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.

Mahmoud Abbas has led the Palestinians to a dead end. He must go 

First published by the Middle East Eye on 29/6/2017

The president has hit a new low, cutting the salaries and electricity of Palestinians in Gaza. The next intifada will be against the Palestinian National Authority and this should worry Israel and Abbas


Photo: A photo of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas from 2016 (AFP)

The embattled 81-year-old Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has been in power since 2005. His reign has not brought the Palestinian people any closer to freedom and independence, but where is he leading them to now?

Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in January 2005 following Yasser Arafat’s death under suspicious circumstances in November 2004. He is president of the state of Palestine, leader of Fatah and chairman of the PLO. He is committed to negotiations with Israel based on a two-state solution, and has been since he signed the 1993 Oslo Accords on the White House Lawn to great cheers. 

In short, he has played a hugely significant role in leading the Palestinians as a negotiator, a prime minster and a president and, while the blame for his administration’s failure can be shared among a number of key personnel, he set the overall direction of travel and must therefore carry the can for its disastrous consequences.

Under his watch, the Palestinians scored a small number of successes, including an upgrade of Palestine’s membership of the United Nations to a non-member observer state in 2012 allowing it to join several international organisations including UNESCO and the International Criminal Court. This was part of a strategy to internationalise the conflict.

Abbas may well argue that another of his successes has been the security coordination with Israel instigated under Oslo. It is one of the strongest cards Palestinians have to threaten Israel. Abbas has, however, called it “sacred”, arguing, “If we give up security coordination, there will be chaos here. There will be rifles and explosions and armed militants everywhere,”

Beyond this list, it is difficult to point to any other significant successes. On the contrary, Abbas’ setbacks and failures have put the Palestinian cause in the worst position it has been since Israel’s creation in 1948.

Peace process 

The Oslo Accords were meant to deliver a Palestinian state within five years. Twenty-four years and countless negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian side, mostly led for the Palestinians by Saeb Erekat, later, and there is no Palestinian state

And while 136 member states of the UN recognise Palestine, of the so-called international community, only Sweden has afforded this recognition to the Palestinians. Significantly, neither Israel, nor the US recognise Palestine as a state, arguing recognition should only come at the negotiation table.

The last significant attempt at peace talks, led by US secretary of state John Kerry, ended in complete failure in 2014 and was followed by Israel’s third war on Gaza in which more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed. As he was leaving office, Kerry laid much of the blame for failure of the talks at Israel’s door, singling out its settlement policy led by the “most right-wing” government in its history.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised the Israeli electorate that there would be no Palestinian state under his watch in 2015. A significant number of his cabinet colleagues are against a state ever materialising and believe in the annexation of significant chunks of the West Bank to Israel.

Abbas remains committed to restarting negotiations with Israel and is now banking on the Trump administration to launch another initiative.

Settlements

In 1993, the number of settlers in the West Bank including East Jerusalem stood at 148,000. By the time Abbas had taken over as president, they had reached 440,000. Under his presidency, the number has risen to almost 600,000.

They live in 127 illegal settlements “recognised” by the interior ministry as “communities” and about 100 illegal “outposts”. In 2005, Israel vacated 16 settlements in Gaza under Ariel Sharon’s unilateral “disengagement” plan.

The ever rising number of settlers and settlements has for many analysts already ended the prospect of a viable Palestinian state emerging.

Relationship between PNA and Hamas

Ever since its creation in 1987 shortly after the start of the first intifada, Hamas has pursued a significantly different approach to the conflict than Abbas’s Fatah party based on the liberation of historic Palestine and the establishment of an Islamic state in the area.

Left with no hope of a just solution that brings them freedom, the Palestinian people will rise again

In 2006, it decided to combine its military strategy with participation in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections which it won handsomely. Abbas accepted the results and asked Ismael Haniyeh to form a government, which was then boycotted by the international community.

Following a bloody confrontation between Fatah and Hamas in Gaza in 2006, Israel imposed a siege on Gaza which continues to this day. The Egyptian border crossing at Rafah has effectively been closed since January 2015.

Despite many attempts at reconciliation between the two factions, the division between Hamas and Fatah remains deep. Hamas rules Gaza and Fatah rules the West Bank. The two million Palestinians of the Gaza Strip have paid a heavy price for this division.

Price paid by Palestinians in Gaza increases – again

Frustrated by a lack of progress in ending the division, but perhaps playing to the Israeli and American gallery under US President Trump, Abbas has recently undertaken several steps to pressure Hamas which may result in the formal separation of Gaza from the West Bank.

In recent weeks, he slashed the salaries paid to 60,000 civil servants in Gaza and informed Israel that the PNA would no longer pay for the electricity it supplies to Gaza which has reduced the supply to the strip to a couple of hours a day.

This hits not only ordinary Palestinians hard, it also hurts vital services such as hospitals and sewage treatment works. The PNA has also reportedly cut its funding to the medical sector depriving it of badly needed equipment and medicines.


Young Palestinians in Rafah burn Abbas’ portrait during a protest against the Israeli blockade of of Gaza in April 2017 (AFP)

However, reports that the PNA has been blocking the treatment of Palestinians in Gaza outside the strip have truly angered Palestinians everywhere.

Many that I have spoken to both inside Palestine and in the diaspora described this as “shameful”. “How can Abbas impose collective punishment on his own people while maintaining security cooperation with Israel?” one asked.

If Mahmoud Abbas thought his actions would hurt Hamas and bring it to heal, then he has once again miscalculated badly. Reports have emerged of talks between Hamas and Abbas’s arch-rival Mohammed Dahlan which could see the latter return as leader in Gaza.

And if Abbas thought his hard-line approach against Hamas would endear him to Trump and his senior advisers then his recent, frosty meeting with Jared Kushner surely confirms the opposite. The more he gives, the more Israel and its American backers led by a fanatically pro-Israel team will want.

This time his actions against Hamas may give the Americans something Israeli leaders crave: a final separation between Gaza and the West Bank. This would certainly fulfil Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennet’s vision of a Palestinian state “only in Gaza” and the annexation of the West Bank, giving the Palestinians limited autonomy there.

Whatever strategy Abbas has followed is unravelling. He is leading the Palestinians to further fragmentation and separation.

It is time he admitted this and stood down. If not, then his own miscalculations could hasten the end of his rule. Even those around him that have benefited handsomely from his rule must now realise the game is up.

Left with no hope of a just solution that brings them freedom, the Palestinian people will rise again. This time it will be against their own expired leadership which has now denied babies and cancer sufferers in Gaza medical treatment for political purposes. The next intifada will be against the Muqata’a. This should worry Israel as much as Abbas.

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

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


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

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

He promised Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas: “We want to create peace between Israel and the Palestinians. We will get it done. We will be working so hard to get it done.”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Congress celebrates the illegal occupation of Jerusalem, it defiles and redefines US values

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 13/6/2017

US Congress in session [File photo]

The American people missed a major incident in the US Congress last week which should have worried them immensely. Their elected representatives celebrated an illegal act on their behalf. Yes, the US Congress celebrated the 50th anniversary of the illegal occupation of East Jerusalem by Israel, and its illegal annexation in 1968. On 7 June, the speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, joined Yuli-Yoel Edelstein, the Speaker of Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a simultaneous celebration of the “unification” of the city that is holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Addressing the participants on Capitol Hill and the Knesset, Netanyahu declared that, “Jerusalem will never be divided again.” He contrasted the city before 1967 – when his mother told him “You can’t go right, you can only go left,” due to Jordanian snipers – and visiting the Western Wall immediately after the Six-Day War.

Formally, the international community does not recognise Israel’s sovereignty over East Jerusalem, which Israel took by armed force from Jordan in 1967. It further considers Israel’s building of settlements for Jews in the occupied Palestinian areas as illegal. Even the United States itself considers the settlements to be illegitimate. The ICJ advisory opinion on Israel’s separation wall reaffirmed the “applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention as well as Additional Protocol 1 to the Geneva Conventions to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem.”

In a recent resolution, UNESCO confirmed that East Jerusalem is “occupied” and that “all legislative and administrative measures and actions taken by Israel, the occupying Power, which have altered or purport to alter the character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem, and in particular the ‘basic law’ on Jerusalem, are null and void and must be rescinded forthwith.” Only ten countries, including Israel and the US, voted against this resolution.

An international consensus exists which does not recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. On the ground, this is enacted through the location of all embassies in Tel Aviv, some 70 kilometres away on the coast. This includes the US Embassy. However, in 1995 the US Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act which recognises the city as Israel’s “capital”; the Act further called for the embassy to be relocated to Jerusalem by May 1999, at the latest.

The fact that the US Embassy has not moved to Jerusalem is down to successive US presidents who realised the ramifications of this move and chose to sign twice yearly waivers keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv, even though Clinton, George W Bush and Trump made unambiguous promises to move it during their election campaigns. In Trump’s case, the promises were so recent that there was an expectation around the world, and hope in Israel, that he would do it early in his term. However, he too baulked at the move once in office and, having just returned from the Middle East, decided to sign a waiver on 1 June to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv, much to the disappointment not only of Israel but also his own newly installed pro-Israel Ambassador, David Friedman. However, Trump and future presidents will continue to come under pressure from the pro-Israel Lobby through its stooges in Congress to push for the implementation of the Embassy Act.

#USEmbassy

It can therefore be argued that for Congress to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the “reunification” of Jerusalem is in keeping with a long tradition of supporting Israel, right or wrong. However, illegal acts are surely not something that Americans should sanction or celebrate.

Consider this, for example: if Saddam Hussain’s 1990 occupation of Kuwait — like the occupation of Jerusalem, it was also deemed illegal at the time — was still in place, would Congress this year be celebrating the 27th anniversary of its “reunification” with Iraq? I understand the difference between Israel, a US ally, and Iraq. However, from the perspective of international law, the occupations of Iraq and Jerusalem (and the other areas captured by Israel in 1967) are illegal and therefore celebrating either is to celebrate illegal acts. In fact, while the US assembled a coalition of states to eject Iraq from Kuwait by force, it has acquiesced to Israel’s illegal occupation of Arab lands by not even placing any pressure on successive Israeli governments to end it. The US has further provided Israel with half of its international aid budget for the foreseeable future to ensure its “security”, and continues to protect it politically and diplomatically through the wielding of its veto in the UN Security Council.

In an astonishing move to shield Israel from criticism, all 100 US Senators signed a letter to the UN Secretary General in April demanding that it is “treated neither better nor worse than any other UN member in good standing.” The implication is that Israel’s defiance of dozens of UN Security Council resolutions, its 50-year occupation and repeated military offensives — and alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity — against Gaza puts it in “good standing”.

America’s continued and unconditional military aid to Israel was heavily criticised by religious leaders in 2012. The signatories urged “an immediate investigation” into possible violations by Israel of the US Foreign Assistance Act and the US Arms Export Control Act, which respectively prohibit assistance to any country which engages in a consistent pattern of human rights violations and limit the use of US weapons to “internal security” or “legitimate self-defence”. However, Congress has never investigated whether Israel violates US law or not.

America’s much-vaunted democratic values include liberty, justice and equality. When it comes to Palestinians, though, the US — through its elected representatives — acts regularly to deny them these same values. America does not seek equality for all Israeli citizens, 20 per cent of whom are Palestinians against whom state-sanctioned discrimination is rife. Nor has the US acted to deliver liberty for Palestinians in the same way that it did for the Kuwaitis; instead, America denies the illegal occupation and colonisation of Palestinian land. Moreover, when it comes to the Jerusalem Act and the celebration of its illegal occupation, the US Congress certainly does not deliver justice to the Palestinians. In all of this, Congress defiles and redefines the values it claims to uphold for its own citizens. This is total hypocrisy.

Trump should appoint pro-Palestinian advisers

First published by the Arab Weekly on 1/6/2017

Trump’s senior advisers and ambassadors hold pro-Israel views with no counter view seemingly present.


Phot: Diversity needed. Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (R) and US President Donald Trump (L) chat as White House senior adviser Jared Kushner is seen in between them, during their meeting at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, on May 22. (Reuters)

During his recent trip to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, US President Donald Trump expressed his desire to bring peace to the region, achieving what he has repeatedly named the “ultimate deal.”

At a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Trump said: “We want to create peace between Israel and the Palestinians,” promising: “We will get it done. We will be working so hard to get it done.”

While there were calls from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for Trump to demand that the Palestinian Authority stop payments to families of prisoners and those whom Palestinians consider martyrs, Trump did not do this publicly.

Trump spent a day in Israel meeting with its leaders and minutes in Bethlehem meeting with Abbas. Initial reports indicated positive meetings in both areas but recent revelations about Trump’s meeting with Abbas suggested that he yelled at the Palestinian leader, accusing Abbas of “deceiving” him about the Palestinian Authority’s role in inciting violence against Israel.

Public statements did not indicate such a rift. Speaking at the Israel Museum, Trump said: “I had a meeting this morning with President Abbas and can tell you that the Palestinians are ready to reach for peace.” He then said: “In my meeting with my very good friend Binyamin, I can tell you also that he is reaching for peace. He wants peace.”

However, for that to happen, Trump needs to be provided with advice that represents the conflict in a balanced manner. His Middle East adviser during his campaign was Walid Phares who is of Christian Maronite Lebanese heritage and well-known for his pro-Israel stance. Trump had no adviser on his team who could provide a pro-Palestinian view.

Since his election, Trump has surrounded himself with advisers on the Middle East who were likely to hold views closer to the Israeli position. His senior adviser on the Middle East is his Jewish Orthodox son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The son of holocaust survivors, the real estate mogul’s family has donated tens of thousands of dollars to the illegal West Bank settlement of Bet El.

Trump’s special representative for international negotiations is Jason Greenblatt, his company lawyer from New York who is an orthodox Jew. He does not see Israeli settlements as an obstacle to peace and does not think the United States or any other party should try and impose an agree­ment on Israel.

Trump’s pick as ambassador to Israel is David Friedman, an orthodox Jew and bankruptcy lawyer, who is committed to the settlement enterprise and advocates moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem. He, too, does not believe the settlements are an impediment to peace or that annexing the West Bank would compromise Israel’s Jewish or democratic character.

When it came to the United Nations, Trump picked Nikki Haley, a staunch supporter of Israel who has criticised the international body for overly criti­cising Israel. She recently prom­ised the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — a key lobby group for Israel — that “the days of Israel bashing are over.”

She recently threatened that the United States may pull out of the UN Human Rights Council over its “chronic anti-Israel bias.”

An assessment of Trump’s team reveals that his senior advisers and ambassadors hold pro-Israel views with no counter view seemingly present.

It can be argued that the lack of one or more pro-Palestinian advisers or even ones with no record of supporting Israel is a handicap to the US president and goes against the principles of serious deal making.

If Trump is serious about finding “the ultimate deal,” he should insert an alternative view into his senior team or he likely faces failure.

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.

No, it is not unfair to criticise Israel 

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 13/5/2017

Israeli security forces break up Palestinian protests organised to show solidarity with Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike, in Ramallah, West Bank on April 23, 2017 [Issam Rimawi / Anadolu Agency]

As Palestinians mark a number of key, painful anniversaries in 2017, Israel is busy with not ending the occupation, but entrenching it and crying wolf claiming to be the victim in the decades-old conflict.

The Palestinians recently marked the 69th anniversary of the massacre of Deir Yassin in which tens of Palestinians were slaughtered by Zionist terror groups. They will shortly mark the Nakba and the creation of Israel on their homeland and against their will in 1948. June marks the 50th anniversary of the occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. June also marks the tenth anniversary of the siege on Gaza and, in November, the Balfour declaration will be 100 years old.

On the ground, prospects for a just peace are almost non-existent. Israel continues to occupy the West Bank and East Jerusalem and to move more of its citizens into these illegally occupied areas. Plans for more settlement units continue to surface and even the idea of settlers leaving their illegal housing units have brought accusations of “ethnic cleansing” by the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Jerusalem continues to be Judaised, and the lives of Palestinians in the holy city continue to be made miserable through restrictions on building, extortionate taxes, heavy handed security, house demolitions, evictions and the planting and expansion of Jewish only settlements in East Jerusalem. Extremist settlers continue to break into the Al-Aqsa Mosque, protected by Israeli security forces without coordination with the Jordanian endowment which administers the holy sanctuary. Even the sound of the Muslim call to prayer which has been heard in the city and the whole of Palestine for centuries is being suppressed.

Israel continues to impose an immoral blockade on Gaza and has the temerity to warn of a catastrophe in the enclave with Major General Yoav Mordechai warning that the Strip’s aquifer has been destroyed by years of excessive pumping and an estimated 96 per cent of water in the enclave is now unfit to drink. This is compounded by recent action by the Palestinian Authority to cut salaries of workers and to refuse to support the supply of electricity to the troubled strip.

The feeling of helplessness by Palestinians, particularly the youth, continues to rise and the regular extrajudicial killing of Palestinians at check points shows no sign of abating. On 7 May, Israeli security forces killed 16-year-old Fatima Afeef Abdulrahman Hajeiji, spraying her body with 20 bullets at Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate, alleging she was about to attack them with a knife, which eye-witnesses strongly dispute.

In March, Israeli forces killed Basel Al-Araj, a Palestinian intellectual and opponent of the Israeli occupation in an area which the Oslo Accords designated as coming under PA security control, clearly confirming Israel has no respect for any accords or agreements it signs. The killing of the popular activist enraged Palestinians who directed their anger at both Israel and the PA whose security coordination was recently lauded by US President Donald Trump during his meeting with Abbas in Washington saying “they get along unbelievably well. I had meetings, and at these meetings I was actually very impressed and somewhat surprised at how well they get along. They work together beautifully.”

The impact of the wall on the daily life of Palestinians is immeasurable, drawing concern and condemnation from many quarters including from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who has spoken of his “profound grief and sorrow” after hearing the testimonies of Palestinians whose land has been put beyond their reach by the vast concrete wall Israel has built near Bethlehem and Beit Jala.

Rising Jewish settler violence goes unchecked by Israel which continues to practice double standards when dealing with this when compared with Palestinian acts. Palestinian prisoners continue to be mistreated and have their legitimate rights denied by Israel, driving them to a mass hunger strike by 1,500 of the estimated 7,000 prisoners which recently entered its third week.

As for Palestinian citizens of Israel, they continue to be treated like second class citizens and to endure the effect of over 50 discriminatory laws. The Bedouin population in the Negev has been targeted for eviction and transfer, while Jewish settlements are built in their place.

In addition, the status of Arabic as an official language of the state is under threat as proposals have been approved by the Cabinet to downgrade it to having “a special status in the state” while the national language is “Hebrew”. This is part of the so called “Nation State Bill” which would also explicitly reserve “the right to realise self-determination in the State of Israel uniquely to the Jewish people.” In any other context, this would be seen as a racist move when at least 20 per cent of the population are not Jewish.

With such a litany of abuses, an objective assessment would conclude that not only is it legitimate to continue to criticise Israel for its policies, but also those western democracies which support it in order for them to rethink their support.

However, 2017 is proving to be the year of the absurd in the international community’s relationship with Israel. It is the year when Israel is pushing hard to change the discourse on the situation despite an escalation in its crimes. A year in which German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel was snubbed by Netanyahu for choosing to meet NGOs Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem.

While 2016 ended with UN Security Council resolution 2334 which criticised the continuing illegal settlement enterprise, criticising Israel in 2017 for the same indiscretions as it committed in 2016 is now suddenly “unfair”.

Recently all 100 US senators signed a letter asking UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to address what the lawmakers call entrenched bias against Israel at the world body. “Through words and actions, we urge you to ensure that Israel is treated neither better nor worse than any other UN member in good standing,” the letter said.

Amazingly it was lost on the senators, or more probably they chose to ignore, Israel’s refusal to adhere to the body’s multiple Security Council resolutions on the matter, including resolution 2334 which Israel said it would not respect and proceeded to announce further settlement building. This coincided with Washington’s UN envoy Nikki Haley choosing to turn the spotlight from Israel to Iran in her first session holding the rotating presidency of the United Nations Security Council. “If we are speaking honestly about conflict in the Middle East, we need to start with the chief culprit, Iran, and its partner militia, Hezbollah,” Haley told the Security Council Thursday. “For decades they have conducted terrorist acts across the region.”

The UK for its part put the UN Human Rights Council “on notice” at its last session accusing it of “bias against Israel”. “The persistence of bias,” the UK representative argued in his statement, “particularly the disproportionate volume of resolutions against Israel undermines the council’s credibility as the globally focussed and objective international human rights body we all want and need.”

It is incumbent on all who have fallen for Israel’s hasbara propaganda about it being treated unfairly to point to any change in Israeli policy that their collective cowardice in dealing with it has brought. In fact, they cannot. On the contrary, their strategy for dealing with the issue, if they are serious, has failed. There is also no evidence that if Israel is not criticised, it will do the honourable thing and meet the legitimate demands of the Palestinians.

If there is unfairness, it is Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians which has gone on since its creation, not our criticism of it. In fact criticism is not enough, but action is needed to find a just solution.