After blustery threats failed to banish the item from the agenda, the U.S. and Israel retaliated in their own ways when the U.N. cultural body UNESCO, voted overwhelmingly to admit Palestine as a full member.
The U.S. cut off all financial support and Israel announced plans to build a few thousand more dwelling units in occupied Palestinian land.
As the public discourse plays out about a world body that does not repay U.S. generosity with any manner of gratitude, a more realistic assessment, which nobody yet dares speak out loud, is gaining traction in the higher levels of the U.S. administration. Robert Gates, a legacy of the Bush administration and till recently U.S. Defence Secretary, in one of his final internal meetings before leaving office, reportedly said that the U.S. had done much and taken great risks for Israel, though Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was proving an “ungrateful ally”.
A few days after the UNESCO vote, U.S. President Barack Obama met his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy at the G20 summit and spoke informally about his disappointment at the French support for Palestinian membership. Unaware that their conversation, conducted through interpreters, was being heard by media personnel assembled in anticipation of a joint press conference, Sarkozy said quite simply that he found Netanyahu an impossible liar. Obama did not demur, only suggesting that Sarkozy’s frustration was nothing near the aggravations he faced in his daily dealings with the cocky and obstreperous Israeli.
Netanyahu’s disdain for all who would stand in the way of Israel’s infinite aggrandisement was evident in his address to the U.N. General Assembly in September, not long after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had submitted a claim on behalf of his people for full membership of the world body. The General Assembly he said, was “the theatre of the absurd”, which a religious mentor had, as he began his political career as envoy to the U.N., described as a “house of many lies”.
The Israeli Prime Minister spoke with unconcealed racist contempt, as when describing Israel’s challenge of security in terms of its proximity to hostile territory, comparable to the distance between certain boroughs of New York city. And the people within these boroughs he reminded his audience, “are considerably nicer than some of Israel's neighbours”.
Netanyahu accused the U.N. of having sanctified the “lie” that “the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Judaism's holiest place” was “occupied Palestinian territory”. And with this airy denial of centuries of Palestinian settlement in the area, he quickly moved onto another tall tale to establish the antiquity of the Jewish claim to the land. Archaeologists, he said, had found in close proximity to the Western Wall, an ancient seal, close to 3,000 years old, imprinted with his surname. And his first name dated even further back. People who bore that name wandered in the area since distant millennia and there had been “a continuous Jewish presence in the land ever since”.
Current scholarship, as exemplified in the Israeli historian Shlomo Sand’s acclaimed book The Invention of the Jewish People – now into a second edition -- has exploded this mythology in large part. But the facts of Netanyahu’s own life, which he has managed to artfully embellish, speak for themselves. Netanyahu’s father Ben-Zion Milikovski was a Polish settler in Palestine who adopted a surname of Hebraic provenance as a gesture of commitment to the Zionist myth. It was effrontery of a high order for the Israeli Prime Minister to strut his name before the General Assembly as an identity dating back millennia. But then, perhaps he was true to his ancestry in one respect: his espousal of a particularly rabid form of colonial ideology was much in the mould of his father, regarded as an incendiary element by even that most extreme Zionist, Menachem Begin.
The denial of the Palestinians’ right to exist acquires several forms: most of them overt, physical and brutal. Palestine has been a battle about culture and antiquity since the first expropriations of the native population by Zionist settlers in the 1920s. And it is no coincidence that among the first major projects that Israel undertook in East Jerusalem after it was seized in 1967, was an archaeological excavation to establish the area’s unbroken Jewish heritage.
These excavations have been controversial, their most observable feature being the use of bulldozers to cut through layers of antiquity to arrive at a distant Judaic past. Archaeology has been a profoundly political discipline everywhere, but nowhere more explosively so than in Palestine. In 2010, Israel entered into a public spat with UNESCO when the historic site in Hebron – scene of a grisly 1994 massacre of Palestinian worshippers by the extremist Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein – was designated as a mosque on the basis of its dominant features. In 1996, riots broke out all over the occupied territories when Netanyahu, in an earlier tenure as Prime Minister, ordered the opening of an archaeological tunnel that Palestinians believe, was deliberately laid under the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem to weaken its foundations. And in 1992, Albert Glock, an American archaeologist who had documented the principal features of Palestinian villages and heritage sites effaced in the creation of Israel, was shot dead in Birzeit on the West Bank, in a crime that was never solved.
Netanyahu’s locutions are increasingly an insult to basic rationality. His government is almost certainly going to disregard the consequences of Palestine’s newly acquired membership of UNESCO, much as it has every inconvenient U.N. resolution in the past. The Palestinian people though have gained a toehold within the institutional framework of multilateralism. They could use this limited opening to work towards salvaging their culture and heritage – as embodied in numerous sites of historic importance in the entire territory of historical Palestine – from the devouring myths of Zionism.
It is a largely symbolic victory, but significant nonetheless and one that needs to be consolidated.