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

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.