The UK is quietly changing its policy on Israel and Palestine

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 5/4/2017


Palestinians were delighted to see 2016 end with the UN Security Council passing resolution 2334 which reaffirmed the illegality of Israel’s settlement enterprise. The passing of the resolution was facilitated by the US abstention in the dying days of Obama’s administration. The UK played a key role in the drafting of the resolution and then voted in favour.

While not formally denying its involvement in drafting the resolution, the Foreign Office stressed “the resolution was proposed and drafted by the Egyptian delegation”, adding that the UK, as one of the five permanent members of the security council, “engaged with” the text “as we do with all security council texts”. At the time, this put the UK on a collision course with Israel and raised the spectre of a disagreement on Israel and Palestine with the incoming Trump administration.

Whatever pressure was applied on the UK worked rather quickly as Prime Minister Theresa May heavily criticised outgoing US Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech on the Palestinian-Israeli issue delivered as he was about to leave office. He concluded that the two-state solution was “in jeopardy” and laid much of the blame at Israel’s expansionist settlement policy, driven by “the most right-wing government in history” and arguing that “the settler agenda is defining the future in Israel. And their stated purpose is clear: They believe in one state: Greater Israel,” Kerry said. He added that, “If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic, it cannot be both, and it won’t ever really be at peace.”

In a statement on Kerry’s speech, Number 10 made clear a more broad-ranging approach was needed to encourage peace and that “…the settlements are far from the only problem in this conflict. In particular, the people of Israel deserve to live free from the threat of terrorism, with which they have had to cope for too long”. In what was seen as a rebuke to Kerry, the prime minister’s spokesman said that Britain did not believe “that it is appropriate to attack the composition of the democratically-elected government of an ally. The Government believes that negotiations will only succeed when they are conducted between the two parties, supported by the international community.”

An explanation of May’s position was provided by Conservative MP and member of the Conservative Friends of Israel, Mike Freer. He argued that the prime minister had been “blindsided” by the Foreign Office which he described as having “a patchy record at the UN regarding Israel. This too I suspect may now change.”

In what seems to be a re-orientation of its policy on Palestine and Israel, the UK then refused to send a high-level delegation to the Middle East peace conference organised by France just five days before Trump took over as US president. The UK was the only major stakeholder in the conflict to send a low-level delegation while 36 foreign ministers as well as the US Secretary of State were in attendance. The attendees saw the conference as an opportunity to restate the international community’s commitment to a two-state solution and to express opposition to a move of embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

A Foreign Office statement said: “We have particular reservations about an international conference intended to advance peace between the parties that does not involve them – indeed which is taking place against the wishes of the Israelis – and which is taking place just days before the transition to a new American President when the US will be the ultimate guarantor of any agreement.” The statement further argued that, “There are risks therefore that this conference hardens positions at a time when we need to be encouraging the conditions for peace.”

The UK’s position on the Paris conference was a sign of departure from longstanding positions allied to those of the EU to ones that seemed to be looking across the Atlantic to the future Trump administration.

If further confirmation of the shift of UK policy was needed, then this came at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) 34th session. The UK’s stance surprised most commentators as it changed its voting policy under item seven on the agenda which requires that Israel’s human rights record be discussed and scrutinised three times each year.

On this occasion, the UK representative to the UNHRC made a scathing attack against the Council, accusing it of “bias against Israel”. He further argued that, “The persistence of bias, 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.”

Placing the UNHRC “on notice” the representative concluded that if things did not change soon, “in the future we will adopt a policy of voting against all resolutions concerning Israel’s conduct in the Occupied Syrian and Palestinian Territories.”

More recently, reports emerged of reluctance by the UK to issue a diplomatic visa to the PLO’s new representative in London, Ma’en Erekat. In an interview with the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper, PLO Chairman and PA President Mahmoud Abbas implied that the UK was trying to “scale back” the status of the mission and that it was trying to “put restrictions and obstacles. But we told them that we want to be treated like before, to deal with the new ambassador just like the former ambassador.”

The UK would claim that its position has not changed. That it is still for a negotiated settlement based on the two-state solution, which was reiterated by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on his most recent trip to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian territories.

“Israel has first and foremost an absolute right to live in security, and the people of Israel deserve to be safe from terrorism,” Johnson said, stressing Britain’s “rock-like” support of the country. But he later added: “Of course we must also try to remove obstacles to peace and progress such as the settlements”. However, Britain’s most recent positions outlined earlier indicate a change of policy which seems to be moving away from the EU’s position to one more closely aligned with the Trump administration.

That should be very worrying to Palestinians as the US government is taking an unashamedly pro-Israel line, arguing Israel has been “treated unfairly”, that the settlements are merely “unhelpful” rather than illegal and that it should be left to the two sides to come up with a solution, ignoring the asymmetry of the situation. There is no acknowledgement of the history of the conflict and the injustice that befell the Palestinians through the creation of Israel or its continued serial violations of international law, international humanitarian law or even its immediate refusal to adhere to UNSC Resolution 2334 amongst tens of resolutions it has defied. There is no room for any criticism of Israel in Trump’s world.

As the UK seeks trade deals following Brexit, it is looking at the US and Israel as two close allies who might deliver deals quickly after exiting the EU. The powerful pro-Israel lobbies in the US and the UK will bring pressure to bear on the UK to side with Israel rather than with the weak Palestinians. It will celebrate Balfour’s centenary, or “mark it with pride” as the prime minister characterised it, with complete insensitivity to the Palestinians and their plight. In light of this, it is clear that the UK’s policy is moving towards greater protection of Israel while it abandons the Palestinians, just as it did in 1948.

The Palestinian leadership must embrace the Conference for Palestinians Abroad

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 6/3/2017

In my last article for MEMO, I wondered whether the Conference for Palestinians Abroad (CPA) could lead to Palestinian unity of vision. It was a privilege to be with an estimated 6,000 Palestinians from 50 countries in Istanbul for the conference, which took place on 25 and 26 February, both as a founding member and to test that question.

The dates are important because I believe that the launch of this conference will mark a milestone in the Palestinian struggle for justice, freedom, equality and the restoration of our rights. The 26 February will forever by the day when Palestinians who live outside Palestine and who are refused the right to return to their homeland said loud and clear that enough is enough. We will no longer be sidelined or ignored, either by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO, our non-representative representative); Israel (the cause of our catastrophe); or those in the “international community” who had a hand in our dispossession and expulsion from our homeland by Zionist terrorists in 1948 and who continue to deny us our rights to this day.

The unequivocal message from Istanbul was that the Palestinians will not give up their right to return to the places from which we were ethnically cleansed. This was exemplified by Palestinian poet Mohammed Abu Daya who brought his original title deeds to the conference and after a moving speech handed them to one of his many grandchildren, imploring him to commit to returning, and receiving a promise from him that he will struggle to return to that very plot of land one day. Some may see this as unrealistic and theatrical. However, that would be to misunderstand the core Palestinian issue. The struggle has always been about Palestinian refugees returning to their homes instead of languishing in the diaspora, whatever political structure exists in historic Palestine.

Reaffirming the right of return was at the heart of the conference but the final statement also reaffirmed the commitment by Palestinians in involuntary exile to liberate Palestine from the “river to the sea”. Such language is usually mistranslated by Zionists to mean the destruction of Israel and “throwing the Jews into the sea”. That is pure propaganda from Zionists who, by the way, happen to believe that the Palestinians must be thrown out of their own land for there to be a truly Jewish state west of the River Jordan.

They are forever looking for means to achieve this, claiming that “Jordan is the Palestinian state” or that a state can be created in the Sinai to which the Palestinians in “Judea and Samaria” (the occupied West Bank) can be sent, by force if necessary. Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely has no qualms about claiming the whole of historic Palestine for Israel. “We need to return to the basic truth of our rights to this country,” she believes. “This land is ours. All of it is ours. We did not come here to apologise for that.”

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, buoyed by Donald Trump being in the White House, claims that there will not be a Palestinian state. Indeed, the far-right Bennett has called for the annexation of most of the illegally-occupied West Bank, starting with the illegal colony-settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, and bringing it under Israeli “sovereignty”.

Standing next to Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu placed two conditions that must be met before “peace”: The Palestinians must recognise Israel as a Jewish state and, “Israel must retain the overriding security control over the entire area west of the Jordan River.” The latter is de facto Israeli sovereignty over historic Palestine from the river to the sea. While he has not explicitly called for the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, Israel would continue to rule over an occupied people for ever, making their lives so miserable under the pretext of security that they would leave of their own accord. In Zionist terminology, this is known as “silent transfer” and it is very much part of Israel’s strategy for a Palestinian-free land.

None of the above inflammatory statements by the most senior Israeli ministers has been condemned by any member of the so called international community. It seems that Western governments are happy for Zionist Israelis to claim the whole of historic Palestine as theirs, but not for the Palestinians whose land it is to do so. If modern day Zionists with no real connection to historic Palestine can lay claim to the whole land on the basis of what they claim to be a Biblical legacy, then surely Palestinians have every right to lay claim to their homeland, which they inhabited prior to Israel’s creation was forced upon them and from which they were expelled over the past 70 years.

I must stress that I did not get any impression from the CPA that liberating Palestine would necessitate or result in the mass expulsion of Jews, unlike the mass expulsion of Palestinians which took place in 1948. The conference focused on the emergence of a just political solution with the right for Palestinian refugees to return at its heart. Had I detected any sense of the former at the conference, I would certainly have withdrawn.

The failure of the two-state solution demonstrates the need for creative thinking to meet the needs of those who truly wish to coexist in historic Palestine. A solution is needed which would end separation. There should be no racist settlements built only for Jews or a new town built only for non-Jews. The solution must allow all who inhabit historic Palestine to live in peace wherever they desire. It should allow those refugees in Gaza, Jenin, Syria, Brazil, Europe and elsewhere to return to their land and homes. A reconciliation commission would need to be set up to deal with the details where the reclamation of exact sites is not physically possible.

Following the Trump-Netanyahu press conference in Washington, the Palestinian leadership’s 24-year long negotiations strategy — the charade of the peace process since signing the catastrophic Oslo accords — has collapsed. The PLO has been almost silent since that 15 February media circus, apart from calling for the international community not to abandon the two-state solution, bringing new meaning to the term “flogging a dead horse”.

It is time for fresh thinking that can strengthen the hand of a future, democratically-elected Palestinian leadership. The 6.3 million Palestinians abroad can play a vital role in shaping this. However, in the absence of a clear plan by the PLO to revitalise diaspora input, the CPA is the only game in town. The outcome of the conference was a commitment to continue to build both the new institution and Palestinian community, as well as lobby organisations abroad.

What is needed for this to materialise is for every Palestinian outside the borders of their homeland to make a commitment for contributions to the struggle in his or her adopted country. They should be knocking on the doors of their local decision-makers, lobbying for a just solution. They should take a more active part in the political system through joining political parties and standing for both local and national elections. They should be supporting and joining local solidarity groups, both as activists and donors. They should be forming alliances with other human rights groups and Jewish groups committed to justice for Palestinians. They should raise their voices in the media, locally and nationally, using articulate and convincing speakers and writers. They should also be knocking on the door of the PLO leadership in support of the CPA to ensure that the message is received and it is understood that they will no longer accept being ignored.

The CPA needs to find a sustainable way to continue to function long into the future. For that, it will need to widen its membership base in order to put to bed accusations that it is led by one group. The more community organisations which join, bringing together the widest possible spectrum of Palestinian views, the more representative the CPA will be. In turn, the more effective that the CPA is, the louder will be the call to the PLO to wake up and respond to that half of the constituency that it is meant to serve but which it has ignored since 1993. It can take strength from blessing the CPA, working to encourage Palestinians abroad to join it and developing appropriate links to it, leading to elections for the Palestine National Council, the people’s parliament.

Can the PLO rise to this challenge, as it must? Can its necessary reform include true representation for Palestinians abroad? Not only do they hope that it can, but all Palestinians would also want this. Fulfilling its responsibility would strengthen its hand in uniting and representing the Palestinian people and seeking a just solution for them. Ignoring or smearing the CPA will only add to the PLO’s own weakness, bringing it to the point of irrelevance. No Palestinian would want that to happen or for it to be interpreted as a desired outcome of the gathering of 6,000 Palestinians in Istanbul last month.

Can the Istanbul conference for diaspora Palestinians lead to unity of vision?

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 16/2/2017

The situation continues to get worse for Palestinians as they remain under occupation in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, and the latter has also been under siege for a decade. Those who make-up one-fifth of the Israeli population continue to suffer from official racism, with over 80 laws that discriminate between them and their fellow citizens who happen to be Jews. Palestinians driven from their homeland in 1948 and 1967 continue to eke out an existence, mostly in refugee camps under desperate conditions, with the added strain of more recent displacement from Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein and Syria since the start of the Arab Spring. Those not in such camps are in a growing diaspora all over the world.

Their aspirations for freedom from Israeli occupation, for equal rights in Israel and for the right to return to their homeland from their decades’ old enforced exile are both legal and moral. However, Israel continues to deny them these rights and garners support for its position from the so called international community, which places Israel’s existence and security significantly above the rights for Palestinians that they all demand and provide for their own citizens.

The Palestinian leadership is split broadly between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank. An honest assessment of their performance shows that both have failed to deliver either a daily dignified existence for the Palestinians they rule under occupation or an improvement in the prospects for delivering their national rights.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting with Donald Trump this week showed that their vision of the future is all about Israel, with little mention of the 12 million Palestinians who exist both in historic Palestine, refugee camps and the diaspora. As far as Netanyahu is concerned, the Palestinians must recognise Israel as a Jewish state and accept that it must control all security “West of the river Jordan”. This effectively ends any pretence that he and his fellow extremists in the Israeli government may have emitted indicating their support for a Palestinian state. Netanyahu’s new language for peace is about “substance, not ‘labels’”. He said this in response to a question about the two-state solution which the “international community” has championed as the only game in town. Well, Netanyahu just blew the whistle in Washington for the end of the two-state game.

President Trump did not discount the two-state solution or even a one-state solution. At his joint press conference with Netanyahu he said: “So I’m looking at two states and one state and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like.”

The 15 February 2017 — When Bibi Met Donald — is thus a deep line that has been drawn in the sand of this conflict. It should be a wake-up call not only for the Palestinian leadership, but also for all other Palestinians everywhere. Their situation is set to worsen and prospects for freedom and independence appear bleak.

One of the by-products of the Oslo Accords and the formation of the Palestinian Authority, was a radical change in the role of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s role and that of the Palestine National Council. This also led to a disconnect between the Palestinian institutions and Palestinians in the diaspora, who care deeply about their identity and homeland and who have much to offer to the struggle.

While the PLO does still exist, it now appears as a line in the PA’s budget; to observers it appears to be wheeled out (at least its Executive Committee is) as required by PA President Mahmoud Abbas — who also happens to be the PLO Chairman — to rubber stamp decisions already made in Ramallah. The PNC has been largely comatose since it met in Gaza to approve a change to the PLO charter back in 1996. In fact, both the PLO and PNC are in need of reform to include factions that are currently unrepresented. Furthermore, the ailing PNC needs fresh elections.

I wrote about the need for Palestinian unity to counter both the Paris Conference and a Trump presidency at the beginning of the year. Sadly, while there has been another attempt to bring Fatah and Hamas together, this time in Moscow, there is still no tangible evidence that this is going to happen soon.

If the leaderships of the two parties cannot overcome their differences then perhaps Palestinians in the diaspora can show them the way and send a clear message that the status quo is unacceptable. Unity and an agreed strategy for taking back control of the Palestinian people’s future cannot wait any longer.

There is a ray of hope that Palestinians from the diaspora could provide the impetus to move matters on. This comes in the shape of a Conference to be held in Istanbul on 25 and 26 February, billed as “The People’s Conference for Diaspora Palestinians”.

The conference objectives are:

  • Affirming the right of the Palestinians to liberation, self-determination and the role of the diaspora Palestinians in this.
  • Affirming the right of the Palestinians to return and working towards achieving this.
  • Undertaking political work to achieve the civil and human rights of the Palestinian people.
  • Political participation for the diaspora in the Palestinian national decision-making.
  • Build and strengthen the unity of the political situation of Palestinians in the diaspora.

The organisers, who have past experience of organising conferences for Palestinians in Europe that attract thousands, have on this occasion focussed on bringing together in Istanbul leading Palestinian figures and activists from around the world with the aim of taking stock, and identifying ways of connecting with existing Palestinian institutions, such as the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the Palestinian National Council (PNC). They have reached out to participants from across the political spectrum and seem to have had some success in attracting a number who would perhaps not normally attend the annual conferences for Palestinians from Europe.

However, as with many Palestinian initiatives, the conference has not been without its critics. The PLO’s Expatriate Affairs Department emailed its contacts in the diaspora warning against the “factional use of the national constants and tampering with representational role of the PLO.” The statement articulates the department’s concerns at the lack of engagement by the conference organisers with itself and the Refugees’ Department. It argues that the short lead up time may result in there being inadequate preparation for a substantive discussion of the issues to be tackled by the delegates. It also expresses concern about possible interference by non-Palestinian actors in the conference which may influence its direction.

It is important to note that the PLO’s Expatriate Affairs Department does not offer an alternative to this gathering that would meet the conference objectives, nor can it point to a record of seriously attempting to reconnect the PLO with the Palestinian diaspora. However, it raises legitimate concerns about the conference which the organisers need to alleviate for it to be the ray of hope it could be for reconnecting the 12 million Palestinians around the world.

The organisers carry a heavy responsibility to ensure that what happens in Istanbul is what it says on the label: enough is enough as far as division and factionalism are concerned; saving Palestine requires Palestinian unity.

Can the Istanbul conference be a turning point in the struggle that leads to an agreed vision for the future? There are 12 million reasons why it must be given every opportunity to try.

Debate: Why the status of Jerusalem is not the crux of the matter

First published by the Arab Weekly on 5/2/2017

Since his inauguration, Trump seems to have rolled back on his embassy com­mitment, much to the surprise of many.


Road signs are seen in front of the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim in the occupied West Bank, on January 17th. (Reuters)

The question of whether the Trump administra­tion would quickly honour the pledge to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has exercised the minds of Palestinians, Israelis and the wider world.

In 1995, the US Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which recognised Jerusalem as the capi­tal of Israel and required a change in the embassy’s location by May 1999.

However, this was effectively re­sisted by every US president since then despite occasionally promises to carry it out as the United States continued to seek a peace deal between Israel and Palestinians.

During his election campaign, Donald Trump was explicit in his promise to move the embassy when he addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in March 2016 and said: “We will move the US embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.”

Trump’s choice for US ambas­sador to Israel, David Friedman, seemed to be a means of facilitat­ing this move. Friedman vowed to “strengthen the bond between our two countries and advance the cause of peace within the region and look forward to doing this from the US embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem”.

Friedman also let it be known that he would live in a private apartment in Jerusalem and would work out of Jerusalem rather than Tel Aviv.

Since his inauguration, however, Trump seems to have rolled back on his embassy com­mitment, much to the surprise of many. His spokesman, Sean Spicer, said recently: “We are at the very beginning stages of even discussing this subject.”

Spicer dodged a question from a Sky News corre­spondent who asked: “What is the strategic interest for the US in the embassy move?”

The reality is that there is no strategic benefit for the United States in moving its embassy. The mere speculation that the move could happen raised alarms across the world.

The Palestinians warned of dire consequences with Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) officials threatening to revoke rec­ognition of Israel. The Palestinian president and the king of Jordan met in Amman in late January and agreed to “take steps” if the move happened.

Undoubtedly Trump knows that the United States’ strategic interest would be in securing a peace deal between Israel and Palestinians rather than unleash a backlash that he cannot predict or control by moving the US embassy.

The status of Jerusalem would be part of what would be a historic peace deal that he said he wanted to negotiate. Trump’s own experi­ence of negotiating should tell him to avoid measures that antagonise either party to a negotiation.

Some have argued that the em­bassy move would be so damag­ing to US strategic interests that a peace deal would be pushed well beyond Trump’s term in office.

In moving its embassy to West Jerusalem, the United States would be recognising Israel’s sovereignty over West and East Jerusalem, which no other country does. It would further be violat­ing international law. UN Security Council Resolution 478 rejected Israel’s declaration that Jerusalem (East and West) “complete and united” is its capital.

An embassy move could com­plicate matters if other countries followed suit. British support for a move of the US embassy came from former secretary of State for Justice Michael Gove. He wrote in the Times of London that “Israel is the only state where we don’t locate our embassy in the nation’s capital and the only ally the For­eign Office has refused to let the queen visit”.

He added: “So let’s celebrate the centenary of the Balfour declara­tion by moving our embassy to Jerusalem next year and inviting [Queen Elizabeth II] to open it. What are we afraid of?”

A Foreign Office spokesman quickly dismissed the idea, stat­ing: “The UK has an embassy in Tel Aviv and a consulate-general in Jerusalem. We have no plans to change the location of our diplo­matic presence in either Israel or the occupied Palestinian territo­ries.”

Observers note, however, that although a possible embassy move seems to have stirred the Pales­tinian leadership into action, the continuation of the status quo is more damaging to the prospects of signing a peace agreement. Palestinians point to the contin­ued judaisation of Jerusalem, the expansion of illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land, which may be annexed by Israel at a later stage.

Critics argue that unless a major effort is put into combating the settlement project, there will be no Jerusalem left for the Palestin­ians to claim as their capital or a contiguous plot of land in the West Bank to claim as their free inde­pendent state.

They say that the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem is highly sensitive but is not the crux of the matter: The end of the occupation without annexing Palestinian ter­ritories and the right of return are.

To see article on the Arab Weekly website click here

Only through unity can the Palestinians counter Paris and Trump

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 17/1/2016

Image of the Middle East peace talk about Israel-Palestinian territories’ in Paris, France on January 15, 2017 [Cem Özdel/ Anadolu Agency]

Image of the Middle East peace talk about Israel-Palestinian territories’ in Paris, France on January 15, 2017 [Cem Özdel/ Anadolu Agency]

Many more air miles have been collected and many more fine dinners have been consumed in five-star Parisian restaurants off the backs of the Palestinian people, to bring together representatives of 70 countries at a conference to regurgitate the “only way forward” — the two-state solution — to solve the Palestine-Israel conflict. It is, of course, obvious to any objective observer that this “solution” is dead in the water. The final communique could have been written by any one of the participants on their home computer.

Unusually, I find myself in agreement with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that the Paris conference was “useless”, albeit for different reasons, which I will come to. However, he went too far when rejecting it before it was even convened, claiming that the conference was “Palestinian deceitfulness under French auspices, aimed at adopting further anti-Israeli positions.” Describing it as “among the last twitches of yesterday’s world,” Netanyahu added that, “Tomorrow’s world will be different, and it is very near.”

Full article here