Exceptionalism is a rare quality to find, especially in journalism and politics. And the current standoff at the United Nations over a Palestinian statehood bid is no exception, but rather an affirmation of the rule.
Palestinian President Mahmood Abbas has delivered a much-anticipated request for full UN membership to the Security Council, where the United States, under the leadership of Barak Obama, is likely to veto the Palestinian application.
From the viewpoint of an outside observer – that is, someone who most likely does not live on this planet – the issue would seem fairly simple. Following the aftermath of the Second World War a declaration of statehood was made by a fledgling political entity in Tel Aviv, and a fledgling assembly in New York, which represented the newly established world governing body, the United Nations, gave the creation of the State of Israel international recognition. Now, 60 years later, a fledgling political entity, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which represents the people who bore the unfortunate reality of living on the land where the State of Israel was being created, want a state of their own right next door. To achieve their goal the Palestinians are asking the same world body to recognize their aspirations for statehood in the same manner which created the State of Israel.
Since the creation of Israel there has been a constant state of boondoggling and foofarawing over whether the state should have been created in the midst of Arab lands or by expelling the population which had lived on the land for hundreds of years. Regardless of the right or wrong which existed in that act of creation, 60 years later the world is still confronted with the consequences of this action.
Now, if I were an outside observer I would have to say that the issue, although complex, does not have to be so. The Jewish people needed and deserved a state of their own. The creation of Israel, although not handled in the best way (but historical events rarely shine with the glean of moral perfection), gave the Jewish people a state. The Palestinian people now, and for many decades, have aspired to have a state of their own, which they need and deserve. The PLO has now adopted a strategy of diplomacy and non-violence to achieve their goal, which is more than can be said for the strategy of domination and expulsion that was adopted in the creation of Israel. So why not provide the Palestinians with the state they want, thereby acknowledging and positively reinforcing diplomatic and non-violent action rather than encouraging the opposite?
The arguments against granting the Palestinians a state are many, but it seems to me that the most regularly propagated arguments actually aren’t really arguments at all. They’re threats, wrapped in a thick coat of propaganda and furry rhetoric.
For example, opponents of the Palestinian claim have taken to referring to the action, loudly and often, as a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI). Akiva Eldar, in the Israeli daily Haaretz, writes:
The real main message that Netanyahu brought to New York was that peace is achieved through direct negotiations between the parties, not unilateral measures like appealing to the United Nations. (By his truth, expanding the settlements in territory whose future is supposed to be determined through negotiation is presumably a bilateral measure.)
Unless the term unilateral has somehow changed since my time at university, asking the UN for recognition of statehood is anything but unilateral.
Although the Palestinians have decided to sidestep negotiations for the moment, Abbas has repeatedly stated that their aim is to return to negotiations after the affair at the UN has been played out. But he has also made it clear that returning to negotiations without a frame of reference – meaning a freeze on settlement activity and an understanding that the pre-1967 borders will be used as the baseline for talks – would amount to nothing more than a continuation of the status quo. And the status quo has brought no tangible gains to the Palestinians in terms of achieving a state of their own. On the contrary, negotiations have brought nothing but growing settlements and diminishing hopes.
Another main argument against statehood is that the Americans will cut funding to the Palestinian Authority, and Israel will stop collecting tax revenue on behalf of the Palestinians, thereby cutting the new state off from necessary resources, not to mention Israel cutting trade relations between it and the occupied territories. Jonathan Christol at the National Post writes:
Perhaps the worst outcome for the Palestinians will be donor fatigue. Right now, the Palestinians are the largest percapita recipients of international aid in the world. Some of that aid surely comes from the perceived hardship of living “under occupation.” Once statehood is achieved it is certainly possible that the international donor community will turn its attention elsewhere and the Palestinians’ aid based economy will dry up.
Nobody presenting this type of argument suggests that the Americans cutting funding for the Palestinian Authority is not actually a necessary outcome of the statehood bid, like throwing a rock into water necessarily makes a splash. The Americans don’t have to cut funding, and the Israelis don’t have to weaken the newly proposed state by cutting trade relations. Those are coercive actions meant to push the Palestinians toward desired behaviour. Those are not arguments for or against the positives or negatives of Palestinian statehood. Those are threats.
When it comes to a lack of exceptionalism in journalism, the quote above is an excellent example of the descending trend of journalistic integrity. Not only does the author simply tow the Israeli and American line, but he goes even further by delicately inserting some implicit notions.
First, that the hardship of living under occupation is only perceived, not actual. The aid that is donated to the Palestinians is only given because of some misconception about the nature of the occupation. Living under occupation is not really that bad, a reader must suppose.
Second, the use of quotation marks around “under occupation”, as if the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is only a subjective matter that is open to debate. From the author’s perspective the “occupation” is not really tangible or even an objective fact. An uninformed reader must suppose that there is not really an “occupation” to be spoken of as if it were real, but only a misunderstanding as to what is considered as Israeli land and Palestinian land.
Exceptionalism in politics and journalism is indeed a rare occurrence. Although if exceptional actions were more common throughout the world I suppose those actions would then be less exceptional by virtue of there being more of those type of actions.
President Obama could take the exceptional step of recognizing a Palestinian state, and therefore move the peace process forward rather than supporting an unsustainable status quo. Hamas could give up its rocket attacks, and therefore lessen the Israeli sense of insecurity and need to aggressively protect itself. Israel could support the Palestinian Authority’s work in creating viable state institutions that have improved the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank, and therefore further enhance the already substantial gains made in the Israeli/Palestinian security situation.
But at the end of the day, all of these actions would require a rare level of exceptionalism in all parties. And this is reality, after all, where exceptionalism remains the exception, not the rule.