The Middle East Channel

No choice but the UN for Palestinians

The Palestinian leadership seems determined to bring its case for statehood to the U.N. in September. The details remain unknown, but that hasn't stopped pundits and groups from staking out hard-line positions opposing the effort. These reactions consist of a lot of hype and some measure of hysteria. It's time for a dose of clear thinking and common sense. The reality is that some Palestinian initiative is almost certain to come before the U.N. in September. Palestinians have lost faith in the negotiated approach to the peace process, and have settled on this new strategy without asking for American or Israeli approval. Indeed, the hysteria they are provoking only makes the strategy more attractive given their inability to get a meaningful response to anything else they propose.

Those who are truly concerned about what that could mean for Israel should be pressing for bold U.S. action to avert a collision at the U.N., rather than simply criticizing the Palestinians and demanding that they desist. The bold action, for example, could be in the form of a serious initiative to re-accredit peace efforts and give the Palestinians a real reason -- not just a thin pretext -- to change course, or a U.S.-backed initiative to transform the proposed U.N. action on Palestine into something broader, like a Security Council resolution embracing key peace parameters. Absent such an effort, the Palestinians will have a hard time backing off their U.N. strategy, even if they want to. 

This should not be taken to mean that there are no reasons for concern. A U.N. resolution won't resolve the issues of borders, refugees, security and Jerusalem, nor can it end the occupation. It cannot build support on both sides for an acceptable final status agreement. Only negotiations that involve both Israel and the Palestinians can achieve these goals -- something that the Palestinian leadership itself has recognized.   

It's true too that taking the Palestinians' case to the U.N. involves risk -- for all sides. It could become a pretext for accelerated Israeli actions on the ground that could hasten the demise of the two-state solution, as well as the application of sanctions on the Palestinians. It could cost the Palestinians desperately needed American and international financial and political assistance. Moreover, it could strengthen rejectionists --Palestinians and Israelis alike -- who oppose peace negotiations and a two-state solution and who welcome confrontation and violence as a means of closing the door to both.

There are also risks for the United States and Israel. A crisis at the U.N. over Palestine would exacerbate the growing U.S. and Israeli isolation on the issue. U.S. credibility will take a hit if Washington is seen, once again, to be opposing a resolution that is consistent with longstanding U.S. policy; Israel could find itself in an awkward position, given that it was the U.N. that gave birth to Israel after Israel's founders went to that same body with their own demand for recognition. However unlikely, it is conceivable that U.N. action could even pave the way for sanctions and multilateral enforcement efforts against Israel and its citizens. 

But simply condemning the Palestinians and demanding that they desist, while browbeating other countries to get into line with the U.S. and Israel, is not an especially smart or effective counter-strategy. To push the Palestinian leadership in a different direction, the Palestinians must be offered a serious alternative way forward. Given Netanyahu's uncompromising May 2011 speech to the U.S. Congress and continued settlement expansion, do they have any reason to believe that negotiations offer such a route?  

Whether people think it is a good idea or not, the Palestinians have the right to take their case to the U.N. Opposition to the U.N. strategy must directly address difficult questions. Is their U.N. initiative consistent with longstanding U.S. policy regarding permanent status issues? Is it consistent with a negotiated agreement that can resolve the conflict? Do the Palestinians have meaningful alternatives?

The U.N. option doesn't represent, as some would suggest, a Palestinian betrayal of the peace process or a rejection of a negotiated resolution to the conflict. Rather, it reflects the almost universally acknowledged loss of credibility of the current negotiating effort. It reveals the Palestinians' understandable conclusion that, as things stand today, negotiations will never end the occupation or deliver statehood. It discloses the Palestinians' quite understandable fear that the situation is nearing a tipping point, after which expansion of settlements and settlement-related infrastructure in the West Bank and East Jerusalem will make the two-state solution unworkable.

While the Palestinians' decision to appeal to the U.N. reflects the failure of the peace process, the U.N. effort itself contains some extremely constructive -- and largely overlooked -- elements, like the fact that the U.N. effort appears to be predicated on a continued Palestinian commitment to the two-state solution and to a permanent status agreement that is consistent with longstanding U.S. positions, the Arab Peace Initiative and the Israeli Peace Initiative. And the point that is perhaps most important, is the fact that the entire effort reflects the Palestinian leadership's continued determination to achieve progress through non-violent means. These elements should be welcomed and embraced, rather than dismissed in the zeal to attack the Palestinians for their U.N. strategy.

Lara Friedman is director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now

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The Middle East Channel

Why Egyptian progressives should be chanting 'economy first'

It has now been a little more than five months since Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign as president of Egypt. While no one predicted that the post-Mubarak transition would be a stroll in the park, many Egyptians seem genuinely surprised at the extent of post-revolutionary divisions in Egypt. The transition has not been helped by a disturbing tendency of conflicting political forces to accuse their political opponents of working secretly for the "counter-revolution" or prematurely raising "particular" interests at a time when all citizens should be thinking only of the public good. And, as yesterday's front page of the New York Times reported, the Egyptian military is exploiting ideological divisions among Egyptian civil society to entrench its status as an extra-constitutional actor, with the connivance of some liberal forces including one sitting justice on the Supreme Constitutional Court. Has revolutionary momentum in Egypt therefore ground to halt, confronted by the harsh reality of the complexities of governing a country of over 80 million people that suffered 30 years of institutional rot under the Mubarak administration? And if so, what can be done to renew revolutionary momentum?

While many liberals believe that regaining revolutionary momentum requires focusing their energy on establishing a bona fide liberal constitution as exemplified in the "constitution first" slogan, I believe the revolution would be better served by focusing on establishing the foundations for an accountable and effective government that would allow Egypt to make the structural changes its economy needs in order to establish a stable and prosperous democracy for all Egyptians in the long-term. Only after those conditions have been satisfied will it make sense to discuss the thornier and much more divisive questions like the relationship of religion to the state.

Despite the attention given to the ideological divisions between secularists and liberals on the one hand, and Islamists on the other, the fundamental division in Egypt is one of class. Debates about the character of the Egyptian state and the extent of personal liberties is primarily an intra-elite debate that does not address the practical problems the vast majority of Egyptians face in their daily lives: how to find food, shelter, health, and education. We are all familiar now with the idea that 40 percent of Egyptians live on $2 per day or less; but that should not lead us to believe that those living on $3 or $4 per day are living good lives. By contrast, Egypt's well-to-do have solved the daily problems of life in Egypt in a manner customary to elites in the developing world: by withdrawing into an isolated world of gated-communities, private schools, and private health care. Many of these Egyptians, despite their relative privileges, nevertheless participated in the Jan. 25 revolution, and stand to benefit -- perhaps substantially -- if a more democratic and accountable government is put in place. There is already evidence that Egypt's hi-tech sector is enjoying something of a quiet renaissance in the wake of Mubarak's departure. Yet the opportunities in hi-tech will almost inevitably be restricted to already privileged segments of Egyptian society.

As I argued in a previous article on this site, the success of the Jan. 25 revolution depends not only on strengthening formal democratic procedure, but also requires a substantial restructuring of the Egyptian economy so that it works for the benefit of the bottom three-quarters of Egyptian society.  The only way to move the revolution forward, and avoid the risk of a return to de facto or perhaps de jure military rule, is progress on a new social contract that makes credible commitments to improving, in the short term, the living conditions of the mass of the Egyptian people, and in the long term, their productive capacity. 

Unfortunately, the secularist-Islamist divide has obscured, and continues to obscure, the more urgent debates needed on how to restructure Egypt's economy so that it can solve both its short and long term challenges. Indeed, the brooding omnipresence of the "secularist-Islamist" debate is particularly distressing because it ignores the substantial common ground shared by all Egyptian political forces: Namely, the need to have a genuinely representative government that is accountable to the Egyptian people through periodic free and fair elections; the need to guarantee freedom of expression in order to monitor the performance of the government; the need to have the law applied in a neutral fashion so that it serves the public good instead of the interests of the regime in power; the need to eliminate arbitrary detention and abusive police tactics including torture; and the need to guarantee a decent standard of living for all Egyptians. 

Thus far, the chief revolutionary demand with respect to the economy has been to raise minimum wages, and indeed, the government has taken steps to do just that. Unfortunately, raising minimum wages is at best a band-aid incapable of solving the structural problems endemic in the Egyptian labor sector. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has thus far seemed more intent on obtaining aid from neighboring countries and the west, with the goal of delaying needed economic reforms, rather than pursue the vigorous restructuring of the economy that Egypt needs. Moreover, it is unlikely to change course unless domestic political forces pressure them to do so. The Jan. 25 coalition, however, has not been able to articulate sufficiently to the Egyptian public the connection between political and economic reforms, and have allowed themselves -- and their continuing demonstrations -- to be portrayed as hindering the recovery of the economy.     

Instead, Egyptians of all political groups need to focus on the inter-linkages between individual rights, accountable and effective government, the rule of law, and economic prosperity. No system of law, whether Islamic or liberal (or pick your other "ideal"), can function if it is effectively undermined by a bureaucracy which is demoralized by low pay, for example. Yet no government can pay its civil servants a fair salary if it fails to collect sufficient taxes from its citizens, a fact which in turn requires a growing economy. Economic reforms, which must include substantially enhanced redistribution of national income and social investment, are the most crucial prerequisites for a modern, independent, and democratic Egypt that can live off the sweat of its own brow rather than the capricious "generosity" of an international community that inevitably comes with strings attached. The revolution can only regain its footing if political forces focus their attention on achieving the core demands of the Jan. 25 revolution as expressed by the shared demands of all Egyptian opposition groups and defer debate on the more philosophical and divisive questions such as the relationship of religion to the state. By fetishizing the constitution, moreover, Egypt's civilian political elite are placing the cart before the horse and substantially increasing the risk of creating a constitutional military dictatorship. Such an outcome will only lead to further deferral of the day of reckoning in Egypt and would represent the most profound betrayal of the more than 800 Egyptians who died in the Jan. 25 revolution.

Mohammad Fadel is an Associate Professor of Law and the Canada Research Chair for the Law and Economics of Islamic Law at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law