[Viewpoint] Politics in way of peace

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[Viewpoint] Politics in way of peace

During the United Nations General Assembly meeting on Sept. 23, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas formally demanded the world recognize the Palestinian state by endorsing its full membership in the UN. The assembly and the Security Council, will deliver a decision within weeks.

Israel vehemently opposes the legitimizing of a Palestinian state. Ultimately, it says it agrees with the so-called “two-state solution,” the establishment of a Palestinian state side by side with Israel, but not very soon.

It fears for its security if Palestine is recognized as a country while lacking the real ability for state governance, with immature democratic and justice systems and anti-Israel sentiment still strong among Palestinians. Israel believes its security was undermined after it withdrew from southern Lebanon in May 2000 and the Gaza Strip in September 2005.

The Palestinians have a different argument. They cannot understand the opposition to their full UN membership when the Palestinian Authority has proven itself capable of governance and is already recognized by 116 countries as an independent state.

The Palestinians want UN recognition of their sovereignty - not as mere occupiers of land - to stand on equal diplomatic footing with Israel.

Peace negotiations over the last decade have made little progress and only led to an enlargement of the Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The Palestinians claim the Israelis have no genuine interest in the peace talks but are using them to buy time to expand Jewish settlements and reclaim Palestinian territory.

It is hard to predict what will happen at the UN. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon supports the idea of recognizing Palestinian statehood. But UN membership requires a vote of approval from more than half of the General Assembly’s 193 countries as well as an endorsement from more than nine on the 15 nations on the UN Security Council. A veto from a council member can overturn the Palestinian motion.

Palestine is expected to gain the necessary support from the General Assembly. The Unesco Executive Committee last week approved the Palestinian bid for membership overwhelmingly. But it cannot expect the same welcome from the Security Council, with Washington having already pledged to veto the move.

But both U.S. and Israeli leaders would get immense political flack, and a potential military backlash, if Palestinians’ quest for UN membership is in vain. Israel will be further isolated in the Middle East. It has already lost its strongest ally - Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak - and its relations with Turkey have soured after the Israeli military attacked a civilian Turkish aid vessel heading to the Gaza Strip.

The growing sympathy toward the Arab world stemming from the wave of civilian revolts against despotic regimes also works against the Israeli government. Arab allies could unite further and turn more hostile toward Israel.

The U.S. is in an equally tight spot. President Barack Obama, during last year’s assembly, said he hoped a Palestinian state could be admitted to the UN by the time world leaders gathered for the 2011 assembly. It would look foolishly inconsistent and unreasonable for Washington to resist the motion now.

The U.S. would come under fire for a double standard: advocating greater democracy in Egypt, Libya and Syria, while opposing sovereignty and freedom for the Palestinians. The U.S. will lose legitimacy as a leader in the Arab world and instead face more anti-American sentiment.

Both Israel and the U.S. are opposed to the Palestinians’ request for sovereignty because of domestic political factors. The conservative coalition led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has joined hands with an ultranationalist party and a Jewish fundamental party that share a common vision of reviving greater Israel by absorbing the Palestinian territories.

The Israel we see today is different from a country upholding freedom, justice and tolerance. Washington, with presidential elections next year, is under the heavy influence of Israeli power. But it would be a tragedy and a setback for democracy around the world if political calculations block a breakthrough in the Palestinian problem. Politics everywhere appears to be jeopardizing peace and security.

*The writer is a professor of political science at Yonsei University.

By Moon Chung-in
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