Every picture tells a story; can the Palestinians expect any justice from this bunch?

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 23/6/2017


Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meets with Jared Kushner (3rd L) in Jerusalem on 21 June 2017 [Handout / Amos Ben Gershom / GPO]

Throughout his first trip abroad as US president, during which he visited Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, Donald Trump expressed his desire to bring peace to the region. 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.”

In order to put the “ultimate deal” together, it is reasonable to expect that a team with knowledge of both sides of the conflict would be gathered together to determine the facts and the rhetoric before a truly honest broker could succeed in the task. No such attempt at balance was made during Trump’s election campaign; his Middle East adviser then was Walid Phares, who is of Lebanese Christian Maronite heritage and well-known for his pro-Israel position. Trump had no adviser on his team who could provide a pro-Palestinian perspective.

As president, we now see that the team that Trump has put together to launch another attempt at a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians not only lacks any balance whatsoever, but is also tilted entirely in Israel’s favour.

Trump’s senior adviser on the Middle East, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, recently returned to the US after a 15-hour trip to the Holy Land during which he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the PA’s Abbas. The photograph circulated of his meeting with Netanyahu is a revealing snapshot of the team planning to launch Trump’s new peace initiative; every picture tells a story, and this one is no different.

Kushner himself is an orthodox Jew and the son of Holocaust survivors. The real estate developer’s family has donated tens of thousands of dollars to the illegal West Bank settlement of Bet El. He started his visit in his new role as Trump’s “senior adviser” by offering condolences to the family of Israeli police officer Hadas Malka who died during an attack by Palestinians recently. Although he would have a much longer list to choose from, he did not seek out the family of any Palestinian killed by Israel to show that he understood the suffering on both sides.

In the picture too is Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, Jason Greenblatt. Trump’s company lawyer from New York is also an orthodox Jew. He does not see Israeli settlements as an obstacle to peace and does not think that the United States or any other party should try to impose an agreement on Israel. In a recent visit to the Zionist state, Greenblatt met with leaders of the settlement movement, including the Yesha leaders Oded Revivi and Yossi Dagan.


Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meets with Jared Kushner (L) in Jerusalem on 21 June 2017 [Handout / Amos Ben Gershom / GPO]

The final member of the US trio in the official photograph is David Friedman, Trump’s pick as ambassador to Israel; an orthodox Jew and bankruptcy lawyer, Friedman is also committed to the settlement enterprise and advocates moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in contravention of international law. Like Kushner, he has close ties with the illegal West Bank settlement of Beit El. Indeed, Friedman heads Friends of Beit El Institutions, an organisation which recently funded a five-story block in the Israeli colony built on occupied Palestinian territory. Friedman does not believe that the colony-settlements are an impediment to peace or that annexing the West Bank would compromise Israel’s Jewish or democratic character.

Representing Israel in the picture is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a man who has led the far-right Israeli government for a total of 13 years, alongside Israel’s US-born ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, who has been in post for the past 4 years. During the 2015 Israeli election campaign Netanyahu promised that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch; he now insists that Israel must keep security control “west of the River Jordan” in any peace deal. He was prime minister during the 2014 Israeli military offensive against Gaza in which over 2,000 Palestinian civilians, including more than 350 children, were killed.

Everyone in the picture of Kushner’s meeting with Netanyahu is a Zionist Jew; not a single American of Palestinian origin or US advisor with even slightly less partisan views, never mind pro-Palestinian. Of course, I do not wish to imply that Jews cannot help deliver a peace deal between the Palestinians and the Israelis — there are many who are active in the peace movement — but it is difficult to see how Zionist Americans, whether Jewish or not, can be even-handed in their endeavours to get the “ultimate deal”.

Anyone looking among Trump’s team for some counterbalance to the pro-Israel views championed by Kushner, Greenblatt or Friedman will be sorely disappointed. Another of the president’s senior appointments is US ambassador to the UN Nikki Hayley; it is hardly surprising that she is a staunch supporter of Israel who has criticised the international body for being “biased” in its criticism of Israel’s illegal activities. She recently promised the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — the main pro-Israel lobby group in Washington — that “the days of Israel bashing [at the UN] are over.”

Hayley went to Israel in between the Trump and Kushner visits, providing Netanyahu with an opportunity to heap praise upon her and her boss. “President Trump and you, I think, have changed the discourse, have drawn new standards, and everybody’s taking up, and that’s great,” Netanyahu gushed. “Again, I felt that the UN would collapse, you know, that whole scaffolding of lies would just collapse. I think you’ve put in that simple word, truth.”

The “truth” is that with a blatantly pro-Israel team in place who believe in Israeli settlements but are not committed even to the concept of two states, the Palestinians cannot rely on the US to act as an honest broker and deliver peace.

It was, therefore, bewildering — though not, perhaps, surprising — to hear one of Mahmoud Abbas’s top advisers express the PA’s anger at a new illegal settlement being built. “[This is] a serious escalation, an attempt to thwart the efforts of the US administration and to frustrate the efforts of US President Donald Trump,” claimed Nabil Abu Rudeineh, as if this would generate some reaction from Washington. It has not and will not. With Kushner et al calling the shots, how could it?

The Palestinian leadership is in a real bind, mostly of its own making. This goes back several years, particularly since Abbas took over and pinned his colours solely to the mast of the “peace process” with Israel bereft of any reference to international law and under US patronage. It is blindingly obvious that America will always side with Israel and if pressure is ever exerted on anyone, it will be on the Palestinians to make yet more concessions.

To add to Palestinian woes, Trump has further succeeded in driving a real wedge between those Arab states that remain intact and the Palestinian cause. At the recent Arab League summit in Amman, Abbas looked isolated and had to work hard simply to ensure that the Arab peace plan was not watered down further to offer Israel more incentive to take it seriously. He then learnt that some Gulf States are considering partial normalisation with Israel in advance of a peace deal, which runs contrary to the Arab initiative.

The Palestinians need to accept that the strategy adopted by the PA has failed to deliver peace or even get the siege of Gaza lifted to alleviate the daily suffering of two million people. If any progress is to be made, the PLO and its institutions must be rebuilt and the Palestinians within and beyond historic Palestine have to be reconnected, working together for the same objective of achieving justice, freedom and equality. The Palestinians must rely on themselves for a change; relying on Trump’s team to deliver justice or anything but capitulation is preposterous.

  برنامج وراء الحدث عن الإنتخابات البريطانية

مشاركتي في برنامج وراء الحدث على قناة الغد الفضائية من الدقيقة ٢٥.

تم بثه في ٢/٦/٢.١٧

Are potential successors to Mahmoud Abbas making their bid?

First published by the Arab Weekly on 28/5/2017


Who will replace Abbas? Protesters carry pictures of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on May 3. (AP)

Mahmoud Abbas holds all four of the top political positions in the Palestinian leadership. He is the president of the state of Palestine, president of the Pales­tinian National Authority (PNA), head of the Fatah movement and chairman of the Palestine Libera­tion Organisation’s executive committee.

Once he is unable to discharge these duties either through death or illness, the Palestinian people have been wondering who would take any of or all four roles. After all, Abbas is 82 years old.

The starting position, since they were all held by Yasser Arafat, is that they would be taken by one person and it is reasonable to assume it would be a man. Until the seventh Fatah congress at the end of 2016, Abbas had refused to name a deputy, choosing to rely on the Palestinian Constitution in the event of a successor needing to be found.

Article 37 of the 2003 amended Basic Law states that the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) would take over and elections would be called within 60 days.
There was much speculation about whether Abbas would appoint a deputy and if the position would go to Marwan Barghouti, a long-term political prisoner in Israeli jails who some see as the Palestinian Nelson Mandela.

Abbas chose a deputy but it was not Barghouti. Instead, he picked Mahmoud al-Aloul, former Nablus governor and labour minister in the PNA. While this is a strong indication Abbas would see Aloul as his successor as leader of Fatah, he did not appoint him to be deputy president of the PNA. This, intentionally or otherwise, leaves the door open to other hopefuls who aspire to fill one, if not all, other three key positions in the Palestinian leadership.

The popular Barghouti has been leading a hunger strike, now in its second month, by more than 1,000 political prisoners trying to secure basic rights in Israeli prisons. Israel accused him of instigating the hunger strike to position himself as the strongest candidate to replace Abbas.

The same accusation of leader­ship aspirations through confront­ing Israel has been levelled at another senior Fatah figure. Israel has accused Jibril Rajoub, presi­dent of the Palestinian Football Association, of repeatedly pursu­ing the sanctioning or expulsion of Israel from FIFA, both for its alleged mistreatment of Palestin­ian football players and for allowing teams in settlements to play in its leagues, against FIFA regulations. Rajoub is a member of Fatah’s Central Committee, president of the Palestinian Olympics Committee and former head of the Preventive Security Force in the West Bank.

Abbas made sure that another political rival and critic was excluded from Fatah’s seventh congress — Mohammed Dahlan, former head of the Preventive Security Force who was ousted when Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007. He now lives in the United Arab Emirates.

Just prior to the congress, the Palestinian Constitutional Court gave Abbas “full authority to cancel the immunity of any parliament member, when the legislative council is not con­vened,” a statement published by official Palestinian news agency, WAFA, said. That would have applied to Dahlan had he decided to enter the West Bank to attend the Congress.

Other possible candidates to succeed Abbas include Nasser al-Kidwa, a nephew of the revered Arafat and a former foreign minister and Palestinian repre­sentative to the United Nations; Majid Faraj, the current intelli­gence chief; and Salam Fayyad, a former prime minister and finance minister.

With Israel’s emphasis on the security role of the PNA going forward, it is perhaps safe to assume that it would want to see a security-minded candidate emerge as a potential leader to succeed Abbas rather than necessarily the one who is most qualified politi­cally or has the widest possible appeal to Palestinians.

It is also unlikely that anyone from the new generation of possible leaders will break through this time. Expect someone from the old guard to win when Abbas is no longer president.

The Palestinians too should take back control of their destiny

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 12/12/2016

Israeli soldiers in riot gear in East Jerusalem [file photo]

From the Middle East Monitor

2016 will be remembered for a new phrase that came to characterise popular uprisings against “the establishment” in the West. From the UK to the USA, “taking back control” struck a chord with the voters when it was adopted by Donald Trump in America and the leaders of BREXIT in the UK. The now infamous image in the golden lift at Trump Tower of President-elect Trump and UKIP’s Nigel Farage was made possible because voters wanted to take back control and thought they would secure it.

The Palestinians too want to take back control of their destiny but how can they achieve this?

In a year which saw their dreams of liberation, freedom and independence dashed once again, they feel their reliance on others to deliver these aims has simply failed. In reality though, it is their leadership which has failed because it has chosen to rely on others to deliver Palestinian rights, but also because it relies on others to ensure its very existence through funding. The Palestinian Authority has also suffocated attempts by the people to rise up against the occupation either collectively or through individual endeavours. As President Abbas has declared repeatedly, the “security cooperation” with Israel is “sacred”, though he does not admit that it only works one way, protecting Israel and never the Palestinians.

Fatah’s seventh congress

Fatah, the ruling party recently held its congress in Ramallah, the seventh since its establishment in 1959. It included a marathon three-hour speech by its past, present and future (elected by acclimation) Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in which he reiterated his strategy for delivering Palestinian rights. In summary its internal strategy included reconciliation with Hamas, holding parliamentary and presidential elections, holding the Palestinian National Council. Its external strategy included continued negotiations with Israel, a “smart intifada”, pursuit of Israel through the ICC and continued “internationalisation” of the conflict through membership of organisations.

Internal matters

The reconciliation with Hamas is essential as a united Palestinian people and leadership can put to bed Israel’s claim that there is no Palestinian partner to negotiate with or that the “moderate” Abbas cannot deliver on any agreements because Hamas runs Gaza. Reconciliation would also allow the Palestinian elections, long overdue, to finally take place. Abbas was firm in his insistence that “there can be no Palestinian state without the Gaza Strip.”

Abbas was not very forthcoming on what he meant by the “smart intifada” or “intifada of brains” though he did ask “the leadership” to be out there resisting peacefully with the people.

External matters

Peace talks have been dormant even since US Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative failed back in 2014 and the subsequent Israeli war on Gaza. Attempts at bringing the two sides together have failed to this day and despite Abbas’ brief meeting with Netanyahu at Shimon Peres’s funeral, the two men have not met. It has not been for lack of trying. Abbas confirmed that although he had accepted an invitation from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to meet Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the latter declined the same invitation.

Attempts by France to bring the two men together and to hold a peace conference have also met with Palestinian acceptance and Israeli rejection. Israel’s spin on the reason for the rejection is that the meeting would follow a French-led peace conference, which it considers an effort to impose a settlement on it. Netanyahu spoke to Hollande and said that “if there is no international conference in Paris, the prime minister will come to meet Abu Mazen [Abbas] for direct talks without preconditions.” Israel further claimed that it will “not take part in an international conference that will not contribute to achieving peace”.

In reality, Israel is watching with satisfaction the transition from the Obama to the Trump administration in the US and expecting to be shielded further from any attempts to make a Palestinian state a reality. Why then should it engage wit Putin, Hollande or any other “broker” when Trump will move the US Embassy to Jerusalem and his team do not see the two-state solution as explicitly part of his administration’s strategy?

Options for the Palestinians

The Palestinian leadership has largely relied on unwavering support for the Palestinian cause from the Arab and Muslim world. It regularly consults both about steps it plans to take to ensure they are on board. They in turn have been steadfast in their support for the Palestinians and condemnation of Israel, particularly in international bodies. The Arab League also adopted the Arab Peace Initiative back in 2002, offering Israel normalisation of relations in return for ending the occupation of Palestinian and other Arab land. US Secretary of State John Kerry pushed the Arab states further to including “land swaps” in the initiative back in 2013. Israel has still not accepted the initiative to this day.

Arab states have also worked closely with the Palestinians in the United Nations, putting down resolutions both to the General Assembly and the Security Council. Their efforts in the Security Council have been scuppered by the US veto or US pressure on members that haVE led to potential resolutions falling by default. This included a resolution for the admission of Palestine as a full member. This pushed the Palestinians to the General Assembly to secure an upgrade in Palestine’s status to “Non-Member Observer state” in 2012, perhaps their most notable success in recent years. This was not only because it again demonstrated the overwhelming support for Palestinian rights, but because it allowed Palestine to join a multitude of international organisations and accords. This included the International Criminal Court (ICC) and UNESCO.

The ICC is still considering whether it can bring cases against Israelis involved in the 2014 war on Gaza and illegal settlements. The wheels of justice move slowly and to date the ICC has not declared whether and when it will bring cases against suspected Israeli war criminals. However, in a recent report, the court significantly confirmed that Israel was still in occupation of Gaza and that Jerusalem was illegally annexed. Israel suspects this indicates a leaning by the ICC towards the Palestinian view.

The ICC is one plank of the Palestinian “internationalisation of the conflict” strategy. Another important body is the UN Human Rights Council, which – due to a lack of US veto – often calls out Israeli actions in contravention of international law. The UNHRC produced an important report on the 2014 Gaza war which accused both Israel and Hamas of possible war crimes.

A further significant plank of internationalisation is seeking protection for Palestinian cultural and religious sites through UNESCO’s membership. This again showed some success when UNESCO adopted a motion condemning Israel’s activities around Muslim sits in Jerusalem and while this eventually watered down under pressure from Israel’s supporting states; it still showed what the Palestinians can achieve through careful diplomacy and through their own efforts.

On the ground a recent refusal by PA security forces to allow Israeli army vehicles to enter Jenin is very much in line with the Oslo accords which included Jenin in “Area A” which handed security in the city to the PA. Again, an example of how Palestinians can take matters into their own hands using existing accords and international law.

As President Trump moves closer to the White House and having declared his support for Israel including a commitment to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, the PA is still banking on a last minute move by the Obama administration. It is sending a delegation to Washington to seek support for or at least an abstention, for a possible UNSC resolution condemning settlements. Despite suspicions that in its last few days the Obama administration may support such a move, I am not hopeful.

This should signal to the Palestinian leadership that relying on the US or other countries that support Israel when it really matters is unlikely to yield results.  They must continue to explore and pursue avenues over which they can exercise some control. It seems that pursuing Israeli violations through international bodies is a sound strategy and the more avenues it can pursue for this the better. Internationalising the conflict is part of the Palestinians “taking back control” of their destiny.

Israel welcomes Trump’s win with new anti-Palestinian laws

First published by the Arab Weekly on 20 November 2016

The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States seems to have emboldened Israeli politicians, who clearly feel their strongest ally will provide them with the chance to end any hope of freedom or independence for the Palestinians.

Soon after Trump’s win, the Israeli cabinet approved two sets of draft legislation. One would retroactively grant legal status to illegal outposts across the West Bank in defiance of international law. The other would ban the use of loudspeakers to carry the adhan — Muslim call for prayer. The outpost legalisation bill is likely to pass in the Knesset, despite initial hesitation by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who is now supportive.

Reaction from the administra­tion of US President Barack Obama against the illegal settle­ments was immediate and strong. US State Department spokes­woman Elizabeth Trudeau said Washington was “deeply con­cerned” by the proposal, express­ing hope that “it does not become law” as “this would represent an unprecedented and troubling step that’s inconsistent with prior Israeli legal opinion and also break long-standing Israeli policy of not building on private Palestinian land”.

She added: “This legislation would be a dramatic advance­ment of the settlement enter­prise, which is already gravely endangering the prospects for a two-state solution.”

This was in sharp contrast to the deafening silence from the Trump camp. Trump, who claims to be a better negotiator than his competitors for the presidency, has not questioned the $38 billion aid package the United States gifted Israel for which it gets nothing in return regarding America’s policy of creating a two-state solution to the conflict.

The bill to silence the Muslim call for prayer drew no reaction from either the current or future US administrations. However, it angered Palestinians who say Israel is acting to please Israelis in illegal settlements who claim the call to prayer annoys them and is noise pollution. Palestin­ians see it as another attempt to erase Jerusalem’s proud non- Jewish religious and cultural heritage.

The bill angered and united Christian and Muslim Palestin­ians. Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Sebastia Theodosios Atallah Hanna condemned the bill. Hanna said he considered the Israeli ban as “a dangerous and unprecedented step that comes as part of Israel’s racist policy aiming to Judaise Jerusalem”. Today, they are targeting mosques and tomorrow is the churches’ turn, he said.

Palestinian-Israeli members of parliament used their status to recite the adhan from the podium of the Knesset in defiance of the measure. Ironically, the bill’s progress through the Knesset is stuttering because ultraorthodox politicians fear it might restrict broadcasts from synagogues.

It is unlikely that the Trump camp, which is well-known for its anti-Muslim rhetoric, will protest such restrictions to the freedom of worship. Israeli politicians expect upcoming US policies to be even more in their favour.

Right-wing Education Minister Naftali Bennett was quick to declare that “Trump’s victory is an opportunity for Israel to immediately retract the notion of a Palestinian state in the centre of the country, which would hurt our security and just cause”.

He concluded that “this is the position of the president-elect, as written in his platform, and it should be our policy, plain and simple. The era of a Palestinian state is over.”
Jason Greenblatt, a legal adviser to Trump, said: “The two sides are going to have to decide how to deal with that region but it’s certainly not Mr Trump’s view that settlement activity should be condemned and that it’s an obstacle for peace — because it is not the obstacle for peace.”