The United Nations General Assembly's decision to grant "non-member state observer" status to the Palestinians in November, 2012 was the latest salvo in the never ending quest to create a mythical state of "Palestine" unburdened by concessions to coexistence with Israel. A recent panel discussion, "Palestine & the UN," at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) took up the subject with mixed results. Sponsored by the Center for Near Eastern Studies (CNES), the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, and the Burkle Center for International Relations, the event was well-attended, with an audience of approximately 100 comprised of students and community members.
Asli Bali, a professor at the UCLA School of Law not known for providing a balanced approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict, was in this instance the more objective voice on the panel. She was the only speaker to point out that this was not the Palestinians' first time declaring statehood at the UN and, she added, "It may not well be the last time."
Making a solid case that the Palestinians' bolstered status is largely symbolic, she noted that Fatah "put itself back on the map" by finding "a non-military way" to score a success. Employing a term often associated with critics of Islamism, she summed it up as a successful example of "lawfare."
She went on to characterize Egypt as a "patron" of Hamas in the Arab-Israeli conflict, but pointed to a fissure in the relationship. Referring to Israel's Operation Pillar of Defense in November, 2012, she stated:
Egypt was extremely upset about the seven-day operation that took place in Gaza, and what they were upset with was Hamas. [They] were pressing Hamas to absolutely unilaterally desist in what was, at the end of the day, pinprick attacks in any case, but to unilaterally desist.
By "pinprick attacks" Bali was referring presumably to the thousands of rockets indiscriminately fired at Israel's populace over the last decade. Southern Israel, in particular, has been hit with over 8,000 rockets since Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, resulting in psychological trauma, injuries, and death.
Steven Spiegel, director of UCLA's Center for Middle East Development, identified himself as the panelist presenting Israel's side, but was, in fact, less neutral than Bali. He even announced at one point: "My agenda is to get Israel outside of the West Bank."
Spiegel spent much of his time lambasting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel's "right wing" for not promoting peace. "There are many Netanyahus," Spiegel said, arguing that Netanyahu has alienated many Israeli voters and Western states. "Israelis are tired of paying for settlements," he added, suggesting that if Netanyahu joins forces with right-wing elements "the Orthodox will be asking him for money for his Yeshivas every couple of days."
It is worth noting that it was right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin who, along with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, reached a peace accord that would be difficult to reproduce in today's rapidly Islamizing Middle East.
Spiegel suggested that a lack of assurance from the Palestinian Authority ultimately caused several nations to abstain from voting in the November, 2012 decision, pointing to what he characterized as a well-founded concern over how the Palestinians would use, or abuse, the International Criminal Court as a weapon against Israel.
Arguing that in the days preceding Israeli elections, Palestinians often engage in "physical violence" that sways the Israeli population to vote for the right-wing establishment, Spiegel added,
It is true that Abu Mazen almost blew it by announcing a few days ago, right before the election, that the Zionists and the Nazis had been in cahoots in the 1930s—not something to make Israeli voters feel good about the Palestinians.
Contradicting his original theory, he concluded that, "it wasn't something as dramatic as a UN vote and it wasn't a physical attack, so it does seem, from what we know, that the Israeli voters ignored that series of stupidities."
Spiegel suggested that Israeli society is largely indifferent to, or even supportive of, the Palestinian bid: "Most Israelis of any stripe would accept, if the Palestinians wanted it, a situation where the Palestinians were the Vatican and the Israelis were Italy." Currently, the other UN non-member state is the Holy See, also known as the Vatican.
Despite Spiegel's claim to represent "Israel's side," he proffered an extremely narrow view of Israeli society, portraying right-wing elements as radical and, to some extent, tarring centrist Israelis with the same brush by suggesting that Yair Lapid—founder and chair of Yesh Atid, the second largest party in the Knesset—is "no dove."
Although the panel discussion was indicative of the obsession in Middle East studies with blindly pushing the "Palestine" narrative—often at the expense of Israel—in contrast to the vast majority of CNES-sponsored events involving the Arab-Israeli conflict, this one was uncharacteristically subdued. At some point, reality has to set in, even in academia.