Six million Palestinians are a fact Trump and Netanyahu can’t ignore forever

First published by the Middle East Eye on 1/6/2018

Abandoned by the world, Palestinians could find strength in demographics

The political climate is ripe for Israel to achieve, in only a matter of months, victories it would once have only dreamed of attaining over a number of decades. The primary reason for this? Donald Trump.

During Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the White House in February 2017, the US president dismissed longstanding policy on the political solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, saying: “So I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one… As far as settlements, I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit.”

With regards to the US embassy moving to Jerusalem, he said at the time: “I’d love to see that happen. We’re looking at it very, very strongly. We’re looking at it with great care – great care, believe me. And we’ll see what happens. Okay?”

Two-state solution

All of the above is contrary to international law and longstanding international consensus. The international community’s long-time position has called for a two-state solution with agreed land swaps, Jerusalem as a shared capital, and a “just settlement” of the Palestinian refugee problem based on UN Resolution 194.

Trump’s key advisers, his son-in-law Jared Kushner and lawyer Jason Greenblatt, have collected thousands of air miles on trips to the region, mostly to Israel and Palestine – but also to key Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Visits to Palestine were a smokescreen.

It appears that instead of working on a just peace deal, Trump’s team was working on ways to implement, one step at a time, Netanyahu’s vision for “peace”. A crucial prerequisite was to convince key Gulf states that to secure US support against the Iranian threat, they had to befriend or deepen their friendship with Netanyahu.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE obliged. While the two Gulf states publicly distanced themselves from any dialogue with Israel, clandestine engagements were taking place – facilitated, it seems, by Kushner. Far from the Palestinian issue remaining front and centre of the Arab world’s agenda, Trump’s team managed to convince them that it was an impediment to their plans.

They began to deliver for Trump and Netanyahu within months of the American president’s visit to Saudi Arabia, which was about telling the Arab and Muslim world that he was boss. The chequebooks were out, with billions promised on the spot. Shortly after Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was summoned to Riyadh, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas went there too, to be told to accept Trump’s deal.

Silence of Arab leaders

The Arab regimes also acceded to Trump’s demand that they contain the anger of the Arab street when he announced his decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the US embassy there. Again, they obliged. Yes, there were demonstrations, but there was no significant individual or collective action either by the Arab or Muslim world. “The sky’s still up there. It hasn’t fallen,” beamed Nikki Haley, US representative to the UN.

Even when the move coincided with Israel’s 70th anniversary of what it calls its independence – which the Palestinians call the Nakba – and when more than 60 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in Gaza, Arab leaders were silent save for cursory condemnations.

Donald and Melania Trump with King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (AFP/Saudi royal palace/Bandar al-Jaloud)

Guatemala and Honduras followed the US lead, as was expected – and again, not a whisper from the Palestinian people’s historical backbone. The UK and most EU states took what appeared to be a principled stand and boycotted – though they would not describe it as that – the opening of the US embassy. But that stance turned out to be only symbolic, as the UK’s Foreign Office confirmed that British officials would meet their US counterparts in the embassy. While the EU has not officially announced its stance on using the embassy, it would be surprising to see it break away and stand up to the US.

Netanyahu can tick off one of the main goals he wanted to achieve, and which Trump has delivered: US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. He can mark as a “work in progress” the elimination of Palestinian refugees’ right of return, which Trump is attacking through the defunding of UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

In US ambassador David Friedman, Israel has an ally on the ground. He is working hard to erase the term “occupation” from the State Department’s vocabulary, claiming that settlements amount to less than two percent of the West Bank. It seems that no one in the administration sees these settlements as illegal; Greenblatt believes they are not an obstacle to peace.

A race against time

In recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Trump gave substantial weight to facts on the ground, and almost no weight to international law. This is music to the ears of Israeli politicians, for whom international law is an inconvenience. With a US president prepared to ignore the law and longstanding agreements, Israeli politicians are pushing ahead with new demands to recognise more facts on the ground.

They appear to be in a race against time to extract as much as they can while Trump and his pro-Israel team are in office. Next on the list of demands is US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the illegally occupied Golan Heights.

Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz claimed that the subject was “topping the agenda” in talks with the Trump administration. He used the Iran card to justify this, saying: “The most painful response you can give the Iranians is to recognise Israel’s Golan sovereignty with an American statement, a presidential proclamation.”

If all that was not enough, perhaps the biggest prize would be recognition of Israeli sovereignty over al-Aqsa Mosque and US support for the building of a Jewish temple on the site. A stake has been placed in the ground, with the image of a beaming Freidman being presented with a poster showing the compound with a Jewish temple in place of the Dome of the Rock. While the US embassy dismissed the significance of the image, Friedman’s record thus far has been staunchly pro-Israel and unconventional to say the least.

Non-violent resistance

Faced with all this and an ailing president devoid of any meaningful strategy, what are Palestinians to do? The Palestinian Authority could take former US Secretary of State John Kerry’s advice to “hold on and be strong”, and not yield to Trump’s demands.

They could finally begin the process of bringing Israeli leaders to account for crimes committed against Palestinians through the International Criminal Court, which would take time, and might well not end in success. They could also escalate their non-violent resistance, taking encouragement from the Great March of Return.

The most troubling facts on the ground for Israel, however, are the Palestinians – every one of the six million who remain in historic Palestine, plus the collective memory and attachment of the other six million in the diaspora. It may feel it is winning with Trump’s support, but it is losing the demography.

Unlike Israeli leaders, I see human beings as individuals, not numbers in a political game. However, in the absence of justice for Palestinians through traditional peaceful means, perhaps their numbers in historic Palestine constitute a winning card.

How about a national Palestinian strategy for strengthening their hand with more babies? More demographic facts on the ground will eventually “trump” Israel and Trump’s recognition of Israeli facts on the ground.

– Kamel Hawwash is a British-Palestinian engineering professor based at the University of Birmingham and a longstanding campaigner for justice, especially for the Palestinian people. He is vice chair of the British Palestinian Policy Council (BPPC) and a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC). He appears regularly in the media as a commentator on Middle East issues. He runs a blog at www.kamelhawwash.com and tweets at @kamelhawwash. He writes here in a personal capacity.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Protesters waving Palestinian flags stamp on burning prints of US flags and President Donald Trump during a demonstration in the southern Gaza Strip on 15 May 2018 (AFP)

The worst ever deal? Trump declaring Jerusalem as Israel’s capital

First published by the Middle East Eye on 4/12/2017

2017 has been a dreadful year for the Palestinians and it could be about to end on an even worse note as Trump may hand Jerusalem to Israel on a plate

 

Palestinians had hoped that 2017, the year that marked the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, 70 years since the Nakba and 50 years since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, would bring them an apology from the UK for Balfour and recognition by the world that the injustice which they have suffered for so long should come to an end soon.

Those hopes were dashed.

Instead of an apology, Britain expressed great pride in the part it had played in the creation of Israel and the silence of the international community was deafening.

Trump declaration

As the Palestinians licked their wounds and once again raised the spectre of taking Israeli officials to the International Criminal Court (ICC), pressure came from the Arab countries to refrain from so doing. The Trump administration threatened to shut down the PLO Washington Office if the Palestinians went ahead with their ICC bid.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was summoned to Riyadh to be told in no uncertain terms that he either accepts the peace deal being formulated by the Trump administration or resigns.

It seems that the annus horribilis 2017 might be ending on a worse note for the Palestinians. Speculation is rife that “another declaration” is in the making.

According to several media reports, the US president is likely to issue what might be called the “Trump Declaration”, that the US recognises Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. There is only one other state that considers it to be that, Israel.

In doing so, Trump will “hand” the city, holy to the three monolithic religions, over to an extremist, settler colonialist state to call it its capital, in defiance of international law and the “international consensus on its status”.

The Palestinians consider East Jerusalem to be their capital, which most states recognise as currently under illegal occupation.

In his speech to the AIPAC conference in 2015, Trump promised: “We will move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.” However, when provided with the opportunity to action the move in June, he decided not to.

He did this by a waiver that delays for six months implementation of the move. Trump followed in the footsteps of Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama that have signed similar waivers (a total of 35 times) since both houses of Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 with overwhelming majorities.

As the next date for signing the waiver or sanctioning the embassy move approached, pressure mounted from Israel and the US pro-Israel lobby for Trump to deliver on his pre-election promise. His ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is itching to be the first US ambassador to Israel to operate out of Jerusalem.

If Trump recognises Jerusalem, holy to the three monolithic religions, as Israel’s capital, he will be handing the city over to an extremist, settler colonialist state (AFP)

East and West Jerusalem

Dore Gold, the former director general of the Israeli foreign ministry, told a congressional hearing on “the benefits and challenges of relocating” Israel’s capital that “President Donald Trump has made a commitment in that regard and I believe he will stand by what he has said,” referring to Trump’s promise to move the embassy.

US Vice President Mike Pence raised hopes of a possible embassy move when he spoke at a gathering to commemorate the 70th anniversary of UN Resolution 181, which called for the partition of British Mandate Palestine into Jewish and Arab states.

He chose that occasion to announce that “President Donald Trump is actively considering when and how to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem”.

If the speculation translates into reality, Trump may choose to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, with some caveats, while once again postponing the actual move.

He may even consider distinguishing between East and West Jerusalem as Russia’s Foreign Ministry did last April in a statement that said: “We reaffirm our commitment to the UN-approved principles for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, which include the status of East Jerusalem as the capital of the future Palestinian state. At the same time, we must state that in this context we view West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”

However, Trump is consistently unpredictable and he may go the whole way and declare in around 30-words perhaps: “As US President, I am proud to announce that I have decided to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people.”

He can argue that this is only one of many commitments made during the 2016 election campaign that he is now fulfilling.

Arab and Muslim reaction

What would be the reaction in Palestine, Israel and the rest of the world? Will it ignite the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim street? Will it bring a confrontation between Iran and Israel any closer?

Will this be the last straw for the Palestinian leadership? Will it trigger a severing of relations between the PLO and the US and even an implementation of the often raised threat of the PA dissolving itself and Mahmoud Abbas handing the keys to his Muqata’a headquarters to Benjamin Netanyahu?

Will the anger be directed at the US and its impulsive president, the occupying power Israel or the Palestinian Authority and its president? We live in such uncertain times that any of the above or a combination of them may be possible, when they would once have been discounted as impossible.

The Arab world, in a state of turmoil and with leadership in some countries moving to the next generation, has relegated the Palestinian issue behind the threat of Iran and the “fight against terror” and the ongoing chaos in a number of “Arab spring” locations.

The Palestinian Authority has already warned about the dire consequences that would result from such a move and President Abbas has been in contact with Arab and other world leaders requesting their support in dissuading Trump from this action.

He may have been reassured by the statement from Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubair, at a recent Mediterranean Dialogue event in Rome, that any change to the status of East Jerusalem would enrage the Arab world.

US President Donald Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after delivering statements in Jerusalem in May (AFP)

However, the reported close relationship between Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner and the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman seems to be focused on heaping pressure on the Palestinians to concede ground rather than on Israel. If the price for US support for Saudi Arabia against Iran is conceding Jerusalem then would the young prince be able to resist?

Abbas has found support from most recipients of his calls but whether this will translate into sufficient pressure is questionable. Those Palestinians expecting a more robust response from Iran are likely to be disappointed.

A liberation strategy

The 193 countries that recognise Palestine are almost certain to reject the move. The EU is likely to dismiss the move and maintain its position with member states keeping their embassies in Tel Aviv and perhaps refusing to conduct business in a US Jerusalem embassy

However, some states which have sided with Israel in the UN General Assembly including Australia and Canada may be tempted to follow suit. In 2014, Australia’s Attorney General told the Senate that his country will no longer recognise East Jerusalem as “occupied”, implying it is Israeli territory.

Early indications are that there will certainly be protests in Gaza and the West Bank but most Palestinians are unable to reach the US Embassy in Tel Aviv as they need permits to enter Israel which will not be forthcoming for this purpose.

Those Palestinian citizens of Israel, who constitute a fifth of Israeli population, and other Israelis who see how problematic this is for long-term peace prospects, may reach the embassy but these protests are unlikely to be sustained.

This would pose a great challenge to Jerusalemite Palestinians who rose against the closure of Al-Aqsa mosque last summer, protesting peacefully until the holy site was reopened and the security measures Israel wanted to implement were removed.

They may protest outside the US Consulate in East Jerusalem but this is not going to be effective unless an organised campaign, that includes them, demands that Trump rescind his declaration gathers momentum and succeeds quickly.

Protests are therefore more likely to be virtual with “Twitter storms” and appropriate hashtags being shared, which would initially be successful in raising the issue but will not, in the end, change the decision.

The Palestinian Authority has based its whole strategy for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on a two-state solution with East Jerusalem as capital of a future Palestinian state effectively making East Jerusalem a redline.

If that is crossed, just what would Trump’s “ultimate deal” actually offer? Leaks have indicated that Jerusalem and the right of return of refugees will be postponed but that Israeli settlements would remain and no settlers would be required to leave.

It seems that the time has come for him to take a leaf out of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s famous Brexit policy that no deal is better than a bad deal and call it a day.

If it is to be “Black Wednesday” and Trump recognises Jerusalem as Israel’s capital then it would surely be time for the PA to dissolve and for the Palestinians to develop their strategy for liberation and the attainment of their rights.

That is of course unless the PA has a “cunning” plan which Abbas is holding so close to his chest that he has not discussed with anyone, otherwise it would have been leaked.