Who sets US policy on Israel and Palestine?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What better offer does Israel have than the Arab Peace Initiative?

First published by the Arab Weekly on 20/8/2017

The last serious, sus­tained effort to bro­ker a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians was made during the Obama administra­tion by then-US Secretary of State John Kerry. He tried over nine months to advance peace talks but his efforts met with failure and the breakout of the 50-day war on Gaza in 2014.

In his final speech before leav­ing office, Kerry laid most of the blame for the talks’ failures on the Israelis. He claimed that while Is­raeli Prime Minister Binyamin Ne­tanyahu publicly supports a two-state solution, his coalition “is the most right-wing in Israeli history, with an agenda driven by its most extreme elements,” which are “more committed to settlements than any in Israel’s history.”

Kerry then presented his princi­ples for a future final status agree­ment: An Israeli and a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines; full rights for all citizens; a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue; Jerusalem as the capital of both countries; an end to the occupa­tion, while satisfying Israel’s se­curity needs, with a demilitarised Palestinian state; and end to all claims by both sides.

Just before the end of the Obama administration’s term, France called a conference of stakehold­ers to discuss a possible way for­ward but that too failed to move matters. Some, including British representatives, thought it odd that the two parties to the conflict were deliberately not invited.

US President Donald Trump’s senior adviser on the Middle East, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, is leading attempts to broker the “ultimate deal.” He has expressed uncertainty about the United States’ ability to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Pales­tinians and told a recent gathering “there may be no solution.”

On August 1, China issued its own four-point plan to move the matter forward: Advancing the two-state solution based on 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital of a new Palestinian state, upholding “the concept of common, comprehensive, coop­erative and sustainable security,” immediately ending Israeli set­tlement building, taking immedi­ate measures to prevent violence against civilians and calling for an early resumption of peace talks, coordinating international efforts to put forward “peace-promoting measures that entail joint par­ticipation at an early date” and promoting peace through devel­opment and cooperation between the Palestinians and Israel. None of the main parties have reacted to the plan.

There is, therefore, no short­age of initiatives from the inter­national community. The most serious one to come out of the Middle East was the Arab Peace Initiative, which was announced by then-Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia during a meeting in Bei­rut in 2002. The initiative calls for normalising relations between the Arab region and Israel, in ex­change for a full withdrawal by Israel from occupied territories (including East Jerusalem) and a “just settlement” of the Palestin­ian refugee problem based on UN General Assembly Resolution 194.

The initiative was met with en­thusiasm by former US President George W. Bush and generally sup­ported by former President Barack Obama. Trump has referred to it as a basis for the “ultimate deal.” He has said he is in favour of what­ever the two parties agree upon, whether one state or two.

Israel’s reaction from the outset was lukewarm. Its position can be summarised as recognising some of the initiative’s positive ele­ments while insisting that there are issues it would not compro­mise on, including the return of Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem and complete with­drawal from occupied Arab land.

Netanyahu rejected the ini­tiative in 2007, when he was the leader of the opposition. He told visiting Arab foreign ministers that “the withdrawal from Gaza two years ago proved that any Is­raeli withdrawal — particularly a unilateral one — does not advance peace but rather establishes a ter­ror base for radical Islam.”

In 2015, he stated “there are pos­itive aspects and negative aspects to it.” While noting that the situ­ation has changed in the 13 years since the deal was proposed, Ne­tanyahu asserted that “the gen­eral idea — to try and reach un­derstandings with leading Arab countries — is a good idea.”

Israel probably believes that some Arab countries see it as a potential ally against Iran and are therefore more likely to offer it more concessions on the final out­come of a deal with the Palestin­ians. The recent tensions in and over Jerusalem showed that was unlikely but Israel still did not feel the need to accept the Arab Peace Initiative.

Language discrimination, another blow at Jewish- Arab equality in Israel

First published by the Arab Weekly on 6/8/2017

Israel has been replacing Arabic road names with the Hebrew names.

 

The Israeli Ministerial Committee on Legislation recently approved a draft bill that would end Arabic’s status as an official language of the country, despite an Arabic-speaking population that includes 20% of the state’s citizens.

This would have significant practical and moral implica­tions for Israel’s Palestinian Arab citizens and Palestinians in Je­rusalem who are not citizens but whom Israel labels “residents.”

It would be a further blow to their fight for equality and to remain in their homeland regard­less of what state exists on it. It will add to their insecurity as citizens who may be transferred to a future Palestinian state either politically or physically or stripped of their citizenship to fulfil extremist Israeli politicians’ desire to make the country a purely Jewish state.

Arabic is used when certain services are provided and when Palestinians are required to com­plete official forms applying for official documents or services.

Israel has been replacing Arabic road names, particularly in East Jerusalem, with the Hebrew names that appear on signs in both Hebrew and Arabic, includ­ing “Al Quds” being listed as “Yerushalayim” in Arabic.

This, Israel hopes, will be im­planted in the minds of Palestin­ians and visitors who will become accustomed to the Hebrew names rendering the Arabic version as part of some distant history.

It is worth remembering that Is­raeli Arabs are a minority only be­cause of the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians from the area when Israel was created in 1948. The discrimination and insecurity felt by Palestinian citizens of Israel is palpable.

The Centre for Arab Minor­ity Rights in Israel (Adalah) said Israel has enacted more than 50 laws that discriminate against Palestinian citizens of the state. They include a “citizenship law” that bars Palestinian citizens from marrying Palestinians from the occupied Palestinian terri­tories and taking them to live in Israel.

Israeli society itself discrimi­nates against them through “admissions committees,” which Jewish communities can use to bar Palestinian citizens from liv­ing among them.

As for Bedouin citizens of Israel, the situation is dire. Israel has not recognised 45 villages they inhabit, depriving the areas of es­sential services. It has embarked on a plan to transfer them to a smaller number of locations and, in some cases, to build settle­ments for Jews only on sites they inhabited.

Even the Muslim call for prayer has been under attack and the government moved to silence its projection outside mosques be­cause it “disturbs” illegal settlers who moved into predominantly Muslim areas.

Contrast this with Canada where French is the mother tongue of 22% of the population but when Canadian Prime Minis­ter Justin Trudeau addresses news conferences abroad, he repeats his remarks in French, recognising the minority speaking part of his fellow Canadians.

Israel, on the other hand, is moving ahead with a “nation-state bill” that gives primacy to Jewish citizens. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu claims that “there is no contradiction at all between this bill and equal rights for all citizens of Israel.”

Any rational and fair-minded observer would reject that as­sertion and see this bill and the stripping of Arabic of its status as an official language as further proof, if any was needed, of Israeli policies that discriminate against a sizeable minority of its citizens and one that erodes visible signs of the historic Palestine’s Arab heritage.

A famous Arab song says: “The land speaks Arabic,” which people in historic Palestine still do but Israel wants them to only speak Hebrew. Rather than enrich Israel, it would be the poorer for the ac­tions of an extremist exclusionary government.

As printed

Jerusalem’s Palestinian youth face bleak future

First published by the Arab Weekly on 30/7/2017

London – The results of the tawjihi — General Secondary Education Certificate Examination — were re­cently announced across the Palestinian territories to great cheers and celebration in some households and deep disappoint­ment in others.


The future isn’t what it used to be. Palestinian children chat outside a school in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Jabel Mukhaber. (Reuters)

Palestinians see education as a vital asset to their development both as individuals and as a society under occupation.

The next step for those who ex­celled in the tawjihi is to find a place at university. Medicine and engineering continue to be the most sought-after studies for those with a score of 90% or higher.

However, hope that a university education will help Palestinians se­cure a job and go on to build a fam­ily is a pipe dream for most. “Hope” is the operative word here, and is a commodity that is in short supply for Palestinians, particularly the young.

The number of unemployed Pal­estinians totalled 361,000 in 2016, the Palestinian Central Bureau for Statistics said, rising from 21.7% in 2007 to 26.9% in 2016.

The International Labour Organi­sation (ILO) said the unemploy­ment rate for Palestinian youth has reached 40%. The unemployment rate in Gaza is more than 40% and youth unemployment is more than 60% and 85% among young wom­en. Gaza, of course, has suffered from a 10-year siege that has exac­erbated the situation. The unem­ployment rate among men in East Jerusalem is reported to be 12.3% and 26.8% among women.

Palestinians recently marked Is­rael’s 50-year occupation of East Jerusalem, which means anyone born after 1967 has grown up un­der Israeli military rule. The occu­pation has not been a static affair. Israel annexed East Jerusalem shortly after its occupation, claim­ing it as its united eternal capital. It has also actively pursued the con­struction of illegal settlements in the Palestinian areas, for Jews only, in a deliberate attempt to change its demographic makeup or, as the Pal­estinians see it, to Judaise it.

Some 300,000 Palestinians live in East Jerusalem. Their official status is “resident.” They are nei­ther Israeli citizens nor holders of a Palestinian Authority passport. In 2014, the Israeli Ministry of Interior revoked the permanent residency status of 107 Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, including 56 women and 12 minors. Since 1967, the resi­dency status of 14,416 Palestinian residents of Jerusalem has been revoked. In practice, this prevents them from returning to live in their place of birth.

In 2012, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) reported that 78% of Palestinians, including 84% of children, in the district of Jeru­salem live below the poverty line. There are no official statistics col­lected by Israel as to the rate of un­employment among Palestinians. However, the Statistical Yearbook of Jerusalem, put out by the Jerusa­lem Institute for Israel Studies, said 40% of males and 85% of females do not participate in the workforce.

Only 41% of Palestinian children are enrolled in municipal schools. There is a shortage of 1,000 class­rooms in the official municipal education system; 194 classrooms were added in these schools from 2009-14 and an additional 211 are planned. More than 40% of class­rooms in the official municipal sys­tem are considered inadequate.

A particularly important statistic is that of school dropout rate. This stands at 26% in 11th grade and 33% in 12th grade; the national average stands at just a few percent. Those who drop out face a bleak future in terms of employment. Opportuni­ties for employment are extremely limited. The jobs that do exist are low-pay and in many cases short-term.

Where youngsters hope to join a family business, particularly in the old city, they see a short, strained attempt by Israel to force them out of business through excessive taxa­tion and other demands.

Many end up working part-time for low wages inside Israel with little hope of saving for a house, rent or to start a family. This forces many to continue living with their parents, resulting in overcrowded conditions.

Even if Palestinian families own land and have the means to ex­tend their homes to accommodate offspring, Israel generally denies building permits. Such permits are not denied for their Jewish neigh­bours. As a result, some Palestin­ians end up working in the West Bank, putting their residency status in Jerusalem at risk.

The occupation also affects their lives by subjecting young Palestin­ians to regular arrests, sometimes for being suspected of throwing stones or being involved in car­rying out what they see as acts of resistance. Cases of young Palestin­ians being mistreated in custody, such as being asked to sign confes­sions in Hebrew, which they do not speak, are well documented.

Young Palestinians have ex­pressed a general sense of humilia­tion and do not see their status quo changing for years to come.

Pro-Israel positions likely to continue with new British landscape

First published by the Arab Weekly on 2/7/2017

British Prime Minister Theresa May

There are ques­tions with regards to what effects the snap elections have on British foreign policy towards Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

The Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister Theresa May, won 318 seats in parliament but that was eight seats short of the major­ity needed to allow her to form a government. She is looking for support from North Ireland Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which secured ten seats.

Although still in opposition with 262 seats, the Labour Party, under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, fared much better than expectations when the elections were announced in April.

An examination of the various parties’ policies on the Palestin­ian territories and Israel reveals that Labour, in its own words, is “committed to a comprehensive peace in the Middle East based on a two-state solution — a secure Israel alongside a secure and viable state of Palestine.”

It advocated “both an end to the (Gaza) blockade, (Israeli) occupation and settlements and an end to (Palestinian) rocket and terror attacks.” Significantly, Labour pledged to “immediately recognise the state of Palestine” if it formed the next government.

The Liberal Democrat’s policy on the issue was similar. How­ever, it supported recognition of the independent state of Pales­tine “as and when it will help the prospect of a two-state solution.”

The 2017 general election saw Britain’s first MP with Palestinian heritage, Layla Moran, secure a seat in parliament for the Liberal Democrats. Before the election, she spoke of how her Palestinian background made her interested in engaging in politics.

She pointed to the influence of her great-grandfather, who told her that Jerusalem was once a place “where you had Jews, Christians and Muslim communi­ties coming together, who were respectful of each other,” as quoted by the New Arab. “That’s the kind of vision I want for the world, where differences are respected and we are open and tolerant of each other’s views,” she said. “I continue to believe that a society like that is possi­ble.”

With only 12 MPs in the House of Commons, the Liberal Demo­crats will have limited influence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Scottish National Party stated that it would “continue to work with international partners to progress a lasting peace settlement in the Middle East, pursuing a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine” but did not commit to recognition.

The Conservative manifesto made no mention of the conflict and neither did that of the DUP.

It will be the Conservative Party, with its longstanding policy of supporting a two-state solution to the conflict and its stance that the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are illegal, that will rule.

However, the Conservatives’ long-standing support for Israel will only be strengthened by the agreement with the DUP. The Northern Irish party is also a supporter of Israel.

On hearing of a possible agreement, President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews Jonathan Arkush said this would be “positive news” both for Britain’s Jewish community and Israel.

The DUP is staunchly pro-Israel. In the vote requesting the British government to recognise a Palestinian state in 2014, the party’s MPs opposed it.

As Britain digests the outcome of a truly extraordinary general election, one thing can be guaranteed. In the year Britain and Israel celebrate the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, despite repeated requests by the Palestinians that it should be apologising for its effects on them, Britain will continue to take pro-Israel positions.

That is, of course, unless another general election is called on account of government dysfunction and Labour wins a majority in parliament.