US peace deal’s outcome foreshadowed by talk of West Bank annexation

First published by the Arab Weekly on15/6/2019

Despite their apparent weakness, the Palestinians hold the trump card, that of their needed signature to any deal, economic or political.

Heavy bias. A 2018 file picture shows White House senior adviser Jared Kushner (R) speaking with US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman upon Kushner’s arrival at the Ben Gurion Airport, Israel. (Reuters)

Days before the Manama workshop, planned to introduce the economic part of US President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century,” David Friedman, US ambassador to Israel and longstanding supporter of the illegal settlement enterprise, opened the door for US acceptance of Israeli annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank.

In an interview published June 8 in the New York Times, Friedman said: “Under certain circumstances, I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.”

Friedman claimed the Obama administration’s decision not to veto UN Security Council Resolution 2334 regarding Israeli settlements had given credence to Palestinian claims “that the entire West Bank and East Jerusalem belong to them.” To the contrary, “certainly Israel’s entitled to retain some portion of it,” he said, referring to the West Bank.

This is contrary to what he said when testifying to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing in 2017. He was asked whether he would support or whether he would advocate for Israeli annexation of the West Bank or land in the West Bank, his answer was clear: “I will not.”

The Palestinians were incensed by his recent comments. Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) Secretary-General Saeb Erekat claimed that Friedman’s remarks proved the Trump’s administration was heavily biased in favour of Israel and that the Palestinians were justified in boycotting the “Peace to Prosperity” workshop in Bahrain.

Friedman’s comments did not stop at acquiescence to the annexation of parts of the West Bank. Asked whether the plan envisions a Palestinian state, he said: “What’s a state?”

He claimed Israel retaining security control over the whole of historic Palestine should not be an impediment. He argued: Just as US troops are stationed in Germany, Japan and the Korean Peninsula, “places where we were at war with that nation before we left our troops there,” “having boots on the ground is not antithetical to peace.”

Friedman’s comments follow similarly provocative ones by Trump’s special adviser Jared Kushner, who claimed the Palestinians were incapable of governing themselves and repeated trolling of Palestinian leaders by Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, Jason Greenblatt.

Having broken off contact with the Americans after Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his cutting US funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East and the Palestinian Authority and the closure of the PLO office in Washington, relations between the two sides are at the lowest ebb they have probably been since contact was first established.

Following Friedman’s comments, the Palestinian Authority said it would consider filing a complaint at the International Criminal Court (ICC) against the US ambassador to Israel for saying Israel has the right to annex “some” of the West Bank.

Whether the Palestinian Authority follows through with its threat and whether the ICC would take any action are doubtful. However, the Palestinians are short of avenues they can pursue to achieve their legitimate rights.

The United States has been working overtime to entice Palestinian businessmen to the Manama event but the Palestinians have almost unanimously declined to attend what they see as a set-up to end their cause for economic incentives. Their slogan has been “Palestine is not for sale.”

The call by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for Arab countries to boycott the Manama workshop has fallen on deaf ears. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan accepted invitations to attend the workshop. It is not clear what level of representation Arab countries will send. It is also expected that an Israeli delegation would be attending.

Having failed to fashion a widespread boycott of the workshop, the Palestinian strategy has turned to hoping that those attending would emphasise their belief in the two-state solution as the core of a political solution based on the 1967 border with East Jerusalem as a shared capital, thus directing the economic discussions to help facilitate that goal, rather than simply promising to improve the Palestinians’ economic situation.

Despite their apparent weakness, the Palestinians hold the trump card, that of their needed signature to any deal, economic or political. The indications are that the “Deal of the Century” is unlikely to secure that signature and therefore the Manama workshop is unlikely to bring peace any nearer.

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