Who sets US policy on Israel and Palestine?

First published by the Arab Weekly on 15/10/2017

With Trump, Tillerson, Trump’s advisers and his ambassador seemingly working in an uncoordinated manner, it may be a case of too many cooks spoiling the peace broth.

The president of the United States normally sets the broad objectives of the country’s foreign policy, which largely fol­low his party’s platform on the various issues. Day-to-day implementation is normally the do­main of the US State Department, with the secretary of state tradi­tionally being the person to lead the process and clock the required air miles to project the policy and attempts to deliver it.

Donald Trump, however, is no ordinary president and, while he set out his foreign policy dur­ing the election in the same way previous presidents have, he has acted differently when it comes to implementation. This has been the case on issues such as Iran and North Korea, which have caused tensions between the White House and the State Department, with political observers characterising Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s role as “clearing up the mess.”

Trump is certainly committed to bringing peace to the Palestinians and Israelis. It would be, he said, the “ultimate deal.” He promised Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas: “We want to create peace between Israel and the Palestinians. We will get it done. We will be working so hard to get it done.”

However, unlike his predeces­sor, Barack Obama, who effec­tively passed the pursuit of peace between Israel and the Palestinians to his Secretary of State John Kerry, Trump appointed his son-in-law Jared Kushner as a senior adviser on the Middle East. His other key appointments in relation to this were his company lawyer, Jason Greenblatt, as special representa­tive for international negotiations, and his bankruptcy lawyer, David Friedman, for the sensitive posi­tion of US ambassador to Israel.

All three key appointees have a strong record of supporting Israel but none of them had experience in foreign policy. They were appoint­ed to a task that has frustrated countless individuals who were far more experienced.

Kushner’s family’s foundation has donated tens of thousands of dollars to the illegal West Bank set­tlement of Bet El. Greenblatt and Friedman are also strong support­ers of the settlement enterprise. While Abbas has met with both Kushner and Greenblatt on several occasions, he has refused to meet with Friedman because of the am­bassador’s determination to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Tillerson has made two visits to the Palestinian territories and Isra­el since his appointment. His visit in May ahead of Trump’s July visit to the region was his first to the Holy Land. Greenblatt and Kushner have made repeated visits.

None of the three has made a substantial announcement on how Trump’s “ultimate deal” would be reached or whether there would be a substantial change in US policy. They claim to still be in an “explo­ration and listening” mode.

However, Friedman has been outspoken since his appointment. He recently referred to the “alleged occupation” of the West Bank and followed it with the astonishing claim that Israel only occupies 2% of the West Bank and that the two-state solution “is not a help­ful term” and “has largely lost its meaning.”

He further stated: “I think the settlements are part of Israel” in comments that seem at odds with decades of US foreign policy. These statements could easily have come from Israel’s Foreign Ministry web­site. It was left to a State Depart­ment spokeswoman to reiterate there was no change in US policy.

With Trump, Tillerson, Trump’s advisers and his ambassador seemingly working in an uncoor­dinated manner, it may be a case of too many cooks spoiling the peace broth.

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Labour, Conservatives and the quest for a Palestinian state

First published by the Middle East Eye on 5/10/2017

As the 2017 conference season in the UK comes to a close, Palestinians can only hope that a future Labour government will recognise their pursuit of justice and freedom

The annual conference season for the political parties in the UK has been in full swing. The Labour pParty held what has been widely reported as a highly successful conference last week.

In contrast to Labour’s conference, the Conservative conference has been widely reported aslacklustre. Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was the star in Brighton, where the conference was held, while Prime Minister, Theresa May, was left looking over her shoulder at possible rivals for her job.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, seen as her main rival, made a typically rousing speech in which he talked up Britain’s standing in the world and how it will succeed in going global post-Brexit. Though his subsequent comments on Libya once again brought calls for him to be dismissed.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict did not figure in his remarks.

UK foreign policy

It was left to the government’s international development decretary, Priti Patel, to criticise the Labour leader for failing to condemn the “terror his friends in Hamas have unleashed upon the Israeli people and not once did he condemn or confront his supporters who have launched a wave of anti-Semitism, bullying and abuse against anyone who does not subscribe to their extremist views”.

It sounded as if she was only addressing pro-Israel supporters in the conference hall rather than offering a way forward. May also accused Corbyn of “allowing anti-Semitism and misogyny run free in his party”. Again no mention of Palestinian suffering at the hands of Israel.

In his keynote speech, Corbyn, a long-standing campaigner for human rights, said: “We must put our values at the heart of our foreign policy. Democracy and human rights are not an optional extra to be deployed selectively.” And while he criticised Saudi Arabia and Myanmar for human rights abuses he added that: “We should stand firm for peaceful solutions to international crises.”

While such words are popular with his audience, the biggest cheer on foreign policy issues, however, came when he broke a two-year silence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by appealing to the conference “to give real support to end the oppression of the Palestinian people. The 50-year occupation and illegal settlement expansion and move to a genuine two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict.”

Although this appeal cheered the Palestinians and their sympathisers, it did not, however, go down well with the ardent supporters of Israel within the party. However, both sides must have noted that he omitted from his speech an important promise made in the now famous Labour manifesto. It committed a Labour government “to immediately recognise the state of Palestine”.

Recognising Palestine as a state is a tangible action that a Labour government can take to demonstrate its commitment to support the Palestinians and their rights, a move which the Conservatives refuse to take. Recognising Palestine also would simply be implementing a decision taken by the British Parliament in 2014 following the Israeli war on Gaza.

The Labour leader’s two-year silence on the Palestinian issue can reasonably be attributed to the vicious attack he has faced since his election at the hands of the pro-Israel lobby both within and outside the party.

The prospect, though judged unrealistic at the time of his election as leader in 2015, of a committed supporter of Palestine and equally outspoken critic of Israeli policies entering 10 Downing Street as British prime minister sent the pro-Israel lobby into panic mode.

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May holds up a cough sweet after suffering a coughing fit whilst addressing the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, 4 October (Reuters)

The definition of antisemitism

Accusations of major anti-Semitism in the party were made. In response, Corbyn immediately commissioned an inquiry into anti-Semitism charges appointing respected lawyer and human rights campaigner Shami Chakrabarti to lead it. The inquiry concluded: “The Labour Party is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism.”

The inquiry and subsequent report were not adequate as far as the pro-Israel lobby was concerned. The lobby’s response was to conflate anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel.

new definition of anti-Semitism, that went beyond the widely understood accusation of “hatred of Jews because they are Jews” was needed to shield Israel from criticism. This came in the form of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Issues related to Israel figure prominently in the examples given by the IHRA to explain the definition, thus making it possible to accuse critics of Israeli policies of anti-Semitism.

This definition was adopted by the government, the Labour Party and a number of local authorities. It is now being used regularly to throw accusations of anti-Semitism around despite a legal opinionwhich described it as “unclear and confusing and should be used with caution”.

The Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) and Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) are two organisations that work within the Labour party to influence its policy in support of Israel. LFI members were furious that the Labour leader did not address their fringe.

This year the JLM proposed a rule change that will tighten explicitly the party’s stance towards members who are anti-Semitic or use other forms of hate speech, including racism, Islamophobia, sexism and homophobia. The rule change was adopted, with the pro-Israel Jewish Chronicle reporting: “The changes mean Labour members could face expulsion and other punishments for Jew-hate.”

However, the rule change means the IHRA definition could be used to accuse individuals criticising Israel of anti-Semitism and they could then be suspended or expelled. The pro-Israel lobby becomes the gatekeeper on what is acceptable criticism and what crosses their lines.

However, the rule change did not go unchallenged.

The emergence of a new group, the Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL), representing Jewish socialists who support Palestinian rights, provided some pushback against the pro-Israel lobby in the party.

Two of its members spoke against the rule change but more significantly spoke for parts of British Jewry that the JLM cannot claim to represent. The importance of the emergence of JVL cannot be overemphasised. In future, the Labour Party cannot develop policy that might impact on British Jews or policy on Israel and only speak to the JLM. This should bring a fairer representation of Jewish views than in the past.

As the 2017 conference season ends, the Conservatives continue with business as usual in supporting Israel and paying lip service to the suffering of the Palestinians, while there is hope that a Labour government would act to support the Palestinians in their quest for justice and freedom. For Palestinians that cannot come quickly enough.

– Kamel Hawwash is a British-Palestinian engineering professor based at the University of Birmingham and a longstanding campaigner for justice, especially for the Palestinian people. He is vice chair of the British Palestinian Policy Council (BPPC) and a member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC).  He appears regularly in the media as commentator on Middle East issues. He runs a blog at www.kamelhawwash.com and tweets at @kamelhawwashHe writes here in a personal capacity.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Britain’s opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn acknowledges his audience prior to giving his keynote speech at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton, Britain, September 27, 2017 (Reuters)

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