Given that only nine countries voted outright against the Palestinian bid for observer status at the United Nations, 40 abstained, and an overwhelming 138 voted in favor, one might be quick to suggest that anti-Semitism figured heavily into General Assembly members’ decision-making process. The truth, says David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, the worldwide Jewish advocacy organization, is much more complex.
“UN votes are not always or necessarily an accurate barometer of objective feelings of a situation,” Harris said.
Harris visited Seattle on Dec. 2 to speak to a group of local AJC supporters about the Palestinian UN bid as well as the drive for the U.S. and Israel to move toward energy independence. He sat down with JTNews prior to the event.
Though the 50-plus countries with Muslim majorities may disagree on many issues, “when it comes to the Palestinians, at the end of the day no one’s going to break ranks,” Harris said. “Nobody.”
Add to that the larger, 120-country Non-Aligned Movement, which this past August allowed Iran to become its chairman for the next three years.
“There’s not one single country that I’m aware of, not one, that, seeing the prospect of Iran’s chairmanship, said ‘We’re opting out,’” Harris said. “So that’s the nature of things in the UN, I’m sorry to say.”
Put on top of that the many countries that get nervous about supporting Israel due to their own aspirations. Harris pointed to Canada, which had campaigned for a seat on the Security Council in 2010, but lost its bid to Portugal in a surprise upset. He cited Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s support for Israel as a prime reason for the country’s surprise loss. Harper referred to the UN vote when addressing a forum on anti-Semitism soon after.
“When Israel, the only country in the world whose very existence is under attack, is consistently and conspicuously singled out for condemnation, I believe we are morally obligated to take a stand,” Harper said.
“Democratic countries say, ‘Gee, do I want to endure Canada’s fate?’” Harris said. “The answer by and large is no, so to get along you have to go along.”
Economic, trade and energy interests also play into countries’ voting decisions, but one-on-one relationships between Israel and other nations are far different from what happened at the UN.
“I could cite for you country after country after country that voted yes, and therefore people would say, ‘Gee that country is hostile,’” Harris said. “But in the bilateral context, the strategic cooperation, the defense cooperation, the intelligence cooperation, economic cooperation, people-to-people travel, research and development are going gangbusters.”
Britain’s abstention in last month’s vote, however, was telling, Harris said. Foreign Secretary William Hague said his country did not want to block the PA’s move, but he demanded assurances from the Palestinians, that included an immediate return to peace talks and not seeking membership in the International Criminal Court. Palestinian diplomats rejected those assurances as “unrealistic.”
“If Britain was not satisfied, I’m not sure why anyone else should feel confident,” Harris said.
Recent events played a part as well in the move forward. Since the release of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit more than a year ago, and in particular in the week between the end of hostilities in Gaza and the UN bid, Abbas had been seen as weak and ineffective while Hamas’ popularity soared. Reports following the General Assembly vote showed Palestinians in the West Bank dancing in the streets and putting up posters of Abbas. The euphoria, Harris believes, will be short-lived.
“Having gone to the UN General Assembly on Thursday may have given the Palestinians momentary exultation,” Harris said. “But the day after has to be a growing sense of disappointment, if not disillusionment, that nothing practical has changed. In fact, Israel has already responded with its own tat for the tit, so to speak.”
That response, Israel’s announcement of a parcel of settlement-building plans that would, if built, would make a contiguous Palestinian state geographically impossible, though it would join the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim to Israel proper. Ma’ale Adumim is widely expected to be one of the adjustments to the lines drawn in 1967 in a final peace agreement. The Israeli government has also withheld $120 million in tax revenues it collects for the Palestinian Authority, which affects the PA’s ability to pay its workers and police force.
But that’s all maneuvering, Harris said, especially in light of the Jan. 22 elections that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is widely expected to win.
“Among the overarching questions is, is President Abbas interested in resuming peace talks and moving toward a viable, durable two-state agreement? That’s the larger issue here,” Harris said. “But the question is, is the maneuvering the end in itself or the means to an end, and what is the end? Is it actually a maneuvering toward the peace table or away from the peace table?
“I think it’s fair to say that the jury is still out.”
Though Hamas reportedly pressured more militant groups like Islamic Jihad to adhere to the ceasefire that ended Operation Pillar of Defense, Harris doesn’t believe its leaders would come to the negotiating table.
“It’s very hard in the foreseeable future to see Hamas as a viable negotiating partner for anything other than third-party talks to try and achieve some kind of temporary cease fire,” he said. “As long as its spokemen say what it’s goals are: A world without Israel, with a very distinct anti-Semitic message to boot, my history tells me I have to take them seriously.”