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October 23, 2011

A Palestinian state - reality or mirage?

Bhupinder S. Liddar

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"What wrong have these people done not to have a Palestinian passport - one of their country of birth, but are carrying passports of different countries?" the late Yasser Arafat asked Heath MacQuarrie and me, pointing to a room full of people next door.

MacQuarrie, a Progressive Conservative senator, and I had just walked past a room full of Palestinians to meet Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, in Beirut in 1978. One is tempted to ask the same question today as the Palestinian Authority (PA) tries to secure statehood status for the land of Palestine, which existed as an entity from the end of World War I until 1947 under British mandate.

In 1947 Israel got what Palestine is seeking now. On Nov. 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed a Resolution 181 outlining a partition plan for the creation of two states — one Jewish, one Arab, with Jerusalem-Bethlehem to remain under special international protection administered by United Nations. The UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), which recommended the partition, was led by none other than own very own Lester Pearson. He was awarded a medallion of valour by the newly created state of Israel. However, the Arab (Palestinian) state was never to be.

Therefore, it is timely and wise for the world community to undo the wrong and invite Palestine into its fold. One cannot see any harm that recognition of Palestine could do. Instead, it will be far better to have it inside the fold of the international family with all the responsibilities of a state, than sitting on the outside as an observer. Furthermore, the PA resolution defines the boundary of Palestine along the 1967 borders, thereby recognizing the state of Israel, which was created along 1947 lines.

In a speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, on June 4, 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama said: “The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. Americans will not turn our backs on the legitimate aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.”

Having made that categorical public promise, it would be immoral for the Obama administration now to block the Palestinians’ attempt at recognition as a state. In the same speech, Obama also noted, “Israel must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s.”

Recognition of Palestine as a state does not jeopardize continuation of negotiations, since both Israel and the Palestinian Authority have promised to resolve a number of issues through direct talks. Unfortunately, the last time negotiations broke down was when Israel refused to stop building settlements in the disputed West Bank, despite warnings from the U.S. that this was illegal.

As for concern about Hamas, all parties, including the United States and European Union, recognize that Hamas is a democratically elected partner in the coalition government of the Palestinian Authority. We cannot go back to the 1970s’ practice of overthrowing democratically elected governments, as in the case of Salvador Allende in Chile, merely because they are not of the same ideological stripe.

Unfortunately, threats to Palestinians’ request to seek UN membership have come from sources that should be pleased to have a partner to engage in full dialogue on resolving issues. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatens: “From the moment they pass a unilateral decision there will be harsh and grave consequences.” The decision will not be unilateral but one backed by almost two-thirds of the countries that are members of the United Nations. And Palestine should not have to wait for unilateral approval from Israel before it joins the United Nations.

According to UN rules, a state submits its application for membership to the secretary general with a formal declaration to accept the obligations of the UN Charter. It is passed on for consideration to Security Council, where it must receive nine votes out of 15, with no veto. Herein lies the danger, as the United States threatened to veto the request even before it reached the General Assembly, where almost two-thirds of the member-states have agreed to support it.

The hope is that when, on Friday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas stands before the world body and requests recognition as a state, the UN will welcome it into the world family. And that what Arafat hoped for his people in our meeting many years ago may yet become a reality — a Palestinian passport!

Toronto Star, September 21, 2011

Bhupinder S. Liddar is a former Canadian diplomat and former publisher/editor of Diplomat & International Canada magazine.

NOTE: This Opinion article has been edited from a previous version that misstated the date Mahmoud Abbas would appear before the U.N.

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