Of Palestinian statehood and Israeli soft diplomacy

Featured image: Comic by Carlos Latuff.

Around this time last year, United States President Barack Obama, told the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) that true security for Israel requires an “independent Palestine”—one that allows Palestinians to live with dignity and opportunity. In the same speech he reminded “friends of Palestine” the rights of Palestinians can only be achieved through peaceful means. Since then, a Palestinian diplomatic delegation has been on a world tour lobbying individual states to recognise Palestine as sovereign.

In an unprecedented move, Obama boldly declared in May this year the United States supports the establishment of a Palestinian state based on pre-1967 borders. That is, borders before Israel seized the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula in the Middle East war. Two months later Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced that 122 countries have now recognised Palestine based on the pre-1967 borders. His next step is to seek formal recognition at the UNGA.

While Palestinian diplomats have been busy hard-selling statehood to world governments, Israeli missions abroad are actively engaging in soft diplomacy with civil society members in “unfriendly” territories. During Ramadhan this year Israel’s mission in Singapore engaged in a dialogue with a predominantly Nusantara-Muslim audience from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. Held on the island’s Bugis district the event was organised by the national student organisation, Himpunan Mahasiswa Indonesia.

The young Israeli Deputy Chief of Mission, Michal Sarig-Kaduri, was frank about Israel’s challenges in South East Asia particularly among states with significant Muslim population. Up against what she described as unfair reporting on the Middle East crisis by national media in the region, Israel today has chosen the path of direct and candid conversations with civil society members—circumventing the hot topic of politics, and instead discussing culture and heritage.

A graduate in Sociology and Anthropology, the Deputy Chief acknowledged that Israel’s history is passionately disputed by many quarters. But she also asked that the audience considered the cultural bond Israelis have to their state. While recognising that Israel is a nation of migrants from across the globe, these are people whose collective identity is bound to the Hebrew language. Visit an archeological site in Israel, she said, and find ancient tombs having the same script as those you see on ice-cream vans and road signs.

To say that the Jewish state has no historical ties to the land therefore, is erroneous. Nevertheless, to identify onself as a “Jewish state” at the same time proclaim oneself to be the only true and rational democracy in the Middle East is equally problematic. Israel’s Arab population comprising 25% of the total population is growing at a higher rate than their Jewish counterpart. What then becomes of the democratic Jewish state when Arabs outnumber Jews?

This does not take into account the possibility of returning Palestinian refugees who were exiled from their homes throughout Israel’s expansion years. As much as the Israeli mission wanted to focus on culture and heritage these questions inevitably led to a discussion on politics.

When asked about Palestine’s bid for formal recognition at the UNGA, the Deputy Chief placed her hope in a United States veto in the United Nations Security Council. Israel is concerned by the growing support for Palestinian statehood and does not recognise Palestine’s unilateral efforts at the United Nations. She said a UNGA vote will legitimise the tearing down of Israel’s 760-km long and 8-m high separation wall, and Israel then will have no choice but to “defend” itself militarily. There will be bloodshed.

This writer finally asked about the Palestine that Israel envisions. The Deputy Chief candidly said Israel’s vision of Palestine is that of two sovereign territories—West Bank and Gaza—governed by an elected authority that Israel recognises. They will not be completely detached from each other. Israel foresees the construction of a highway or railway linking the two patches of land. Regarding military outposts, air space, ownership of archeological findings, holy sites and other stately matters, those will have to be negotiated.

While friendships were forged on that day following a scrumptious breaking of fast meal with the Israeli ambassador, many in the audience also left with a clearer understanding and appreciation for Palestine’s unilateral campaign for statehood at the UNGA, which meets in New York this week.

 Published in The Malaysian Insider and Malay Mail

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