If there’s no occupation, then where are equal rights?

First published by the New Arab on 26/11/2018

Israel has had a ‘normalisation‘ bonanza with a number of Arab Gulf countries in recent weeks without having to give anything in return.
What had previously been relations under the table are now out in the open. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu breached the decades-long taboo of an Israeli prime minister making an official visit to an Arab state with whom Israel does not hold a peace treaty. The surprise visit was to Oman, for a meeting with Sultan Qaboos. 

Observers were further shocked by visits from Israeli sport and culture minister, Regev, to the United Arab Emirates and transport minister Yisrael Katz, to Oman.

The 2002 Arab League’s Arab Peace Initiative, which offered Israel full normalisation with the Arab and Muslim world in return for peace with its neighbours – and which it rejected – has effectively been surpassed with normalisation at no cost.

The normalising Arab countries appear to have succumbed to Trump’s pressure to normalise first, and hope that peace follows. Trump’s advisers Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt have collected many air miles doing work for Netanyahu, shuttling between Tel Aviv and Arab capitals, convincing Arab leaders that Iran is the threat, not Israel, and that Israel could be their ally in combating the threat from Tehran.

The Trump administration appears to have succeeded in shifting their focus away from the Palestinian issue which has until recently been the central obstacle to normalisation. I talk here of course about Arab leaders, not people, for whom the Palestinian issue is still a central issue.

The question though, is how can normalisation first, bring peace? Cynics and optimists alike are of the view that it will not bring peace. For Israel’s supporters and lobbyists, what is important is quiet, not peace.

This was illustrated by their failure to call on Netanyahu to return to meaningful negotiations, and to show ‘good faith’, while supporting Israel’s recent attack on Gaza following its botched operation to abduct or assassinate a Hamas commander in Khan Younis. 

After his visit to Oman, Netanyahu cut short his visit to France, where he was scheduled to attend the commemoration of 100 years since the World War I Armistice truce. 

He swapped a seat on the front row there for security meetings in Tel Aviv, following renewed violence in the Gaza Strip. 

Israel’s supporters, including Trump’s team, blamed the Palestinian resistance for responding to Israeli aggression. Netanyahu was faced with a choice of either a full-scale war on Gaza, or reinstating a ceasefire.

Both would be politically costly, though only one would also result in more deaths and injuries. Thankfully, Netanyahu chose the former. The political price he paid was the resignation of his Defence Minister and rival, Avigdor Lieberman together with pro-war demonstrations by Israeli settlers.

In between his normalisation PR trip and the botched operation in Gaza, Netanyahu provided yet more evidence that normalisation with Arab states would not bring peace. 

He stated at a Likud factional meeting that claims that Israel occupies the Palestinians are absurd, and that “Occupation is nonsense. Empires have conquered and replaced entire populations and no one is talking about it”.   

What truly matters is strong diplomacy, Netanyahu added. “Power changes everything in our policy with Arab countries.”

According to The Jerusalem Post, Netanyahu told his party colleagues that concessions are regarded as a weakness in the Middle East, which don’t bring about lasting change. Instead, “aligning [Arab] interests with Israel, based on Israel being a technological superpower, must lead the way.”

If Jerusalem is recognised by the US as Israel’s capital, with small countries planning to join the US in moving their embassies from Tel Aviv and with plans afoot to void the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, added to Netanyahu’s declaration that there is no occupation, what exactly are Arab countries expecting in return for normalisation?

Netanyahu has declared that Israel must maintain security over the whole of historic Palestine in any future deal, but that is not all.

According to the controversial Nation State Law which was passed into basic law in July, only Jews have a right to self-determination in Israel, whose borders remain unknown and settlements are not illegal. If this is to be the case, there are no items remaining on an agenda for any future talks. 

Israel will therefore continue to rule over all those who inhabit the land between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea, but without affording the equal rights that democratic states would offer. 

This qualifies it as the 21st century’s only Apartheid state.

When millions of people around the world call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Apartheid Israel, the Arab states choose this very moment to normalise. This is not a politically wise decision. 

The Palestinians yearn to return to the very homes they and their parents were expelled from in 1948, which international law supports as a basic human right. 

The Palestinian National Council recently decided to mandate the PLO’s Executive Committee to withdraw recognition of Israel, as it continues to deny recognition of Palestine and the rights of Palestinians. 

Now is the time for Palestinians to call for equal rights for all who live in historic Palestine, and for the Palestinian refugees to return. A truly democratic state for all would end the dispute about what is or is not occupied now. It would also surely bring peace to the Holy Land, and only then, deserved normalisation with the Arab and Muslim world.