Thursday, November 3, 2011

UNESCO recognizes Palestine. Congress takes its ball and goes home.

In the Palestinian people's long struggle to have their rights to a state of their own recognized, they finally achieved a tiny victory this week. The United Nations' education, science and culture organization known as UNESCO decided to accept Palestine as a full member even though the geographical boundaries of such a state do not exist.  This means that Palestine, rather than its occupying power Israel, will have the right to nominate World Heritage Sites in its own territory, such as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and this helps to achieve at least a few of Palestine's long-denied rights as a state.

It is likely that other United Nations organizations such as the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) will follow suit.  Inch by painful inch, Palestine may finally be crawling toward a kind of recognition and legitimacy as a world state.

And what has been the response to all of this in this country?  Our government gives lip service to the rights of Palestinians, after all, and to the "two-state solution" to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, so one might think that we would respond positively to UNESCO's action.  One would be wrong.

The U.S. Congress, which regularly ties itself into knots to show its undying devotion to Israel, announced that it would withhold this year's UNESCO dues because of their admitting Palestine to membership.  The State Department put out a statement that the action by UNESCO was "regrettable, premature and undermines our shared goal of accomplishing a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.  The United States remains steadfast in its support for the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state.  But such a state can only be realized through direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians."  Since the hard-line right-wingers whom the Israelis keep electing to head their government REFUSE to engage in any serious negotiations, our government's position would virtually ensure that there would NEVER be a Palestinian state.  The "peace process" which the United States has urged upon the parties has gone on now for some twenty years with essentially net zero progress.  Little wonder that the Palestinians have lost patience with it.  

All over the Middle East, the Arab Spring movement has empowered civil societies and has mobilized public opinion in favor of a new approach to try to win freedom and political autonomy.  That new approach is based on international law and human rights and non-violent civic action and it has been very successful in many places in that region.  If the Palestinians can start such an action within the state of Israel, they will have the rest of the world - except for the United States - on their side.

Unfortunately, our government remains in thrall to Israel and we will not break free until we recognize that Israel's self-interest and our own self-interest are not the same thing.  We need to sever that bond and learn to support Israel only when it is in our interest to do so, just as we would any other state in the world.  We should also recognize that we need the United Nations organizations, including UNESCO, and that there is no reason that such agencies should not welcome Palestine as a partner.  Certainly, our support of the agencies should not depend upon who they accept as members.  We work in a body that recognizes China, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba and many other countries with whom we don't necessarily agree on everything.  And that is exactly the way it should be.  Picking up our toys and running home every time things don't go to please us is just childish and is not the way a great nation should behave.

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