The Trump administration’s policies and initiatives towards the Arab-Israeli conflict – the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017; the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan Heights in 2019; the Peace to Prosperity plan in 2020 – have been rightly denounced as premeditated assaults on international law and the international political consensus. Claims that such measures form a radical departure from traditional US policy are less persuasive, however. Since 1967, Washington has systematically aided and abetted Israel’s colonial expansion in the West Bank. Annexation, the ripe fruit of US as much as Israeli policy, is a formalisation rather than transformation of the resulting reality.
Late yesterday evening, ‘a senior administration official’ confirmed that the United States will today recognise Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem. Given that the policy is to be announced by Donald Trump, a volatile airhead presiding over a highly fractious government, it’s still far from clear how – or even whether – Washington will put forward a new position. But if, as expected, the US does proceed with this measure, the physical relocation of the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem will be the least of it.
A Hamas delegation recently paid an official visit to Egypt, which these days is news in and of itself. While in Cairo, the delegation also met with the former Fatah warlord Muhammad Dahlan, which is even bigger news.
It has been a bizarre week for US policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On 23 December, the Obama administration narrowly avoided becoming the first since Harry Truman’s to leave office without a single United Nations Security Council resolution censuring Israel to its credit. Washington has spent the past eight years shielding what John Kerry on 28 December called ‘the most right-wing [government] in Israeli history, with an agenda driven by its most extreme elements’ from international scrutiny.
Amid little anticipation and less expectation, the United Nations special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, on Tuesday, 17 February, briefed the Security Council on the progress of the initiative he unveiled last year to ‘freeze’ the conflict that has destroyed the country, extinguished perhaps 1 per cent of its population and displaced more than a quarter of the remainder. It would be an exaggeration to say that hubris has given way to humility, but his performance this week was considerably more subdued than four months ago, shortly before I resigned from his office within weeks of arriving.
One either rejects the killing of non-combatants on principle or takes a more tribal approach to such matters. In the case of Israel and the Palestinians, the global outpouring of grief and condemnation over the killing of three Israeli youths in the occupied West Bank is the moral equivalent of Rolf Harris denouncing Jimmy Savile. Over the past 14 years, Israel has killed Palestinian children at a rate of more than two a week. There seems to be no Israeli child in harm’s way that Barack Obama will not compare to his own daughters, but their Palestinian counterparts are brushed aside with mantras about Israel’s right to self-defence. The institutionalised disregard for Palestinian life in the West helps explain not only why Palestinians resort to violence, but also Israel’s latest assault on the Gaza Strip.
Despite his deserved reputation as an extremist and rejectionist of the first order, Binyamin Netanyahu, unlike most of his predecessors, had until this week never initiated a war. He appears not to have planned one this time either. Bibi’s template for the current assault on the Gaza Strip may well have been the events of September 1996, when 17 Israeli soldiers and 70 Palestinians were killed in the clashes that followed Israel’s festive opening of the Western Wall Tunnel in the heart of occupied East Jerusalem. It happened during Netanyahu’s previous term in office, and consists of three simple steps. 1. Launch an outrageous provocation guaranteed to elicit an armed response. 2. Use overwhelming firepower to kill Arabs and remind them who is boss. 3. Mobilise foreign parties to quickly restore calm on improved conditions.
Mahmoud Abbas’s address to the United Nations General Assembly on 23 September fell considerably short of Yasir Arafat’s electrifying 1974 speech from the same podium. Nor did it compare with Haidar Abdul Shafi’s dignified – and unanswerable – call for justice at the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference. Yet it may come to be seen as a historic turning point in the fortunes of the Palestinian people. Abbas’s agenda was transparent. He was sending the Americans a message: grow a spine, stop appeasing Israel and launch credible negotiations – because if you don’t, my next failure will be my last. There are several problems with his approach.