Here’s a question: If the UN General Assembly votes to give Palestinians the status of member state this year, will Western governments and the international media begin using the term "Palestine" rather than "the occupied territories" the next day?
Because if "Palestine," a term now used pretty much only by the Palestinians and their supporters, enters mainstream lexicon, then Palestine therefore exists, whether Israel and the United States and Canada want it to or not.
Such recognition is how nations achieve statehood.
It would be a victory that Yasser Arafat and his cohort never managed to achieve with all the blood, stones, bullets and bombs of the last 63 years.
And it’s being orchestrated by dull men in bland suits, rather than revolutionaries in checkered headscarves waving AK-47s.
Arafat once made world headlines by addressing the General Assembly with a holster on his hip. His successor, Mahmoud Abbas, will probably bore everyone next week. I’ve interviewed him, and he managed to bore me within about five minutes.
But it cannot be denied that Abbas and his team are politically cleverer than their predecessors, and more effective than most of the world realizes.
Abbas’s prime minister, Salam Fayyad, has quietly transformed Palestinian financial institutions from the corrupt sinkholes operated by Arafat into entities endorsed this year by the International Monetary Fund as sound, prudent, and worthy of an independent state.
Further, said the IMF, Abbas’s team has weaned the Palestinian Authority from its addiction to foreign aid, from $1.8 billion in 2008 to $1.2 billion in 2010, to a projected $1 billion this year.
(By contrast, Israel’s financial aid from Washington, about $3 billion a year, keeps growing. Israel, of course, runs world-class financial institutions).
At the same time, clearly on orders from Abbas’s administration, Palestinians in the West Bank have given up on armed struggle to attain their goals, turning instead to the civil disobedience and peaceful protest techniques Mahatma Gandhi used to such effect against the occupying British army in India.
The Israeli Defence Force, like the British army in the Raj, is more equipped to deal with violence. What to do with large, unarmed crowds walking toward checkpoints?
And Abbas is deliberately aping the course Israel itself took to achieve statehood, using Israel’s history to counter objections to the UN initiative.
Israel and its allies argue, for example, that Abbas’s government has entered into a partnership with terrorists by signing an accord with Hamas, which continues its violent opposition to Israel from within the Gaza Strip.
The Palestinians and their supporters counter that when David Ben Gurion formed the first Israeli government in 1948, it either absorbed or granted amnesty to Jewish extremist groups like Irgun and the Stern Gang, which had bombed and attacked soldiers and civilians alike.
In fact, one year before Israel was admitted to the UN, the UN special envoy to the region, Folke Bernadotte, was assassinated by the Stern Gang, which regarded him as a threat to Israel’s interests. The hit was co-ordered by Yitzhak Shamir, who later became prime minister of Israel. No one was ever charged with the killing. Israel later conceived a military decoration dedicated to the Stern militants.
One suspects that if Palestinian extremists assassinated former British prime minister Tony Blair, the current UN envoy, and Abbas not only failed to arrest the killers, but absorbed them or pardoned them, any chance of member state status would immediately evaporate.
In fact, the power of Abbas’s strategy lies in the fact that he and his team are actually doing what the world has been asking the Palestinians to do for decades: working within the framework of international law and institutions.
He’s been crisscrossing the globe, seeking and receiving support. Practically all of Latin America has pledged its support. The Israelis themselves concede any General Assembly vote will likely pass.
The United States, meanwhile, has been placed in the uncomfortable position of threatening to use its veto at the Security Council, alone if necessary, to thwart any Palestinian bid for full member status. (The General Assembly, without Security Council support, can only grant non-voting member state status).
That would mean America voting against something that is official White House policy: Palestinian statehood.
So, both the Americans and Israelis have been trying mightily to derail Abbas before he reaches the UN. Israel is now pinning its hopes on convincing a majority of democracies to vote no, calling it a "moral minority."
Both Israel and the U.S. argue that the state of Palestine cannot come into being without Israel’s consent, never mind the fact that Israel didn’t ask anyone’s permission in 1948.
Republicans here have been talking about cutting off aid. Rightist politicians in Israel have been talking about simply annexing the West Bank, which could only be done by force.
Israel and its proxies in the Jewish diaspora argue ferociously that any comparisons to Israel’s past are unwarranted "moral equivalence."
Europeans working behind scenes
If Abba Eban, the famed Israeli orator and diplomat, were still alive, one suspects he’d exempt Abbas and his team from the famous aphorism he coined about the Palestinians "never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity."
It all seems win-win for Abbas, except for one big consideration – realpolitik.
The day after any UN vote, the Palestinians in the West Bank will be just as occupied by Israel, and Gazans will be just as hemmed in and isolated by the Israeli military.
The Middle East is a rough neighbourhood. You take a risk, you face the consequences.
Israel did. The day after it declared independence in 1948, the Arab armies attacked.
Incidentally, CBC News, which does not use the term "Palestine" at the moment, is considering whether to begin using it if the General Assembly votes yes.
"We are thinking about impact on terminology and will consider it in light of what actually finally transpires," says Esther Enkin, the executive responsible for such matters. "We have as yet come to no final conclusions about what the changes might be."