Israel knows that it only has to bide its time to get everything it wants

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 22/5/2017


US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House on 3 May, 2017 in Washington, DC. [Thaer Ganaim/Apaimages]

Recent commemorations of the 69th anniversary of the Nakba followed the long-awaited meeting at the White House between US President Donald Trump and his Palestinian Authority counterpart Mahmoud Abbas. While Israeli and Palestinian leaders, as well as political commentators and analysts, were busy digesting the public messages emanating from Washington in order to make sense of the future direction of the peace process, the Gulf States dropped a historic bombshell.

As the US president was preparing for his trip to the region to visit Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, the Wall Street Journal reported that some Arab states led by the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates were proposing unprecedented steps towards normalisation in return for some Israeli “concessions”. Full details of the alleged offer have not been made public, but – as is often the case in such situations – there is probably no smoke without fire.

According to the WSJ, and as also reported by Haaretz, steps being considered include establishing direct telecommunication links between Israel and some of the Arab countries; permitting Israeli airlines to use Gulf airspace; and abolishing limitations on business with Israel. Additional normalisation steps being weighed up include the granting of visas to Israeli athletes and business people interested in visiting Gulf states.

Read: No, it is not unfair to criticise Israel

In return, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu would need to take significant steps to “advance the peace process with the Palestinians”, in particular the “freezing of construction outside settlement blocs” and “easing trade restrictions in the Gaza Strip.”

One suspects that on hearing this, the Israeli prime minister must have sat back in his chair and broke into politically-induced laughter. We can almost hear him chuckle to his aides, “You see, if you wait long enough, the Palestinians and the Arabs will make more concessions, so why hurry?”

Netanyahu has been trying to “direct” the new US Trump administration to view a solution to the Israel/Palestine issue through a regional rather than bilateral lens. Such a process would certainly not be one grounded in international law but rather “whatever the two sides want,” as Trump remarked famously during a White House press conference during Netanyahu’s visit back in February.

There was no talk of implementing the 2002 “Arab peace initiative”, which the recent Arab summit in Amman reaffirmed as the way forward for Israel to secure peace with the Palestinians in exchange for normalisation with all Arab and Islamic states. A prize well worth winning, one would have thought, for a country which craves recognition and acceptance, 69 years after its establishment on Palestinian territory. However, successive Israeli prime ministers have not responded formally beyond acknowledging that they are aware of it.

The Palestinian Authority has been conspicuous by its silence on the leaked discussion paper. Perhaps it is seeking clarification in private. Publically, the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s representative in Washington, Husam Zomlot, said, “We don’t mind a good relationship between Israel and the Arab world, [but] is this the entry to peace? Or is it the blocker?”

However, the cat is out of the bag. Netanyahu’s claims about relations with Arab states being at their best these days seem to be supported by this apparent shift in position which will not please the Palestinians, who expect Abbas’s tireless wish to resume negotiations. A senior Arab official was recently quoted as saying, “We no longer see Israel as an enemy, but a potential opportunity.” For his part, Israel’s Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz confirmed that “Much more is going on now than any time in the past. It’s almost a revolution in the Middle East.”

The Gulf states are far more worried about the perceived Iranian threat and are willing to see Israel join them in a counter plan to deal with Tehran. The danger is that if the Arab world makes such a generous offer to the Israelis seemingly without the consent of the Palestinians themselves, and Israel accepts it, then the people of Palestine have even fewer cards to play than they did before this paper was leaked.

By accepting as a “goodwill gesture” the freezing of illegal settlement construction outside (but not inside) the existing settlement blocs, the offer is a de facto acceptance that the settlements are there to stay. That gives Israel licence to define and redefine a settlement bloc as its expansionist policies determine, leaving less and less land for a Palestinian state or statelet in the West Bank. The offer does not even make reference to illegal colonies in occupied East Jerusalem, which are changing it rapidly from an Arab and Palestinian city to a Jewish one.

While Israel refuses to make public concessions to the Palestinians, the Arab world lowers the ceiling for what it will accept and by implication would pressure the Palestinians to accept. However, there is no evidence that Israel responds by lowering its own ceiling to anything near what the Palestinians would accept. It is likely that, as it has done in the past, it will take what it likes from an offer, and then produce all sorts of reasons as to why it can’t meet whatever obligations this offer would in turn place on it, citing its elastic “security” demands as evidence. It will take the offer to allow its aircraft to fly over Saudi Arabia with glee but then argue what is within or outside a settlement bloc. If there is disagreement on what illegal settlement building is permissible, will Gulf States then stop Israeli planes from using its airspace? Will they withdraw visas to Israeli athletes if the siege on Gaza is not eased?

Donald Trump’s approach to the Arab and Israeli conflict may well throw all cards up in the air but when they fall back to earth, will they favour the Israelis or the Palestinians? History shows that the current Palestinian leadership will take whatever crumbs are offered while Israel evaluates, hesitates and then prevaricates, realising fully that it is only a matter of time before a better offer will come along. In the absence of any significant pressure from the international community, it is more than happy to bide its time in order to get everything that it wants, on its own terms.

وراء الحدث: تقييم أول مائة يوم من عهد الرئيس الأمريكي دونالد ترامب

أذيع على قناة الغد العربي يوم ٣٠/٤/٢٠١٧

Interview for Muslim Press

First published by Muslim Press on 7/3/2017

‘Moving US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would be explosive’

In an interview with Muslim Press, British Palestinian academic and writer on Middle East Affairs Kamel Hawwash said, “Moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would be explosive as assessed by the Muslim world, the Palestinians and Jordan.”

Below, the full transcript of the interview has been presented.

Muslim Press: Recently, the White House said that further expansion of Israeli settlements “may not be helpful” to ending the conflict. How do you analyze such statement?

Kamel Hawwash: The Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem are illegal. The USA considers them to be ‘illegitimate’. They have been seen by the international community as an obstacle to peace. To simply refer to them as only unhelpful to ending the conflict, encourages Israel to continue to build hammering the final nail into the 2-state solution coffin. In his joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu last month, President Trump asked Nentanyahu to hold back on settlement building when a clear statement that Israel must halt all settlement building would have had a far more helpful impact on the prospects for peace.

MP: Israel’s High Court has ordered the removal of parts of a Jewish settlement outpost that were built on private Palestinian land, hours after parliament passed a law legalizing similar cases. How do you assess the court’s order?

Kamel Hawwash: The pretence that some settlements are legal and others illegal is a false description of reality as they are all illegal. The distinction between ones built on private Palestinian land and Israeli land wrongly claims to be ‘state land’ is the distinction used. This is rejected by everyone, except Israel whatever its own courts rule.

MP: What’s your take on Donald Trump’s “two-state” switch? How would this affect Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Kamel Hawwash: In declaring that he will live either with one state or two states as a solution to the Palestine/Israel conflict has effectively put to bed long standing US policy which was for a 2-state solution. This has raised confusion everywhere as it is not clear what he means by a one-state solution, except he says he is for whatever the two parties agree to as if there was some symmetry and equality of power between them. The impact of this shift is still being assessed by both parties to the conflict and other stakeholders and it is not as yet clear how they will interpret this.

MP: Trump has also said that Washington was working to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. What would be the consequences of this action?

Kamel Hawwash: Moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would be explosive as assessed by the Muslim world, the Palestinians and Jordan. It is against longstanding policy of the International Community and recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is against international Law. It is therefore not even in America’s strategic interest for the move to go ahead when its stated strategic interest is in resolving the conflict as a whole.

MP: Is the recent UNSC resolution an effective move to restore the rights of Palestinian people?

Kamel Hawwash: UNSC 2334 restated the position of the international community on Israeli settlements calling them illegal restating the existence of an illegal occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. However, it was passed without a mechanism for enforcing it. This has allowed Israel to flout it with impunity, announcing thousands of new settlement units since its passage and more specifically since Trump’s election. The International Community must apply sanctions on Israel for it to end this illegal enterprise.

MP: Iran has held a conference supporting the Palestinian intifada. What could you say about this?

Kamel Hawwash: The Palestinian people have a right under International Law to resist the illegal occupation of their homeland. Rising against this violent occupation is a means of achieving this. Lessons to be learnt from past uprisings should be considered and the most effective means of ending the occupation should be shared. The Palestinian people are committed to peaceful means of achieving this.

Interview: ‘Netanyahu wanted to send a message to Iran to end its hostility towards Israel’

Interview published by Muslim Press on 18/12/2016

In an interview with Muslim Press, British Palestinian academic and writer on Middle East Affairs Kamel Hawwash said, “Netanyahu wanted to send a message to Iran to end its hostility to Israel hinting that any attack would be costly and that Israel is a ‘tiger not a rabbit’.”

Read the full text of the interview:

Muslim Press: Benjamin Netanyahu became the first incumbent Israeli prime minister to visit Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. What’s the significance of these visits for Israel?

Kamel Hawwash: Israel has been concerned about its increasing isolation around the world as activists develop the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign to pressure it to end its criminal and illegal practices. Although its relations with most Western governments remain strong, ordinary people are lobbying their governments to in turn pressure it to operate in accordance with International Law rather than above it. The BDS movement is strong in Europe and worried about losing trade with the EU, Israel has decided to develop new markets both in Africa and Central Asia in particular, hence Netanyahu’s visit to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. However, it is also a move by Netanyahu to send a message to Arab and Muslim countries that it is possible to be supportive of the Palestinians but to normalize ties with it. This is something all but Jordan and Egypt have resisted and have instated joined efforts to bring the Arab peace plan into effect, something Israel rejects. More specifically, Netanyahu wanted to send a message to Iran to end its hostility to Israel hinting that any attack would be costly and that Israel is a ‘tiger not a rabbit’.

MP: Do you think he is trying to forge closer ties to the region?

Kamel Hawwash: Yes, this is a deliberate policy to expand Israel’s trade links in case the BDS movement succeeds in further isolating Israel particularly targeting goods form its illegal settlements.

MP: Could his efforts end the regime’s isolation?

Kamel Hawwash: Israel feels emboldened by President-elect Trump’s win and believes that he will support its policies including illegal settlement building and will in turn pressure other countries to change their relationships with Israel thus reducing its isolation. However, its continued colonization and oppression of the Palestinians will ensure its existing isolation will continue until it comes to its senses.

MP: With a few exceptions – Egypt, Jordan and central Asia republics – Muslim nations neither have diplomatic relations nor any other official encounters with Israel. Do you think those countries that develop ties with Israel are betraying the Palestinian cause.

Kamel Hawwash: Israel claims that it has good ‘developing relations’ with some countries in the Arab world, particularly as it plays on their fears from what some see as Iran’s interface in the Arab countries, particularly Syria, Iraq and Yemen. These developing relations do not seem to be flourishing particularly since the nuclear agreement was signed with Iran, reducing the fears of many of these countries. There is no doubt that the current turmoil in the Arab world has placed issues like Syria in the spotlight, relegating the Palestinian cause somewhat to a lower prominence. Palestinians though continue to rely on political and financial support from the Arab world and therefore have to act carefully taking the region’s status into account. It is probably in Gaza where the Palestinians would go furthest in expressing their frustration with the Arab world but that is due to the siege they have been under for almost 10 years which the Arabs have failed to end.

Iran deal shows sanctions on Israel necessary for peace

The Middle East Eye has published this, my first column, for them

Iran deal shows sanctions on Israel necessary for peace

22/7/2015

The deal signed recently to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions to a peaceful, non-military programme followed years of difficult negotiations that were underpinned by stringent sanctions. 
In its report “Impact of Sanctions on Iran,” the United States Institute for Peace claimed “Sanctions have constricted Iran’s economy and played a role in bringing Iran to the negotiating table over its nuclear programme…”  
However, writing in 2014, the Brookings Institute’s Suzanne Maloney questioned whether Iranian-style sanctions could succeed with Moscow following its intervention in the Ukraine. She concluded: “Even though sanctions have helped generate a more constructive environment for negotiations between the two old adversaries, it is far too soon to declare victory, and the collateral impact of sanctions on Iranian politics and society remains too little known to tout the measures as an unqualified success.”

It has to be acknowledged that another important factor was the change of leadership in Iran when President Hassan Rouhani was elected on a platform of “reconciliation and peace”. After succeeding Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, Mr Rouhani declared that he wanted a substantive deal on Iran’s nuclear programme within “three to six months”.

Well, it took a little longer than that, but a deal was recently reached. Could it have been reached without sanctions? My view is a clear no.

Simply appealing to Iran to only pursue a peaceful nuclear programme would have had almost no chance of succeeding in dissuading it from pursuing the bomb, even though it has repeatedly claimed it was not interested in developing nuclear weapons.

While cause and effect will take perhaps years to analyse, there is no doubt that sanctions played an important role in securing the deal.

In the light of this, the question of whether sanctions could help bring about a peace agreement between Palestine and Israel is worth considering. Western powers have repeatedly argued that sanctions, or indeed other forms of peaceful pressure, would not persuade Israel to end its nearly 50-year-old occupation of Palestinian territories, but that they would be “counterproductive”.

While the “international community” has repeatedly condemned Israel’s illegal settlement building in the West Bank and Jerusalem, it has not imposed sanctions to back its condemnation with diplomatic pressure. In fact, it has even opposed the grassroots movement of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) which was launched by Palestinian civil society in 2005 to help end the occupation, to ensure equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel and to respecting, protect and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.

The BDS movement is enjoying increasing success, with Israel suffering heavy economic losses as a result running to some 40 billion per year. This has not as yet resulted in a change of policy by Israel when it comes to the Palestinian question. But ‘friends’ of Israel have been repeatedly warning that it risks an escalating BDS campaign if it did not move towards a deal with the Palestinians. US Secretary of State John Kerry was more explicit warning of “a delegitimisation campaign on steroids” if the peace talks he launched in July 2013 failed. This was a clear reference to BDS.

As the US takes a back seat and the EU moves to revive talks between Israel and the Palestinians, it appears that no pressure is being applied on Israel to negotiate seriously. Netanyahu’s only ‘concession’ seems to be to negotiate on drawing the borders around the ‘settlement blocks’ as he indicated to EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. This is a non-starter for Palestinians but without pressure, yet again, Israel will feel it can choose how and on what to negotiate. 

Israeli leaders themselves supported sanctions to secure a change of policy by Iran. Netanyahu argued that “Biting sanctions” halted Iran’s nuclear weapons programme “for decades”. Naftali Bennett, then economy minster for Israel, said “I am convinced that if we ratchet up the pressure we can get the right deal, while” Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon argued “Any easing of sanctions would cause a collapse” in the efforts to stop Iran. Former Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman argued “Only ‘crippling sanctions’ will stop Iran.”

Sanctions when they suit 

But closer to home, Israel has also applied sanctions against the Palestinians either as punishment or to exact change. The most recent case was that of withholding tax revenues from the Palestinians earlier this year for their accession to the Rome Statutes and pursuance of war crime charges against Israel in the International Criminal Court. It eventually released the funds, claiming “The decision was made, among other things, for humanitarian reasons and out of an overall assessment of Israel’s interests at this time.”

Since senior Israeli politicians support sanctions to help deliver political change when it concerns other disputes, they should understand that others believe sanctions could help deliver peace to the Holy Land, a case of “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander”.

In order to avoid another round of failed talks, the international community needs to impose a sound framework and timeline for concluding an agreement and underpin this with sanctions on Israel until a deal is concluded between them and the Palestinians, in accordance with international law. The clearest target is the illegal settlements. Not only should their products be “labelled,” they should be banned from importing into any country that wants to see peace. 

The combination of a clear framework, a timeline, sanctions and war crimes cases in the ICC will send the clearest signal to Israel as a state and Israelis as a people that the game is up and it is time this decades-old conflict was settled on the basis of justice.

If Israelis do not want to see their country sanctioned and isolated then they should ensure it stops breaking the law. The morning that follows the end of impunity will be so much better for everyone.