Sunday, 25 September 2011

The ghost of Charles Percy lives on in America's staunch support for Israel at the UN

Ever heard of Charles Percy? Me neither but back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was apparently the US Republicans answer to JFK. He died in the past week and Rupert Cornwell the excellent Independent journalist that covers American politics, wrote an obituary for him last Thursday which can be read here.

Arab/Israeli Tensions in 1984
A moderate Republican, he was, so says Cornwell, sizing up a Presidential bid in 1976 but the demise of Nixon and the coming of Ford blew his chances out of the water. He continued however as a respected politician of the American right and in 1981 became Chair of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But in 1984, in a year when Reagan swept to a crushing re-election victory to the White House over the Democrats' Walter Mondale, Percy lost in his attempt to win a 4th term in the Senate in the state of Illinois. He lost to the Democrat Paul Simon but the reason many argue that he lost resonates to this day and indeed to the current diplomatic wranglings being witnessed at this very moment in the UN.

Cornwell notes that Percy "...had criticised Israel for missing opportunities to negotiate with the Palestinians, he had described Yasser Arafat as a "relative moderate", and had twice voted for controversial sales of US arms to Saudi Arabia, opposed by both Israel and AIPAC, the main Israel lobbying group in Washington".

The Jewish lobby wanted blood and they got their man by heavily financing and supporting Simon's campaign. Did it swing the campaign decisively in Simon's favour? Who can say but the response of AIPAC was clear. As Cornwell goes on to quote the Group's President Tom Dine at the time "All the Jews in America, from coast to coast, gathered to defeat Percy, and American politicians – those who hold public positions now and those who aspire – got the message".

Cornwell concludes by stating that Congress's lockstep and virtually unanimous support of Israel since suggests he may have had a point.

Arab/Israeli Tensions in 2011
Percy's death last week therefore has a particular resonance at a time when a Democratic President of the USA threatens the UN with a Security Council wielding veto if the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas continues with his call for full membership of the United Nations.

Mahmoud Abbas at the United Nations
I've been mulling over the diplomatic wranglings of recent days as the United Nations has played centre stage to this latest chapter in the sorry recent history of Arab/Israeli relations.

I've been desperately trying to realistically size up what has been right and what has been wrong about the recent moves by Mahmoud Abbas to request full membership status of the UN at its General Assembly in New York this week.

My gut instinct as one who has always shared great sympathy with the Palestinian cause has unsurprisingly been one of support. After all, after decades of deadlocked peace talks, why not just take the call for full nationhood status to the UN where there is clear support for such a call? But then there's my dismay at the Obama administration's response that any formal application will be vetoed by the USA in the Security Council. This takes us right back to the case of Charles Percy and the tribal nature of American party politics on this issue in which the Jewish lobby hold so much sway.

The response from Obama and indeed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is one that could actually be seen as being reasonable. It isn't they say that they are against a two state solution, just one that is opposed from top-down from the UN as opposed to one that is agreed bottom-up by both sides on the ground. At first sight this of course holds water - any agreement to co-exist side-by-side with each other can only realistically be made with another Oslo syle agreement by both the Palestinians and the Israelis.

But, and this is the big but, peace talks have stalled having gone round and round in circles for years. The election of the right-wing Likud leader Netanyahu as Prime Minister only intensified the concerns of all moderates that no common ground could be found between the two sides. This seems to have been bourne out by the building of Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian West Bank which led to the collapse of the last round of talks in September 2010. Netanyahu will riposte by claiming that the reason of the collapse in communication is the Palestinians unwillingness to recognise Israel as a Jewish state. At the end of the day, they all must make compromises if they are to live together but in the mean-time, one side of the divide has it's national boundaries and a sovereignly recognised state whilst the other does not.

So who can blame the Palestinians for wanting to kick up a diplomatic fuss about it?

Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama
Are they right in doing so in such a way that will provoke the US into having to make an embarassing veto on the matter? Well to begin with, the US haven't got to veto but the recent history of the Jewish lobby's power in American politics as stated above demonstrates just how difficult it would be for Obama in an election year to go against their views. It's a sad situation but I can almost understand why he feels he must take that view even though I wish he didn't feel so beholden to one pressure group.

So Abbas will seek to force a vote on the issue at the UN and the result seems to be a foregone conclusion. Yet he could seek to request a secondary level of upgrading in Palestine's status short of full UN membership. The Palestinians currently have permanent observer status in the UN but a simple majority vote in the General Assembly could increase this status to one of a non-member observer state as is held for example by the Vatican City and has been held in the past by Switzerland. Such a move if successful would improve the Palestinians' chances of joining UN agencies and the International Criminal Court, although the process would be neither automatic nor guaranteed.

So there should as I read it, be a legitimate opportunity for the Palestinians through this watered down alternative route, to increase their influence in the UN as it would be likely that such a majority, non-veto wielding vote could be won in the General Assembly.

So with this in mind, should they put a stop to their futile call for full membership, knowing that the America have already guaranteed its failure by promising a veto if such a vote in the Security Council ever came to pass? In my mind, absolutely not. If the Palestinians, knowing how one country and one country alone can have the power to deny them membership, wish to embarass that country by proving it to be the case, then good luck to them. Not only that, they can show just how much support they have within the UN by seeking to increase their influence by becoming a non-member observer state. If they achieve the simple majority needed but indeed, receive the support of as much as two thirds of the UN membership, then it will prove to the Security Council and to the USA in particular that the international community are ready to admit Palestine into their club, whether Israel are willing for that to happen now or not.

It would increase the pressure on their western supporting allies to force Israel back to the negotiating table to cut a final deal with Palestine that will find a viable solution to the two-state conundrum that has evaded generations of politicians and diplomats.

Am I confident it will work? Absolutely not. Do I believe that Palestine have every right to force the issue further in this way? Absolutely.

Charles Percy will probably be looking down now in exasperation as this diplomatic merry-go-round plays its course as his country proves to be one of its greatest stumbling blocks, simply due to the strength of the Jewish lobby in America. Charles Percy will himself know more than most, about that.

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