The PNC meeting was ‘much ado about nothing’

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 7/5/2018

 
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (2nd L) makes a speech during the 23rd session of the Palestinian National Council in Ramallah, West Bank on 30 April 2018 [Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency]
After a 22-year lull, the highest Palestinian legislative authority of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the Palestinian National Council (PNC), finally met in Ramallah for its 23rd session. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas faced severe criticism for holding the meeting in Ramallah, which remains under occupation, thus excluding many members and figures who would not be allowed into the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) by Israel, or who faced arrest and even assassination if they attempted to enter.
The PNC consists of 765 members, including 198 independents, 132 members of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), 49 representing Fatah, 98 representing other factions and a whole multitude of members representing different Palestinian organisations.

 

The meeting was held in the smart Ahmad Shukeiri Hall in Ramallah, named after the first chairman of the PLO; it was filled to the rafters when Abbas was in attendance over four long days. The front row, reserved for the leadership, looked as familiar as ever; it lacked any significant representation of women, non-Fatah faction representatives or young blood. The 23rd session of the PNC was named the “Jerusalem and protecting legitimacy round” in reference to the dangers Jerusalem faces and the need to renew the legitimacy of a number of the PLO institutions.

The meeting was boycotted by three major Palestinian factions — Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) — and a number of independent figures, including well-known members like Dr Salman Abu Sitta, Abdel Bari Atwan and Dr Anis Kassem.

Dr Salman Abu Sitta at Middle East Monitor's 'Jerusalem: Legalising the Occupation' conference in London, UK on March 3, 2018 [Jehan Alfarra/Middle East Monitor]

Dr Salman Abu Sitta at Middle East Monitor’s ‘Jerusalem: Legalising the Occupation’ conference in London, UK on March 3, 2018 [Jehan Alfarra/Middle East Monitor]

The meeting kicked off on 30 April with chaotic scenes as attendance was established by every name of the hundreds of existing members being read out and recorded as present or absent; various lists of replacements were placed in front of the ageing Chairman of the PNC, Saleem Al-Zanoun, adding to the confusion. The session concluded with a proclamation that the meeting was quorate, made to rapturous applause.

What followed was another rambling speech by Abbas lasting for 1 hour 48 minutes. Listening to it, I struggled to identify anything significant to take away with me, which was astonishing given the gravity of the situation the Palestinians face. Nor was there anything to distinguish it from his last speech to another PLO institution, the Palestinian Central Council (PCC) in January. While supposed to be reading his speech, Abbas went off script regularly, which is not a good idea when every word is scrutinised by friend and foe alike, especially when it comes to his attempts to present his version of history to an international audience. His explanation of the reason for the Holocaust drew almost universal condemnation, including some from the Israeli Prime Minister, Britain’s Foreign Secretary and the editorial board of the New York Times. While a more accurate translation of what he said gives context to his remarks, he should really have learnt by now that venturing into this area provides an open goal for accusations of anti-Semitism and those want to quote him out of context.

Attendees listened to speech after speech from leaders, members and guests representing various organisations and over 30 friendly states. The general message was one of support for the Palestinian cause, rejection of Trump’s US Embassy move and an emphasis on the importance of holding the PNC meeting. However, it was the many conversations, sometimes heated, taking place behind the scenes about possible names for membership of the PNC, PLO Executive Committee and the PCC that drove the real business of the meeting.

The closing session took place in the late hours of day four, concluding with a shorter speech by Abbas and the emerging decisions of the PNC. Abbas was “re-elected” by proclamation as President of Palestine and Chairman of the Executive Committee of the PLO. The PNC Chairman reminded the meeting how decisions are reached in the PNC, by standing up and applauding. There is no ballot. This drew heavy criticism from Nabil Amer, a former PLO Ambassador to Egypt, who had wanted to stand for the Executive Committee. He was initially told not to speak by Abbas but was eventually allowed to say a few words by the PNC Chairman. He simply reiterated his intention to struggle for decisions to be taken through a ballot and called on the PNC to hold Legislative Council and Presidential elections without delay.

Amer’s remarks were only heard after the PNC agreed to Abbas’s list of members of the Executive Committee, which he claimed had been agreed with “nationalistic factions”. Fifteen names were presented, including seven former members and eight new people. Those familiar to followers of Palestinian politics were Mahmoud Abbas, Saeb Erekat and Hanan Ashrawi. Abbas explained that the Committee had kept three seats vacant to allow the PFLP, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which boycotted the meeting, to join the PNC. In the case of Hamas, he conditioned this on the movement agreeing to abide by existing agreements. “We don’t want to see them out of our national unity and we don’t like exclusion,” he claimed.

The PNC was also asked to approve membership of the smaller PCC, which was to take on the terms of reference of the PNC due to the difficulties it faces in meeting annually, as it should. Presenting the names, the newly-installed Executive Committee member Azzam Al-Ahmad, known for his role in negotiating reconciliation with Hamas, stressed the great efforts made to ensure the widest possible geographic and factional representation on the PCC.

Earlier, 35 PNC members urged Abbas to end the sanctions he had imposed on the Gaza Strip since May 2017 to force Hamas, which has controlled the coastal enclave since 2007, to hand over power to the Palestinian Authority. Abbas skated around the subject but confirmed that the April salaries for those on the PA payroll in Gaza would be paid immediately and that the lack of payment had been due to a “technical hitch” and was not intended to punish the besieged workers.

In his closing remarks, Abbas took a swipe at those who boycotted the meeting held under occupation. “When we said [that we will] meet in this beautiful Ahmad Shukeiri Hall we are in our country, in our homeland not under the pikes of the occupier,” he insisted. “Yes, there is an occupation, but we can say what we want here. I am not prepared to go and seek a place to meet in an Arab country or any other when I can meet on my land.”

The closing statement of the 23rd PNC meeting is long but uninspiring. It reiterates the decisions of the PCC held in January, which remain un-actioned, including suspending recognition of Israel until it recognises Palestine and the end of security cooperation with the occupying power.

Much will now be written about the PNC meeting, its legitimacy, operation and decisions. Those who questioned its legitimacy will not change their stance, but what can they do to oppose them? The significant Palestinian factions which boycotted the gathering are unlikely to suddenly accept the invitation to re-join a body that they consider illegitimate. Healing the pain of the division has been taken off the table. Fatah and the small number of individuals around the Palestinian President will continue to operate without wide consultation and take crucial decisions on issues facing the Palestinian people. There is no accountability for the actions of the Palestinian leadership including, the Palestinian National Authority. Has it delivered any meaningful improvement to the lives of Palestinians or moved them closer to achieving their legitimate rights? Can refugees in Jordan, Lebanon or Syria see an end to their exile? Are the Palestinians in the diaspora represented in the PLO’s institutions in the proportion that they should be, or are they simply a number to call upon when the scale of the suffering of the Palestinians since the Nakba needs to be highlighted? Sadly, the reality is that there is no new emerging strategy to meet the aspirations of the Palestinians or to oppose the Trump juggernaut as it implements Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s diktats on “peace” through what is touted as the “deal of the century”.

The 23rd meeting of the PNC has come and gone and will in my view be remembered as one of the least significant events in Palestinian history; it was definitely “much ado about nothing”. However, Abbas pleased the meeting by announcing that Palestinian child prisoner Ahed Tamimi, convicted for slapping an Israeli soldier, will be made an honorary member of the Council. We might have to wait a little longer, but perhaps a President Ahed Tamimi or a member of her generation will one day take up the baton and lead the Palestinians to justice, freedom and equality.

 

What options does Abbas have after that General Assembly vote?

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 27/12/2017

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas makes a speech during extraordinary meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul, Turkey on 13 December 2017 [Onur Çoban/Anadolu Agency]

 

As the dust settles on a significant week at the UN, in which America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was rejected roundly by the international community, the Palestinians have made a commitment not to engage with the US in any future peace talks. Where, though, can the Palestinian President turn to next? What options does Mahmoud Abbas have?

A divided, and in some cases apathetic, Arab world has been experiencing political turmoil since the confrontation emerged this year between the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Egypt on one hand, and Qatar on the other. As young pretenders to their respective countries’ thrones experiment with war and politics, the US and Israel can take a back seat in the hope that Arab states will weaken each other without any interference on their part.

Palestine is no longer a priority for some Arab countries, except where they can exert pressure on the weak leadership in Ramallah to please Washington and, in turn, the Israelis. Like turkeys voting for Christmas, they believe that they will be protected from Iran if they can deliver the complete submission of the Palestinians to Israel’s wishes.

The EU, which rejected Trump’s decision on Jerusalem, saw some of its own members abstain in the vote in the UN General Assembly. The Russians and Chinese, important members of the Security Council, also have limited, if any, influence on Israel or the Palestinians when compared with the Americans. The Palestinian President’s options for an alternative “honest broker” that Israel will accept are thus non-existent.

It has taken Mahmoud Abbas over two decades to admit that the US is so biased in favour of Israel that it cannot play an even-handed role in the search for a just peace. Why it has taken him so long to realise this so obvious fact is a mystery. Successive US administrations have taken their lead from Israel on this issue. It was always the case that any “offer” to the Palestinians would be put to the Israelis first, and that only after they had applied their “security” test to it and given the green light would it be put to the Palestinians.

This formed the core of an exchange of letters between former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and George W Bush in 2004. “In light of new realities on the ground,” wrote the then US President, “including already existing major Israeli population centres, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” He added that, “The United States reiterates its steadfast commitment to Israel’s security, including secure, defensible borders, and to preserve and strengthen Israel’s capability to deter and defend itself, by itself, against any threat or possible combination of threats.”

While Bush referred in his letter to UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 as forming the basis for negotiations, the Israelis worked hard to ensure that the talks which followed were not referenced to any such international decisions.

The Palestinians fell into this trap by failing to insist on international law and Security Council Resolutions as the basis for any talks. This included the last “serious” attempt to bring peace by Barack Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013, which not only failed to bring peace but was also immediately followed by the 2014 Israeli war on Gaza. Kerry persuaded the Palestinians to return to talks lacking in any reference to international law.

Before leaving office, Kerry laid much of the blame for the failure of the talks he had initiated on the Israelis after, of course, reminding everyone of Obama’s “deep commitment to Israel and its security”. His explanation for the Obama administration’s abstention on UN Security Council Resolution 2334 concerning the illegality of Israel’s settlements — instead of the usual veto of anything critical of Israel — was that the vote was about “preserving” the two-state solution. “That’s what we were standing up for: Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, living side by side in peace and security with its neighbours.”

The incoming Trump administration disassociated itself from Resolution 2334, with the president-elect himself promising that “things will be different” when he entered the White House. He has certainly been true to his word. While asking Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements”, Trump moved away from the US position on two-states: “So I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like.”

Trump’s pro-Israel advisers have spent months meeting with the two sides to the conflict. While promising to put a deal on the table soon, this came to a halt when Trump announced on 7 December his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and intention to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv.

Following the US veto of a Security Council resolution rejecting its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and then a large majority voting to pass the same resolution in the General Assembly, Abbas announced last week that he is severing his ties with the US when it comes to the peace process. The Palestinians, he declared, will not “accept any plan from the US” due to America’s “biased” support of Israel and its settlement policy. He also said that the US plan — Trump’s much-vaunted “deal of the century” — “is not going to be based on the two-state solution on the 1967 border, nor is it going to be based on international law or UN resolutions.”

In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to state that, “Abbas declared he was abandoning the peace process and did not care which proposal the United States brings to the table.” Putting a spin on it that is incomprehensible to the rest of the world, Netanyahu told his weekly cabinet meeting, “I think that once again, something clear and simple emerges: The Palestinians are the ones who do not want to solve the conflict.” He will do or say anything to distract us from the glaringly obvious reality that it is Netanyahu’s far-right government that is fully to blame for the lack of peace.

As for Mahmoud Abbas, he has to choose between acknowledging his failure over 23 years to advance the cause of the Palestinians, or going back to the drawing board, assessing the strengths of the Palestinian people and looking for ways to raise the cost to Israel of its military occupation of Palestine. The higher the cost, the quicker that Israel will address the Palestinians’ grievances as they seek to attain their rights.

The Palestinian Authority President’s starting point should be to develop a liberation strategy that excludes reliance on non-Palestinians for its delivery, whilst making it supportable by others, both governments and citizens alike.

The elements of such a strategy should include the following:

  • The development of options for raising the cost to Israel of the occupation.
  • A declaration that the Oslo Accords are null and void. Israel has done this in all but name.
  • To demand UN Security Council protection for the Palestinian people.
  • To end the PA’s security coordination with the occupation, as it is both immoral and a free service to Israel that brings no benefits whatsoever to the Palestinian people.
  • To ask the UN to set up a coordination mechanism for necessary interaction with Israel on humanitarian matters.
  • To ask the Arab League to withdraw the Arab Peace Initiative immediately.
  • To restate that the Palestinian refugees’ legitimate right of return is non-negotiable.
  • To demand that any future negotiations with Israel are based on equal rights for all who live between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea, and acknowledge that this is the only way to achieve real peace.
  • To call on the UN Secretary-General to adopt the ESCWA report — “Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid” — that he has withdrawn.
  • To launch cases at the International Criminal Court against Israel and Israeli officials immediately, starting with the illegal settlement issue.
  • To offer unqualified support for the entirely peaceful Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and call for its escalation.
  • The immediate lifting of all sanctions imposed by the PA in Ramallah on the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
  • The implementation of the reconciliation agreement with Hamas.
  • An escalation of the peaceful and popular resistance movement in Palestine.
  • The launch of a reformed and inclusive Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
  • A serious engagement with Palestinians in the diaspora and a move towards elections to the Palestinian National Council.

Many of the points listed above should have been guiding principles in the past, but were overlooked in the PA’s pursuit of a pointless “negotiations first and last” policy which has failed by any measure.

Such a strategy will come with a price. It will bring isolation to the Palestinians and will have an impact on them in ways that will make their lives even more difficult. However, the alternative is that they continue to be oppressed with no end in sight if the current policies remain in place. The Palestinians have shown on numerous occasions that they are prepared to pay the necessary price for liberation but they must be told how this will be achieved by a leadership that they have had the chance to elect.

Any objective assessment will conclude that the current leadership is incapable of delivering what the Palestinians deserve and to which they aspire. It must therefore stand aside and allow the younger, talented generation of Palestinians come to the fore and lead their people. The New Year cannot be allowed to bring more of the same at the hands of Abbas and his team. He has other options; he must exercise them.

How long before the Israeli flag flies over Riyadh?

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 22/11/2017

A general view from the Arabic Islamic American Summit at King Abdul Aziz International Conference Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on 21 May, 2017 [Bandar Algaloud/Anadolu Agency]

A general view from the Arabic Islamic American Summit at King Abdul Aziz International Conference Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on 21 May, 2017 [Bandar Algaloud/Anadolu Agency]
At a recent MEMO conference entitled “Crisis in Saudi Arabia: War Succession and Future”, I asked Professor Madawi Al-Rasheed of the London School of Economics if she thought that the Israeli flag would be flying over Riyadh within the next two years.

“In terms of an Israeli flag in Makkah or in Riyadh,” she replied, “well, you don’t need to raise the flag to have contacts.” She distinguished between the rush to normalisation with Israel by Gulf leaders, and their citizens, referring to a recent anti-normalisation conference in Kuwait, which she hoped would contribute to the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. “At least it means that those rulers who are doing that [normalising relations with Israel] do not represent everybody in the Gulf. There are people who are worried and still care about Palestinian rights.”

My question was of course about the symbolism of the Israeli flag flying in Riyadh. Would the young pretender to the Saudi throne, Mohammed Bin Salman, actually establish formal, above the table relations with the Zionist state? For a man who has just carried out a purge, during which he held some of his key rivals and the wealthiest and best-known Saudis under house arrest, raising the Israeli flag would not be such a big deal in the absence of any tangible opposition.

There have, of course, been robust reports of growing normalisation between Israel and Gulf States, essentially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. They have included an “unofficial” visit to Israel by retired Saudi General Anwar Eshki in 2016; he met the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Director General and a group of Knesset members to “encourage dialogue in Israel on the Arab Peace Initiative.” The initiative offers Israel normalisation with the Arab and Muslim world in exchange for an end to the occupation of Arab land; it was launched in Beirut in 2002 by the then Saudi Crown Prince (and now late King) Abdullah.

Israel has not agreed to the proposal, while the international community failed to exert sufficient pressure on it to accept what it has craved since its establishment on Palestinian land in 1948. Former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw admitted as much in response to my question at the aforementioned conference. Had he done enough while in office to put pressure on the Israelis to accept the Arab Initiative? No, he replied, we should have exerted more pressure.

Another prominent Saudi keen on normalisation with Israel is Prince Turki Bin Faisal Al-Saud. The former chief of Saudi intelligence and Ambassador to the US and Britain now has a history of engaging with Israeli officials and former officials. It started with a handshake with the then Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon in Munich in 2010. His most recent encounter was as a member of a panel organised by the Israel Policy Forum along with Efraim Halevy, the former director of the Mossad spy agency; the event was held in a New York synagogue. The conversation was not about the Arab Peace Initiative or how peace might be brought to the holy land, but about US President Donald Trump’s approach towards Iran. While Al-Faisal has shared platforms with Israeli officials before, this was his first panel in a synagogue; he hoped “it would not be the last.”

It seems that meetings between Israelis and Saudis are taking place at the very highest level. Israeli media reported that Mohammad Bin Salman himself made a visit to Israel in September, which included a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This was denied by non-other than General Eshki, who claimed: “The Crown Prince did not visit Israel, and I did not visit Israel. Everyone should know that according to Saudi law, no Saudi official is officially allowed to shake hands with an Israeli.” In fact, he certainly has visited Israel. According to Haaretz, “While this wasn’t an official visit, it was a highly unusual one, as Eshki couldn’t have travelled to Israel without approval from the Saudi government.”

While Saudi Arabia continues to deny any contact with Israel, evidence is mounting to the contrary. In an interview on Army Radio, Israel’s Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, a member of Netanyahu’s security cabinet, confirmed but did not characterise the contacts or give details when asked why Israel was “hiding its ties” with Saudi Arabia. “We have ties that are indeed partly covert with many Muslim and Arab countries,” he explained, “and usually (we are) the party that is not ashamed. It’s the other side that is interested in keeping the ties quiet. With us, usually, there is no problem, but we respect the other side’s wish, when ties are developing, whether it’s with Saudi Arabia or with other Arab countries or other Muslim countries, and there is much more … (but) we keep it secret.”

In exchange for cooperation with the Trump Administration and Israel to combat the perceived threat from Iran, Saudi Arabia seems to be willing to sacrifice Palestinian rights. In fact, it is ready to throw Palestinians to the dogs. It is reported that when Bin Salman recently “summoned” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Riyadh it was to tell him either to accept the “ultimate peace deal” —which will be made in Israel and marketed by Trump — or resign.

Saudi attracts US attention by singing Israel's tunes - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

What the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince and all other normalisers appear to ignore is that Israel takes and never gives. It will take normalisation but give nothing in exchange. If they think that Israeli jets will ever fly over Riyadh or Abu Dhabi to protect its newly found allies from a fictitious Iranian air strike, then they are deluded. They only need to look at Egypt and Jordan, the two Arab states which have long normalised relations with Israel, to see which party has benefited from their peace deals.

Mohammad Bin Salman would do better to support the BDS movement against Israel rather than normalise Saudi Arabia’s relations with the Zionist state; that is, if he is serious about supporting the Palestinians to attain their rights. Moreover, if Mahmoud Abbas has to choose between accepting an unacceptable deal or resign, then I say to him resign now with honour, before the Israeli flag is indeed flying proudly on the Riyadh skyline.

Palestinians should put more focus on their case internationally

First published by the Arab Weekly in 12/11/2017

The PLO should join more international bodies and conventions and use these to pressure Israel back to the negotiating table.

If it is to make progress to­wards realising its people’s legitimate right to self-deter­mination in their homeland, the Palestinian leadership needs to take stock and weigh its options.

The Palestinians should be under no illusion that the so-called deal of the century US President Donald Trump’s advisers are work­ing on will be made in Tel Aviv, not Washington or Ramallah. It will be a deal of the century designed to strengthen Israel’s hold on the land from the river to the sea. It will not be based on respect or adherence to international law and will not deliver an independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, the minimum the Palestin­ians would accept as a resolution to the conflict.

It will certainly not include a return of Palestinian refugees to their homes. This will make a deal impossible to accept. The reper­cussions would be disastrous for the Palestinians as they will once again be blamed for the failure.

It would be disastrous for the Palestinian leadership to wait for the above scenario to materialise. It must set its own agenda and make rapid progress on it.

The Palestinians have no option but to escalate their efforts to inter­nationalise their case and to pursue measures that would bring some form of accountability on Israel through peaceful means. This they can do with a more united leader­ship as the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas evolves. Yes, the road ahead is rocky but promising.

The United States has effectively closed the door on accountability through the UN Security Council, where, if needed, it will always wield the veto. In the UN General Assembly, where the United States does not enjoy the right to veto resolutions, the Palestinians can initiate them and win but they will remain unenforceable. The Palestinians are enjoying greater success in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), where the United States does not hold a veto. Significantly, the council is about to publish a database containing the names of companies complicit in Israel’s occupation. This has raised strong condemnation from both Israel and the United States.

The United States may decide to leave the UNHRC as an expression of anger at what it sees as obses­sive criticism of Israel as it has done with UNESCO. This may dis­suade other international bodies and conventions from accepting the state of Palestine as a mem­ber, knowing that it will use this primarily to bring accountability on Israel for violations that come under the scope of the organisa­tion in question. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s response should be to join more internation­al bodies and conventions and use these to pressure Israel back to the negotiating table or face greater accountability.

For example, it should work for Israel’s suspension from football’s world governing body, FIFA, for operating football teams in the illegal settlements.

The Palestinian Liberation Organisation should vigorously pursue Israel through the Interna­tional Criminal Court (ICC), which it joined in 2014. A focus on the illegal settlements is the clear­est case to bring. Other countries regard the settlements as illegal as does international law. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Net­anyahu recently promised never to dismantle a settlement and to expand the illegal enterprise.

While the Palestinians and the ICC would come under enormous pressure not to act, surely it is an action the Palestinians must pur­sue with vigour.

The Palestinians should be under no illusion that the conse­quences of escalating this battle would be costly for them. They will need strong support from Arab allies who should insist on Israel agreeing fully to the 2002 Arab peace initiative as a start. The ini­tiative spells out clearly what Israel needs to do for it to reap the huge benefits normalisation of relations with the Arab and Muslim world would bring.

The Palestinians should insist that a return to talks should be based on international law and well-known UN resolutions on the conflict. The Palestinians have op­tions. More of the same is not one of them.

The US kicks the Israeli-Palestinian peace deal into the long grass

First published by the Middle East Eye on 30/8/2017

Just days after a US delegation visit to Israel and Palestine, Netanyahu declares that Israel will no longer uproot settlements. Any dreams of peace anytime soon are a long way off

 

Say what you want about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but he doesn’t mince his words.

“We are here to stay, forever,” he said earlier this week during an event in the settlement of Barkan, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

“There will be no more uprooting of settlements in the land of Israel. It has been proven that it does not help peace. We’ve uprooted settlements. What did we get? We received missiles. It will not happen anymore.”

Coming just days after the visit of US President Donald Trump’s “peace team” to the region, led by his senior advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the timing of Netanyahu’s comments are highly significant.

The readout from the US team’s meetings with Abbas and Netanyahu was largely devoid of content. However, as brief as it was, it confirmed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ warnings that Trump’s peace process plans – and perhaps his White House overall – are in turmoil.

“I have met with Trump envoys about 20 times since the beginning of his term as president of the United States,” Abbas reportedly told delegates from the Israeli political party Meretz during a recent visit.

“Every time they repeatedly stressed to me how much they believe and are committed to a two-state solution and a halt to construction in the settlements. I have pleaded with them to say the same thing to Netanyahu, but they refrained. They said they would consider it but then they didn’t get back to me,” Abbas said, according to the delegates’ notes.

“I can’t understand how they are conducting themselves with us … Inside [Trump’s] country, there is chaos in the administration.”

The administration may indeed be in chaos, but whether intentionally or out of incompetence, it has kicked the peace process into the long grass and emboldened the Israelis in the process.

A peace plan mystery

Kushner and the rest of the Trump team’s recent visit to the Holy Land was preceded by a whistlestop tour of key Arab countries. It is important to note that no substantive messages emerged about Trump’s proposed peace plan.

The US embassy rstatement from the 23 August meeting between the Americans and Jordan’s King Abdullah II omitted any reference to discussions about the much vaunted two-state solution.

However, quoting a statement from the Royal Court, Jordanian media reported that “talks focused on efforts to push forward the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and relaunch serious and effective negotiations between the two sides based on the two-state solution, which is the only way to end the conflict”.

A subsequent report in Al-Hayat newspaper, attributed to a PA source, said that Trump’s team had indicated that a settlement freeze could not be a precondition for resumed peace talks and that building would continue.

However, a senior White House official told the Times of Israel that Al-Hayat’s report was “nonsense” and said that the comments were never made.

In their meeting with the Palestinians, the visiting delegation reportedly asked for a three to four month grace period to present their ideas. A former Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath also said that the Palestinians told the Americans that its demands are “the end of the occupation, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, as well as the resolution of all permanent status issues, including the right of return for [Palestinian] refugees.”

These demands are the longstanding position of the Palestinians and have not shifted at all.

No room in ‘Netanyahu land’

While the Palestinian position remains consistent, Netanyahu, perhaps feeling emboldened more than ever, continues to harden Israel’s position.

When he promised during the 2015 elections that there would be no Palestinian state under his watch, those seeking to shield Israel from criticism claimed it was just electioneering.

However, this week, Netanyahu went further when he said there would be “no more uprooting of settlements in the land of Israel”. Netanyahu is not talking about two states with land swaps. He is not talking about “keeping the settlement blocks” along the Green Line. He is talking about all settlements. This has nothing to do with electioneering but rather his long-held beliefs.

There is no room in Netanyahu land for a Palestinian state.

In fact, in June, Israel recently laid the foundations for a new settlement. “After decades, I have the honour to be the first prime minister to build a settlement in Judea and Samaria,” Netanyahu said at the time, referring to the occupied West Bank with its biblical name.

Netanyahu sees the land of historic Palestine from the river Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea as Israel. There is no room in “Netanyahu land” for a Palestinian state.

Increasingly emboldened by the lack of pressure from the international community to move seriously towards peace or face sanctions, Netanyahu is moving the debate from the real issue – how to end a 50-year long occupation – to Israel’s security needs.

He told UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on his first visit to the Holy Land this week that Israel’s “most pressing problem” is Hezbollah and Syria, claiming that the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) had smuggled weapons into Lebanon for Hezbollah.

“I will do everything in my capacity to make sure that UNIFIL fully meets its mandate,” Guterres responded, adding that the “idea, intention or will to destroy the state of Israel is something totally unacceptable from my perspective.”

Netanyahu also called upon Gutteres to “end the discrimination against Israel in some branches of your organisation”, an accusation shared by the US administration and frequently raised by US Ambassador to the UN Nicky Hayley who has promised to end it several times.

On Wednesday, two days after his meeting with Netanyahu, Gutteres called for Israel’s blockade against Gaza to end. It seems their meeting may not have gone as well as the Israeli president thought.

Sign of things to come

While it is dangerous to predict the future, I will take this risk today. As Netanyahu and Abbas prepare to address the UN General Assembly in September, we can read the signs from this week to guess what they will say.

Abbas will plead with the UN to bring decades of Palestinian of suffering to an end, halt illegal settlements and help protect the (non-existent) two-state solution. He is likely to be armed with a recent petition signed by thousands of Palestinian pupils calling on Gutteres and all defenders of human rights to intervene to protect them from Israel’s daily violations which Palestinians have endured for 50 years.

Abbas may ask for the UN to recognise the state of Palestine and may also indicate that if the peace process fails, he will be left with no options but to head to the International Criminal Court.

Netanyahu, on the other hand, may focus on the unfair criticism of Israel, on the real issues as he sees them – which amount to Israel’s self-defined and elastic-security needs. He will talk about the threats from Iran in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon, the failure of the UNIFIL to do its job and the need to rearticulate its mandate.

On peace with the Palestinians, he will say that settlements are not an obstacle to peace and argue that neither the unilateral actions by Palestinians, nor the imposition of a solution will bring peace. The real obstacle to peace, he will claim, is the Palestinian refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish state.

He will laud the growing “under the table” relations with key Arab countries which share his concerns about Iran, but he will still portray Israel as the victim, not the Palestinians.

It seems that the ultimate deal President Trump seeks is a long way off and, any peace initiative, when it comes, will be biased in Israel’s favour.

Israel will continue to colonise and the Palestinians will continue to suffer a lack of peace or hope for the current and the next generation, neither of which will bring Israel any security.

– 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: US President Donald Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wave after delivering a speech at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem

Richard Falk: People must shame UN for quashing ‘apartheid Israel’ report

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 20/3/2017

Professor Richard Falk, former UN special rapporteur for Palestine, was hosted in London by the Middle East Monitor yesterday as part of his book launch tour. He introduced his book “Palestine’s Horizon Toward a Just Peace” eloquently to a packed hall. He had earlier been met with a barrage of hate by a Zionist mob at the London School of Economics. Thankfully, this particular session was not interrupted by the yobs.

However, the real interest of the audience seemed to be in a more recent publication which he co-authored with Virginia Tilley for the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA). The report entitled “Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid” was launched on 15 March concluded that

“Israel is guilty of policies and practices that constitute the crime of apartheid as legally defined in instruments of international law.”

Rather than prompting a debate in the UN and the Security Council, its publication and conclusion was met with outrage by Israel and its ally the United States. Pressure was exerted on the recently appointed United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres to quash the report. This he did by directing ESCWA to withdraw the report because it did not have his approval. The demand was rejected. ESCWA’s Executive Secretary, Dr Rima Khalaf, eventually resigned from her role and the report was taken down form ESCWA’s website. A spokesman for the UN Chief confirmed “that Guterres had ordered that the report to be taken down but sought to make clear that the request was ‘not about content’ but about ‘process’.”

Israel’s Foreign Ministry spokesman likened the report to Der Sturmer – a Nazi propaganda publication that was strongly anti-Semitic. Both US and Israel envoys to the UN welcomed the secretary-general’s action with Danny Dannon claiming “anti-Israel activists do not belong in the UN. It is time to put an end to the practice in which UN officials use their position to advance their anti-Israel agenda. Her removal from the UN is long overdue.”

Palestinians who had initially welcomed the report condemned Guterres’ actions. Palestine Liberation Organisation executive committee member Dr Hanan Ashrawi said in a statement:

“Instead of succumbing to political blackmail or allowing itself to be censured or intimidated by external parties, the UN should condemn the acts described in the report and hold Israel responsible.”

She explained, according to WAFA, that the report constitutes

“a step in the right direction and highlights the true reality on the ground, which is one of apartheid, ethnic cleansing and military occupation.”

She called on Guterres to do what is right, reinstate the ESCWA report and “undertake serious and concrete measures to hold Israel accountable for its persistent violations of international law and human rights.”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced he would be bestowing Palestine’s Medal of the Highest Honour in recognition of Khalaf’s “courage and support” for Palestinians.

The rigorous report, authored by two highly respected academic experts said it had established on the “basis of scholarly inquiry and overwhelming evidence, that Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid.” But also stated that “only a ruling by an international tribunal in that sense would make such an assessment truly authoritative.”

Speaking in London, Falk suggested the key addition the report makes to the discussion about the impact of Israeli policies on Palestinians is that it looks at the impact on a people as a whole. The report said the “strategic fragmentation of the Palestinian people” was the main method through which Israel imposes apartheid, with Palestinians divided into four groups oppressed through “distinct laws, policies and practices”. It identified the four sets of Palestinians as: Palestinian citizens of Israel; Palestinians in East Jerusalem; Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; and Palestinians living as refugees or in exile.

This somewhat contradicts Guterres’ claim that due process was not followed. In reality though, the secretary-general must have been expecting the knocks on the door and the endless phone calls from US and Israeli representatives and decided he had ultimate say about what report is produced in the UN’s name regardless of its rigour and scholarly review. It is no secret to say that the new Trump Administration signalled – even before taking office – that what it judged to be unfair treatment of Israel by UN bodies would end, regardless of Israel’s flagrant breaches of countless UN Security Council resolutions and international humanitarian law.

When asked how to make the report more effective within the UN system following its removal, Falk said the best strategy would be “to raise the visibility of this issue at this time and shame the UN into taking seriously its own study”.

“I am confident enough that if the study is examined by intellectual sources around the world, they will, even if they don’t agree with its conclusions they will regard it as a serious objective undertaking.”

Falk went on to reveal that after submitting the report, ESCWA anonymously sent it for evaluation to three of the most distinguished international jurists around the world and that “each of them acting separately submitted very positive reports”. Only one submitted suggested changes which the authors duly made.

Reflecting on the way the UN had dealt with the ESCWA report, Falk likened its treatment to what happened to the Goldstone report on Israel’s 2008/9 war on Gaza which Goldstone later regretted. Falk assured his audience “I am not Goldstone fortunately” referring to the request that he and Tilley repudiate their own report, which he confirmed “was of course a little bit unrealistic”.

When asked what advice he has for the Palestinian Authority and President Abbas, Falk recognised the difficult position the Palestinian leadership is in admitting they are “between a rock and a hard place”. He acknowledged that “it is easy to criticise them but hard to be them”. However, he suggested the Palestinian leadership has an opportunity here “to take this path of emphasising the moral and legal high ground, which they have started to do.” He suggested this would be building on the 2012 upgrade in Palestine’s UN status to a non- member observer state which he described as a “ghost state”, and initiating proceedings in the International Criminal Court (ICC) in relation to the 2014 attack on Gaza and the illegal settlements. He acknowledged that the ICC itself is under tremendous political pressure and it is not clear “whether anything tangible would emerge out of this”.

Falk suggested that “[for the Palestinians] taking this report seriously would be another way of advancing their campaign to say international law is on our side. Israel’s administration of the Palestinian people is an international crime and generates the collective responsibility of international society.”

The challenge for them, he argued, would be “either you refute the finding of apartheid or you act upon it. If you act upon it you have a responsibility to do whatever is possible to end the commission of that crime or be complicit in its effects.”

It is now up to supporters of justice to shame the UN and for the Palestinian leadership to seize the opportunity the report presents to garner further support for their cause but more importantly action against Apartheid Israel.