When President Mahmoud Abbas took center stage at the UN General Assembly last Friday, there was a resounding applause and standing ovation throughout the packed room from the assembly floor all the way to the visitor's gallery that quite honestly lasted much longer than I expected. As he humbly nodded and walked towards the podium, it was evident that this moment and this very address were going to be historic. Routinely interrupted with cheering, even more applause and ovations as he emphatically made statements like 'no one with a conscious can reject our bid for statehood,' Abbas clearly had the support of most in that UN building. But it wasn't difficult to see where the line of discontent occurred. Sitting in silent opposition were the few member nations staunchly against any notion of granting Palestine its own viable state through the UN. This small minority encompassed several European countries and the United States. Watching the tremendous dynamic between a handful refusing to recognize the independence of an autonomous people that the bulk of the rest of the world supports, begs the question, are we on the wrong side of history?
After witnessing the atrocious injustice and brutality under the South African apartheid regime in the not-too-distant past, the world finally took notice -- and more importantly -- took action. Despite steadfast resistance from the South African government and other forces, international leaders and activists began boycotts, protests and clamored their own countries to push for an end to the discriminatory rule of law. As children on the streets of Soweto gave their lives for freedom, and progressives in places like the U.S. pushed their own governments to place pressure on South African leadership, the masses united to end an outrageous practice as vicious and antiquated as slavery itself. It wasn't until there was unanimous vigor both from within and from outside the southern African nation that apartheid eventually saw its final days. As we grapple with a similar incomprehensible scenario in the Middle East with segregation and oppression of the Palestinians, we must take a serious second look at our ardent stance in the region.
No one can deny the U.S.' unequivocal support of Israel and the right for its people to live freely and independently. Unlike what some opportunistic leaders on the right would have us believe, President Obama hasn't even remotely weakened this unwavering support and has instead increased it as John Heilemann vividly points out in his recent NY Magazine piece, 'The First Jewish President.' But what the President and others in our government should perhaps rethink is our historic obstruction of an equally independent Palestinian state. If we truly believe in the notion of justice, freedom and self-governance, then how can we in good faith obstinately refuse to grant a group of people their right to exist? If we so openly support one side on the same grounds, how can we hypocritically object the other? And perhaps most importantly, when the world is championing the cause of freedom for Palestinians, how can we -- a country that prides itself on independence and exports democracy -- simply reject the notion all together?
Shortly following President Obama's address at the UN General Assembly (where he again rejected Abbas' bid for statehood through this body), France's President Nicolas Sarkozy took to the stage and instead offered a position of what he termed compromise by suggesting Palestine be admitted into the UN as a non-member state. Although such a measure would still reject a Palestinian push for full membership, it would grant them observer status. "For over 60 years the Palestinians have been waiting for a state," he said. "Hasn't the time come to give them some hope?" When the President of a European nation is even recognizing the need to begin membership status, the U.S.' non-negotiable position on the issue is dangerously and evidently in stark contrast with the rest of world.
What's often lost in the discussion of the very plausible reality of Palestinian statehood is the idea that if Palestinians were in fact recognized through the UN, then the possibility for them to reach out to the International Criminal Court also becomes a very distinct certainty. Able to charge the Israeli government for invading a sovereign country, Palestinians will for the first time have power to not only bring light to their grievances, but also have the capability to accuse Israel of crimes against humanity. And this almost certain outcome is quite possibly why the minimum - but powerful - opposition still remains. But as we in the U.S. continue to praise uprisings throughout the Middle East via the Arab Spring, does our unyielding support of Israel in this context make us an illegitimate broker? The image of silence from the U.S. when Abbas addressed the crowded assembly where the majority stood in resounding applause was almost deafening. If we are not at war with Islam, but refuse to even slightly budge on the Palestinian issue, we simply cannot continue to call ourselves an unbiased broker in the region.
While Israelis and Palestinians have obvious issues that must be addressed, the subjugation and disenfranchisement of the Palestinians is undeniable. From daily profiling, second-class status, segregation and routine checkpoints to diminished opportunities and acts of brutal force, the Palestinians are often persecuted in ways that should make the modern world ashamed. And as Abbas himself so passionately emphasized last week, the existence of a Palestinian state doesn't negate the existence of Israel. 'Our efforts are not aimed at delegitimizing Israel' he said. When common sense and majority global opinion -- including most Israelis -- know that a two-state solution is the only way in which this region has any semblance of hope, how can we in the U.S. be on the side of regressive policy?
President Obama rode into office on a wave of support from everywhere, including the 'Muslim world.' And, to his credit, he made a concerted effort to at least begin to address some of their criticisms by delivering a speech in Cairo and by altering some of the antagonistic dialogue of the Bush era. But if the President and the U.S. on a whole truly wish to bring peace in the Middle East, then they should no longer be diametrically opposed to the single-most problematic issue in the region. Study after study shows that the plight of the Palestinian people is often utilized by extremists for their recruitment propaganda, while at the same time, the rest of the world shuns the continued oppression of this nation-less people.
History doesn't look favorably upon those that stand in the way of progress, justice and equality. As we now view countries that supported apartheid as regressive regimes, so too will the world look down on those denying the right of the Palestinians to their own sovereign state. Most of the world clamored the anti-apartheid movement, just as they are now championing for a Palestinian state. Do we truly and honestly want to be on the wrong side of this equation?