A hard choice faces the Palestinians

Politically, this is a moment of opportunity, but it carries a painful human price.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman, Jordan, June 29, 2013. (Photo by State Dept.)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman, Jordan, June 29, 2013. (Photo by State Dept.)

The Palestinians have “won” the Kerry peace initiative: the Obama administration is blaming both sides for its likely failure, not just the Palestinian side, which is the most they could have expected. The New York Times editorial goes one better: it points the finger pretty squarely at Netanyahu, which is radical for a Times editorial. So the Palestinians, having the clear sympathy of Europe and the rest of the world as the aggrieved party, can go to the UN after the talks run out on April 29 and be able to say: “We are seeking our independence here because Israel refused to give it to us.”

At the same time, the BDS movement will almost certainly expand further into the mainstream – including among Jewish liberals. The Netanyahu government has shown itself on a very brightly lit stage to be the Palestinians’ rigid, punitive, mean overlord; it’s screwed itself in international opinion, which was always lousy, but now I think is going to be horrendous.

So the Palestinians and their supporters – whose success is Israel’s success, regardless of their intentions – have a great opportunity. Politically, now is the time for the UN, for The Hague, for BDS, for unarmed “popular resistance.” Politically it’s the only option because if the Palestinians continue playing by America’s rules, they will never be free. From a purely selfish point of view, I hope they go for it.

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But if they do, they’re going to pay a high price in day-to-day suffering. Israel will crack down on them and make their lives even harsher in any number of ways. And America, as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power told Congress on Wednesday, will do everything it can to block their advance in the UN. Congress will certainly cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid. Maybe Europe, the UN and the Muslim states will make up the difference, and maybe they won’t.

An Israeli crackdown, in an atmosphere of world disapproval of the Netanyahu government, will hurt Israel politically and bring more support for the Palestinian cause. That would be the dynamic of a Palestinian revolt (so long as it didn’t return to the mass killing of the Second Intifada, which the Israeli army is better equipped now to stop, and which the Palestinians seem to have realized is self-defeating). This is a practiced, successful script for oppressed peoples,  and by now the occupation has been going on for so long and Israel has become so haughty that a South African strategy, I think, can work. The world has run out of patience with Israel’s abusive game, and if the Palestinians press the issue on the ground and in the halls of power, backed by more and more international support, I believe this country will fold its hand like every haughty colonial power before it.

But this is going to take time. It’s going to take several years. And victory isn’t certain. What’s certain is that millions of Palestinians will have to endure all kinds of hell before Israel cracks.

So I don’t know if Abbas and the Palestinian Authority want to do this, to cut the rope after April 29 and take on Israel and the United States. But if they don’t, if they accept the bone of “restrained construction” in the West Bank or whatever other insult Kerry throws at them and agree to go on sitting still under Israel’s rule, the so-called Palestinian “street” will not sit still, not indefinitely, especially not after being conspicuously humiliated again by Israel and the United States.

So if Abbas doesn’t leave the talks after their allotted time and go to the UN, he’s going to fall further in the eyes of his people and at some point the 79-year-old leader and his loyalists are going to be made irrelevant. At some point the Palestinians are going to cut the rope, because it’s only getting tighter. And when they do, we who oppose the occupation in safety and comfort will be called by our consciences to take some risks ourselves.

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