UN General Assembly brings no respite for Palestinians

First published by TRT World on 28/9/2018

Between Donald Trump touting a two-state solution and Benjamin Netanyahu preoccupied with Israel – the plight of the Palestinians was once again largely ignored at the UN.

All eyes were on US President Trump during the UN General Assembly this year as he made his second address to the world body.

His speech will be remembered for the outburst of laughter when he tried to laud his administration’s achievements which he claimed “accomplished more than almost any…in the history of our country”.

Trump went on to claim that world leaders were laughing with him and not at him,” which simply is not supported by images from the whole, the whole world saw.

In a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump was again on-form recounting his achievements in relation to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

He affirmed his belief that he “had taken Jerusalem off the table,” defunded the Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA, closed the PLO Mission in Washington DC and ceased all funding to the Palestinian Authority because the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had broken off all contact with the US Administration following its recognition of Jerusalem as the capital and the US Embassy move.

Sitting next to Trump, Netanyahu seemed pleased.

But he certainly wasn’t expecting what came next and perhaps even Trump’s advisors didn’t either, judging by some of the images of his son-in-law and Special Advisor, Jared Kushner.

Trump suddenly announced “I like the two-state solution”, a position he had not taken when the two leaders first met in 2017 and indeed one that Netanyahu has major problems with as he does not believe in a two-state solution.

“That’s what I think works best. I don’t even have to speak to anybody, that’s my feeling,” he continued.

Looking at the Israeli PM, Trump acknowledged Netanyahu’s rejection saying “You may have a different feeling. I don’t think so, but that’s mine.”

Netanyahu did not respond.

While reporters were picking their jaws off the floor at the remarks, Trump then qualified his remarks saying “I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like,” he concluded, “I can live with either one.”

The Trump Administration had given Netanyahu so much that he must have felt that the issue of a Palestinian state was also off the table as far as Trump was concerned.

However, the US president continues to remind the world that he is a property tycoon who sees everything as a business deal wher historic Palestine is a piece of real estate to be negotiated, detached from history and rights.

Both Palestinians and Israelis sit atop sixty years of conflict which amply shows that this is much more than just a piece of real estate – and Trump has so far failed to convince either side to see it his way: if you don’t get the contract, you simply move onto the next potential deal.

For both sides, history shows that it is a matter of survival, of life and death.

Netanyahu, props, and little substance

With both Netanyahu and Abbas yet to speak to the UN General Assembly, analysts and commentators were wondering how the respective speeches would be rewritten following Trump’s comments.

Netanyahu did not wait and told reporters that “everyone defines the term ‘state’ differently.”

He had in the past questioned what sovereignty means and talked of a Palestinian state ‘minus’. He defined this by saying “I am willing for the Palestinians to have the authority to rule themselves without the authority to harm us”.

Netanyahu expects Trump to accept the Israeli approach where any possible peace scenario would leave security control of territories west of Jordan, in Israel’s hands. He also added that he assumed any American plan would reflect this principle.

When it came, Netanyahu’s speech made little reference to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He restricted his comments to the demonisation of the Palestinians and accused the Palestinian Authority of paying families of Palestinian prisoners and ‘terrorists’ as he called them.

Netanyahu hoped “the day will soon arrive when Israel will be able to expand peace, a formal peace, beyond Egypt and Jordan to other Arab neighbours, including the Palestinians.”

Netanyahu defended the Israeli Knesset’s passing of the Nation State Bill—which many commentators claim cements Israel’s status as an Apartheid state—that gives only Jewish people in Israel the right to self-determination.

He claimed that condemnation of Israel for racism is “the same old antisemitism with a brand new face.”

The main focus of Netanyahu’s speech, as it frequently is, was Iran. He had his usual prop, maps and images of what he claimed was the location and entrance to an Iranian nuclear site.

A weak representative

Abbas spoke before Netanyahu, and it was billed to be historic, but it failed to live up to its billing and it was noticeable that the hall was not as full as it normally is.

Certainly not as full as when Abbas applied, and was granted, an upgrade to Palestine’s status to a non-member state in 2012.

Abbas told the GA that there would be no peace without “an independent Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital” and stressed the capital would be East Jerusalem, not in East Jerusalem, countering leaks from the ‘deal of the century’ suggesting Abu Dis as the future capital. He opened his speech with “Jerusalem is not for sale, and the Palestinian people’s rights are not up for bargaining”.

Abbas referred to the Palestine National Council, which instructed him “to suspend the Palestinian recognition of the State of Israel until Israel recognises in its turn the State of Palestine on the fourth of June, 1967 borders.”

Parliament had also instructed him “to approach international courts, including the International Criminal Court (the ICC) to investigate Israel’s breaches of treaties and the aggressions by the Israeli occupying forces and settlers against our people, on our land and our holy sites.”

Abbas referred to Israel’s Nation State Law, explaining that “this law will inevitably lead to the creation of one racist state, an apartheid state, and thus nullifies the two-state solution.”

He reminded the GA that “the United Nations had condemned the apartheid South African state in several resolutions in the past,” and then challenged anyone to define Israel’s borders.

Abbas reserved some of his strongest criticism for the American Administration which he claimed had reneged on all the commitments between the two sides.

He said, “it’s really ironic that the American administration still talks about what they call the deal of the century, but what is left for this administration to give to the Palestinian people? Only humanitarian solutions, because when they remove off the negotiation table, Jerusalem, refugees and security – what is left?”

Abbas called on countries that do not recognise Palestine to do so, especially those that support a two-state solution and recognise Israel but not Palestine.

“No. You have to recognize both states. Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to remind you again that Israel has not implemented any one of the hundreds of General Assembly resolutions. There are 705 resolutions issued by the General Assembly since 1947 to date and Security Council resolutions since 1948 to date not a single resolution has been implemented by Israel.”

Abbas warned that Israeli aggression, supported by its legal system, is now threatening the status of Al Aqsa mosque claiming, “now we are told that the Israeli Supreme Court will issue a decision to divide Al-Aqsa, spatially and time-wise.”

The Palestinian president also criticised Hamas for failing to agree to the recent efforts by Egypt to secure reconciliation between Abbas’s Fatah and Hams, laying the blame at Hamas’s door.

He called on the Palestinians to “remain patient, steadfast and to continue to sacrifice until we achieve independence and self-determination and to establish an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital and not in Jerusalem”.

Fend for yourselves

And so the annual UN pilgrimage ends with the Palestinians weak and divided, pleading for protection for innocent civilians losing their lives at the hands of their brutal occupiers. Their Arab and Muslim allies continue to be cajoled into believing improving relations with Israel would endear them to Trump’s America and will bring protection from the Iranian threat.

Trump’s ‘deal of the century’ has turned into the ‘slap of the century’ for Palestinians left with little to negotiate for.

A strong and emboldened Israel can continue expanding and entrenching its hold on Israel-occupied territories. Abbas’s hopes for an international peace conference that broadens and better reflects the international community’s interests in resolving the conflict did not gain any traction.

It is only through their numbers—nearly 13 million strong—and their steadfastness and resistance, that Palestinians can keep their cause alive. They are in this for the long term and they will not allow Israel to complete the Zionist project.

They will outlast Trump and his administration, which while giving Israel quick wins now, will in the long term bring harm not only to Palestinians, but to peace for everyone in the region.

What options does Abbas have after that General Assembly vote?

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 27/12/2017

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas makes a speech during extraordinary meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul, Turkey on 13 December 2017 [Onur Çoban/Anadolu Agency]

 

As the dust settles on a significant week at the UN, in which America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was rejected roundly by the international community, the Palestinians have made a commitment not to engage with the US in any future peace talks. Where, though, can the Palestinian President turn to next? What options does Mahmoud Abbas have?

A divided, and in some cases apathetic, Arab world has been experiencing political turmoil since the confrontation emerged this year between the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Egypt on one hand, and Qatar on the other. As young pretenders to their respective countries’ thrones experiment with war and politics, the US and Israel can take a back seat in the hope that Arab states will weaken each other without any interference on their part.

Palestine is no longer a priority for some Arab countries, except where they can exert pressure on the weak leadership in Ramallah to please Washington and, in turn, the Israelis. Like turkeys voting for Christmas, they believe that they will be protected from Iran if they can deliver the complete submission of the Palestinians to Israel’s wishes.

The EU, which rejected Trump’s decision on Jerusalem, saw some of its own members abstain in the vote in the UN General Assembly. The Russians and Chinese, important members of the Security Council, also have limited, if any, influence on Israel or the Palestinians when compared with the Americans. The Palestinian President’s options for an alternative “honest broker” that Israel will accept are thus non-existent.

It has taken Mahmoud Abbas over two decades to admit that the US is so biased in favour of Israel that it cannot play an even-handed role in the search for a just peace. Why it has taken him so long to realise this so obvious fact is a mystery. Successive US administrations have taken their lead from Israel on this issue. It was always the case that any “offer” to the Palestinians would be put to the Israelis first, and that only after they had applied their “security” test to it and given the green light would it be put to the Palestinians.

This formed the core of an exchange of letters between former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and George W Bush in 2004. “In light of new realities on the ground,” wrote the then US President, “including already existing major Israeli population centres, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” He added that, “The United States reiterates its steadfast commitment to Israel’s security, including secure, defensible borders, and to preserve and strengthen Israel’s capability to deter and defend itself, by itself, against any threat or possible combination of threats.”

While Bush referred in his letter to UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 as forming the basis for negotiations, the Israelis worked hard to ensure that the talks which followed were not referenced to any such international decisions.

The Palestinians fell into this trap by failing to insist on international law and Security Council Resolutions as the basis for any talks. This included the last “serious” attempt to bring peace by Barack Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013, which not only failed to bring peace but was also immediately followed by the 2014 Israeli war on Gaza. Kerry persuaded the Palestinians to return to talks lacking in any reference to international law.

Before leaving office, Kerry laid much of the blame for the failure of the talks he had initiated on the Israelis after, of course, reminding everyone of Obama’s “deep commitment to Israel and its security”. His explanation for the Obama administration’s abstention on UN Security Council Resolution 2334 concerning the illegality of Israel’s settlements — instead of the usual veto of anything critical of Israel — was that the vote was about “preserving” the two-state solution. “That’s what we were standing up for: Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, living side by side in peace and security with its neighbours.”

The incoming Trump administration disassociated itself from Resolution 2334, with the president-elect himself promising that “things will be different” when he entered the White House. He has certainly been true to his word. While asking Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements”, Trump moved away from the US position on two-states: “So I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like.”

Trump’s pro-Israel advisers have spent months meeting with the two sides to the conflict. While promising to put a deal on the table soon, this came to a halt when Trump announced on 7 December his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and intention to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv.

Following the US veto of a Security Council resolution rejecting its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and then a large majority voting to pass the same resolution in the General Assembly, Abbas announced last week that he is severing his ties with the US when it comes to the peace process. The Palestinians, he declared, will not “accept any plan from the US” due to America’s “biased” support of Israel and its settlement policy. He also said that the US plan — Trump’s much-vaunted “deal of the century” — “is not going to be based on the two-state solution on the 1967 border, nor is it going to be based on international law or UN resolutions.”

In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to state that, “Abbas declared he was abandoning the peace process and did not care which proposal the United States brings to the table.” Putting a spin on it that is incomprehensible to the rest of the world, Netanyahu told his weekly cabinet meeting, “I think that once again, something clear and simple emerges: The Palestinians are the ones who do not want to solve the conflict.” He will do or say anything to distract us from the glaringly obvious reality that it is Netanyahu’s far-right government that is fully to blame for the lack of peace.

As for Mahmoud Abbas, he has to choose between acknowledging his failure over 23 years to advance the cause of the Palestinians, or going back to the drawing board, assessing the strengths of the Palestinian people and looking for ways to raise the cost to Israel of its military occupation of Palestine. The higher the cost, the quicker that Israel will address the Palestinians’ grievances as they seek to attain their rights.

The Palestinian Authority President’s starting point should be to develop a liberation strategy that excludes reliance on non-Palestinians for its delivery, whilst making it supportable by others, both governments and citizens alike.

The elements of such a strategy should include the following:

  • The development of options for raising the cost to Israel of the occupation.
  • A declaration that the Oslo Accords are null and void. Israel has done this in all but name.
  • To demand UN Security Council protection for the Palestinian people.
  • To end the PA’s security coordination with the occupation, as it is both immoral and a free service to Israel that brings no benefits whatsoever to the Palestinian people.
  • To ask the UN to set up a coordination mechanism for necessary interaction with Israel on humanitarian matters.
  • To ask the Arab League to withdraw the Arab Peace Initiative immediately.
  • To restate that the Palestinian refugees’ legitimate right of return is non-negotiable.
  • To demand that any future negotiations with Israel are based on equal rights for all who live between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea, and acknowledge that this is the only way to achieve real peace.
  • To call on the UN Secretary-General to adopt the ESCWA report — “Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid” — that he has withdrawn.
  • To launch cases at the International Criminal Court against Israel and Israeli officials immediately, starting with the illegal settlement issue.
  • To offer unqualified support for the entirely peaceful Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and call for its escalation.
  • The immediate lifting of all sanctions imposed by the PA in Ramallah on the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
  • The implementation of the reconciliation agreement with Hamas.
  • An escalation of the peaceful and popular resistance movement in Palestine.
  • The launch of a reformed and inclusive Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
  • A serious engagement with Palestinians in the diaspora and a move towards elections to the Palestinian National Council.

Many of the points listed above should have been guiding principles in the past, but were overlooked in the PA’s pursuit of a pointless “negotiations first and last” policy which has failed by any measure.

Such a strategy will come with a price. It will bring isolation to the Palestinians and will have an impact on them in ways that will make their lives even more difficult. However, the alternative is that they continue to be oppressed with no end in sight if the current policies remain in place. The Palestinians have shown on numerous occasions that they are prepared to pay the necessary price for liberation but they must be told how this will be achieved by a leadership that they have had the chance to elect.

Any objective assessment will conclude that the current leadership is incapable of delivering what the Palestinians deserve and to which they aspire. It must therefore stand aside and allow the younger, talented generation of Palestinians come to the fore and lead their people. The New Year cannot be allowed to bring more of the same at the hands of Abbas and his team. He has other options; he must exercise them.

While Netanyahu lectures, Abbas pleads – but who is listening?

First published by the Middle East Eye on 26/9/2016

The 2016 annual pilgrimage of world leaders to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York was dominated by the Syria crisis.

While many speakers ramble on to a half empty hall, others try to get important messages across to the assembly of world nations.

Those speaking on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have tended to attract particular attention as the world holds its breath to see if there is any chink of hope that this decades-old conflict could soon be resolved.

US President Barack Obama, making his final address, kicked matters off, telling Palestinians to “reject incitement and recognise the legitimacy of Israel”. He also told Israelis that peace won’t come until “Israel recognises it cannot permanently occupy and settle Palestinian land”.

However, the irony of one of his other statements was lost even on him when he said, with reference to Donald Trump, “A nation ringed by walls would only imprison itself,” referring to Trump’s plan to build a wall on the border with Mexico. Israel, of course, is doing just that.

One state?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s speech was more a plea to the world community that Palestinians had gone more than the extra mile for peace. “As you all are aware, we have accepted the primacy and judgment of international law and resolutions of international legitimacy, and made a historic and immense sacrifice, when the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, accepted to establish the State of Palestine on the 4 June 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital. What more can be asked of us?”

Abbas described Israeli violations that are indicative of its real intentions not to reach a just peace with the Palestinians. He said that Israel “must cease all of its settlement colonisation activities and aggressions against our cities, villages and refugee camps. It must cease its policies of collective punishment and its demolition of Palestinian homes. It must cease its extrajudicial executions and cease the arrest of our people, and must release the thousands of our prisoners and detainees. It must cease its aggression and provocations against the Holy Al-Aqsa Mosque. For all of these policies and practices prevent an environment in which peace can be realised in our region.” 

He asked how can anyone seeking peace perpetrate such actions. Its actions he claimed undermine realization of the two-state solution on the basis of the 1967 borders. He then asked “Does Israel want one state”? That question was probably the most telling in his speech as the PA has not been known to even contemplate a one-state solution. Is Abbas therefore preparing the ground for a shift in policy as he sees the two-state solution disappearing before his eyes?

Plea to Britain

The other headline-making statement of his speech was the request that as we approach the 100th anniversary of the “notorious” Balfour Declaration, Britain should “draw the necessary lessons and to bear its historic, legal, political, material and moral responsibilities for the consequences of this declaration, including an apology to the Palestinian people for the catastrophes, miseries and injustices that it created, and to act to rectify this historic catastrophe and remedy its consequences, including by recognition of the State of Palestine.”

While Palestinians would welcome such an apology, they would place a strategy for realising their rights above this. The speech lacked an articulation of the strategy the PA has for achieving this and left Palestinians disappointed and frustrated. The reaction to his speech was flat in comparison to the almost euphoric reception to his speech in 2012 when he asked the Assembly to endorse the PLO’s request for Palestine to be recognised as a non-member observer state, which was subsequently accepted with an overwhelming majority.

Netanyahu’s speech

The Israeli Prime Minister as usual treated the United Nations with complete disdain. The organisation which Israel claims gave it its legitimacy is seen by Netanyahu as an anti-Israel organisation. He stated that “the UN, begun as a moral force, has become a moral farce”. He slammed the UN Human Rights Council as a “joke” claiming that “each year it condemns Israel more than all the countries of the world combined”. He even described UNESCO as “part of the circus”. In April, UNESCO passed a resolution on Jerusalem which infuriated Israel by describing “so-called” Jewish sites and putting the “Western Wall Plaza” in quotation marks.

Netanyahu likened this to “denying the connection between the Great Wall of China and China”. However, his message was that Israel is far from isolated, enjoying relations with 160 countries and most importantly, he claimed that “for the first time in my lifetime, many other states in the region recognise that Israel is not their enemy. They recognise that Israel is their ally. Our common enemies are Iran and ISIS. Our common goals are security, prosperity and peace. I believe that in the years ahead we will work together to achieve these goals, work together openly.”

He did admit however, albeit indirectly, that it is the US that has his and Israel’s back at the UN and hardly anyone else. “The United Nations denounces Israel; the United States supports Israel.” He went on to ridicule Abbas’s speech and in particular his request for an apology from Britain for the Balfour Declaration. “He’s preparing a lawsuit against Britain for that declaration from 1917. That’s almost 100 years ago – talk about being stuck in the past.” Interesting that he should claim Palestinians are stuck in the past going back just a century when the Zionist movement’s claim to Palestine goes back thousands of years. 

Invitation to Abbas

Netanyahu did not resort to any physical prop this time unlike those he used in the past, particularly his claim Iran was close to producing a nuclear bomb. However, his virtual prop was an offer to PA President Abbas. “Wouldn’t it be better if instead of speaking past each other we were speaking to one another? President Abbas, instead of railing against Israel at the United Nations in New York, I invite you to speak to the Israeli people at the Knesset in Jerusalem. And I would gladly come to speak to the Palestinian parliament in Ramallah,” he asked.

It was left to Jordan’s King Abdullah to summarise where things stood, implicitly laying blame for the stalemate at Israel’s door: “No injustice has spread more bitter fruit than the denial of a Palestinian state. I say: Peace is a conscious decision. Israel has to embrace peace or eventually be engulfed in a sea of hatred in a region of turmoil.”

What both Netanyahu and Abbas must have realised was the clear descent of the Middle East conflict from its usual prominence as an issue to almost a side issue. That may be comforting for Israel as it seeks to deflect the world’s attention to continue its colonisation of Palestine, but it is worrying for Palestinians.

The most unfortunate message that could be sent to Palestinians is that their plight is only visible to the world when they resort to violence as their peaceful, non-violent strategy seems to have tragically failed.

Israel too should realise that despite Netanyahu’s words, Israel is isolated among ordinary people, if not among governments. Netanyahu should also reflect that he too is isolated; after all, he needs 20 security guards to accompany him to the toilet in New York.