As Britain and France work out their exact response on a diplomatic level to the Palestinian UN initiative, on a grassroots level the exact wording is no longer important.
September has heightened expectations in the Palestinian street to the extent that even those who are against the positive outcome, would such a resolution be universally accepted, find themselves supporting it. With a US veto guaranteed for a vote on Palestinian membership to the UN, the minimal requirements for a ‘Palestinian win’ in the eyes of the street will not be met. Regardless of the diplomatic games on the exact wording, the street expects and the street will be hugely disappointed.
Polling has shown that 70% of Israeli’s and 70.5% of Palestinians expect an intifada to break out after September. While polling in this part of the world has never been an absolute guide, such high numbers do not bode at all well.
Looking at the muted West Bank protest to the recent upsurge in violence in Gaza, it does not seem that there will be instant mass marches on Israel’s borders from every Palestinian town and city. However, thePalestine 194 march called for by the Palestinian Authority itself to support the UN push could morph into mass protest like those seen in the rest of the region- depending on how Israel responds to it. The idea that the PA has called for this march and promised that it will police it, while threatening to dissolve itself if it does not get its way in the UN, does not inspire confidence about the ability of the PA to control the actions of the masses they are stoking up.
Importantly, the civil society movements in Palestine already exist and the Palestine 194 march will try and harness them rather then create them. The ‘March 15th‘ movement that called for national unity also helped organise the worldwide May 15th Nakba demonstrations that resulted in Israel’s borders being breached in the north.
While the March 15th movement attracted a lot of media attention and were a definite motivator for the Fatah-Hamas unity deal, they were not able to mobilize on a huge scale in the occupied territories themselves. People who are skeptical about mass protests in the West Bank point to the positive economic drivers that normally keep these protests smaller, as ‘ordinary citizens’ have to go to work.
This analysis is mistaken. Firstly, on an economic level the PA is running out of money. The US Congress vote means that they will lose $550 million dollars if they go through with a UN vote. 150,000 PA employees will have no paycheck. Even though both intifadas started at times of economic prosperity, if you add to the September dynamic that the largest employer in Palestine could be broke, you have the people power needed if mass demonstrations do kick off.
Regardless of whether an intifada starts or not, September does mark a watershed in Palestine. The moderate majority who are willing to accept a Two State solution have pinned their last credibility in the face of rising despair on September. When it does not deliver the end of the occupation, this majority will seed its responsibility in trying to achieve the Two State solution. September marks the end of the road within the Palestinian narrative of things that they can do in order to create a Two State solution. September marks their last effort to change their own situation in a mutually acceptable fashion. After September, though people will still be willing to accept a Two State solution, they will not be able to visualise a path to get there that involves any agency on their own behalf.
Into this vacuum will step in those who have been advocating a rights-based struggle for the past six years, the international BDS movement. Since the PA wobble over the Goldstone report in 2009, Palestinians have started to look to those outside the region for political guidance and plans of action. Israeli groups started noticing this and termed the actions of these external actors as delegitimisation, as they hold no political solution but only support what they see as Palestinians’ inalienable rights, which include a full right of return for Palestinian refugees. It is this focus on refugees rights that has lead the BDS movement to reject the September diplomatic moves for fear of losing the right in the legal shift from the PLO to the State of Palestine. The Israeli spotlight on these international groups has helped them magnify their own impact and demonstrate their bonafides as people who are forcing the Israelis to rethink the status quo, as opposed to the PA.
Through a network of dozens of different groups and organizations, the BDS campaign does not just seek to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, but also own what it means to fight against the occupation. They are active at policing what they see as normalization – normalising the relationships between Israelis and Palestinians. Due to the fact that Palestinians are living in an uneven and abnormal situation, they attack any coexistence or dialogue groups between Israelis and Palestinians. The only interaction allowed may happen only if it is for the express purpose of ending the Occupation under their terms.
Even if groups do not practice coexistence or dialogue, but merely have Israeli and Palestinian partners, these are seen as unacceptable and participants are branded naïve and dangerous at best, collaborators and traitors at worst.
This aggressive squeezing out of those who disagree with the tactics or messaging of the BDS campaign has created a reduced space in Palestine to operate and a space that is going to disappear as the feeling of agency dissipates after September.
What does this mean for the Two State solution? The best one can hope for after September is, ‘we tried that, Israel said no.’ This message will be carried from the region across the world, and what we will be seen is an inverse of the Barak/Arafat blame game from 2000. This time it was Israel who walked away from the table, and they only have themselves to blame.
Can a two state solution still be salvaged after September? Assuming that there is no creative solution to the UN confrontation, the world will need to focus on how to keep the solution alive even while the parties lose faith in it. This will require a discussion to move from final status issues to practical steps necessary in order to keep the solution alive. Each side has their own steps, but these must be seen as in their own best interest and not as a gift to the other side in order for them to be implemented.
These steps do exist and are necessary for all those who still believe that a Two State solution is the only solution to the conflict. They include Israel building housing for the 70 thousand settlers that are going to be moved, they include the PA working on diffusing some of the internal regional tensions within the Palestinian polity. This focus on internal steps might be the path that keeps the option of a Two State solution on the table, all be it not pushed in the traditional method of the past twenty years.