorist organizations such as the PLO, the PA, Hamas, etc., would moderate their positions and accept Israel’s right to exist if only there were no settlements. The entire “piece process” (pun intended) is based on this evil fantasy. It is why the pro-Israel side can never win these debates. Everyone believes it because they have been told to believe it, but even the most cursory examination of the facts shows that it is a lie cooked up by those who wish to destroy Israel.

Jews like Levy who support the inclusion of genocidal maniacs like Hamas in the “piece process” in the vain and naive hope that they will thereby somehow moderate just because the UN Charter says they must, are worse than fools, they are evil people openly aiding and abetting the enemies of Israel. There is no proof whatsoever that the PA has ever moderated the PLO’s stated goal of destroying Israel which, contrary to bien-pensant opinion, has never been altered. Their alliance with Hamas proves this. Hamas will not be moderated by being included in the PA, it will eat the PA alive, or, should I say, the true face of the PA will finally be revealed to all of the idiots like Levy who cannot see what is staring them in the face, and Israel will be faced with another Gaza in Yehuda and Shomron.

We are our own worst enemies. Where did anyone get the idea that we are so smart?

judith bell says:

Just saw the debate today online. Could not decide who was worse – Miller or Gold. i think they should have sent the author of this piece to debate against the motion as he would have done better.

Israel’s position is pretty easy – the Arabs have never agreed to anything including the 1947 borders that they now, laughably claim were refused them. They want to circumvent the process and get everything. They will not agree to a “final” settlement, to give up on the right of return or to Jewish rights in Jerusalem.

They now say agreeing to borders and stopping the settlements need to be achieved before negotiations. Agreeing to borders is new and it is Israel’s only trump card.

It is clear – they want to get in through the back door and that is all Miller and Gold needed to hammer at. They might also have pointed out that giving up land for a piece of paper is pretty risky, especially because people are now comfortable saying Camp David can be put aside because the Egyptians were not in a democracy when it was agreed to.



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Palestine, 194th Member?

Oxford-style debate raged over U.N. membership

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