Nearing the slippery slope

The anti-fence resolution passed by the United Nations General Assembly on July 20, 2004 is less notable for its content than for the circumstances surrounding its passage, the united European support it engendered, and the broader ramifications for Israel.

First and foremost, at a time when Palestinian fortunes in the armed struggle against Israel are at their lowest ebb in four years; when fraternal strife in the Gaza Strip paints Palestine as a lawless, if not hopeless, society; when pressures on Yasser Arafat to relinquish the leadership of Palestine are now echoed in major media throughout the Arab world–at precisely this low ebb in Palestinian fortunes on the ground, the Palestinian cause registers major successes in the international arena, first at the International Court of Justice at The Hague, and now in the General Assembly. This is yet another reminder that this conflict cannot and will not be solved by force.

Secondly, the UNGA decision marks the first time that the European Union–now expanded to 25 states–voted as a bloc against Israel on the Palestinian issue. For at least one brief moment, all the predictions here in Israel that expansion of the EU would render an already unwieldy body even less manageable with regard to international affairs, and particularly Israel-related issues, were disproved. The Europeans totally reversed their own earlier abstention, just a few months ago, regarding the original proposal to request an advisory opinion on the "wall" from the ICJ. Significantly, a united EU stand appeared to determine the position on the EU vote of another 25 or so UN members.

Taken together, the momentum generated by the ICJ opinion, the UNGA resolution and the European position–despite or, who knows, perhaps because of the abject misery and failure of the Palestinians–appears to have moved the conflict a little closer in the eyes of the international community to the edge of the slippery slope of South Africanization.

Israel’s protests, however justified, are of no avail in this debate. It does not deserve a South Africa comparison any more than it deserves this UN resolution. Palestinians and their supporters have been trying for decades to make Israel fit the South Africa scenario in ways that are markedly inaccurate and inappropriate. It is, after all, the Palestinians, not the Israelis, who between 1936 and 2000 repeatedly rejected reasonable two-state partition proposals. It is Palestinian terrorism–not mentioned in the UNGA resolution–more than any other factor that has obliged Israel to pave bypass roads, build fences, set up roadblocks, and require Palestinians to obtain passes in order to move from one Palestinian city to another.

Yet the South African apartheid model is increasingly the closest approximation in international parlance to the reality that awaits us on this slippery slope. And the UNGA resolution of July 20 is liable to be viewed, in retrospect, as a significant way-station toward that slippery slope.

Why is this happening now? It may simply be the cumulative effect of years of seemingly intractable conflict in Israel/Palestine, coupled with smart Palestine Liberation Organization diplomatic tactics (for a change) and a concerted French move to galvanize the EU against Israel. But there can be little doubt that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has made it easier. On the one hand, the excesses of the fence, closures, roadblocks, and settlement expansion have presented Israel’s critics with increasingly visible symbols of Palestinian humanitarian hardship and Israeli heavy-handedness, while Sharon’s ill-timed intervention in French Jewish affairs gave Paris the excuse it needed to lead the European vote against Israel. On the other, this same Israeli government’s limited disengagement project and instant readiness to obey Israel’s own High Court ruling and move the fence, all demonstrate that the government itself ! understands the need for change.

Paradoxically, the Israeli security establishment’s recent operational successes against suicide bombers–based on a combination of the fence and sophisticated tactics–have deprived Israel of the shocking and persuasive counter-image of carnage in its cafes and buses that has served it in recent years in countering one-sided Palestinian initiatives. These explanations for what happened at the UNGA last week appear to be more convincing than Israeli grumbling about European anti-Semitism, especially at a time when EU-Israel commercial and scientific ties are prospering.

Ostensibly, Israel can take comfort in ongoing American support and the promise of a US veto at the Security Council. But if the Europeans continue to demonstrate a new degree of solidarity regarding the Middle East that contrasts sharply with Washington’s position; if the Sharon government continues to provide highly visible targets for international opprobrium, and particularly if it falters in it disengagement initiative; and if additional mainstream American religious institutions follow the Presbyterian Church in adopting sanctions against Israel–then we are also one step closer to erosion in the US position as well.