image of jerusalem 2019

Anniversaries, Initiatives & Summits: What Next for Palestine?
A concatenation of events rendered his political message remarkably clear - and somewhat elementary too.

2 April   |   2019   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

In the first instance, President Donald J Trump decided to migrate the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In so doing, he went against five decades of US foreign policy practice over Jerusalem. He ignored a raft of UN Security Council as well as General Assembly Resolutions. He overrode the norms of International law as I understand them let alone the advice of those legal and political scholars who argued against his decision.

But the move took place, and the opening of the embassy in Jerusalem was attended by Ivanka Trump in the presence of Jared Kushner, Jason D Greenblatt and David M Friedman. The first act of this latest play got written by the president and his likeminded acolytes.

Not content with this unsolicited “gift” to PM Benyamin Netanyahu and the right-wing cabal in Israel, the US President then offered the Golan Heights to Israel too. Occupied by Israel in 1967, and annexed by it in 1981, these heights that border the Yarmouk River in the south and the Sea of Galilee (or Lake Tiberias) in the west are a rich source of water for a region that often suffers from ruinous droughts.

Jerusalem, then the Golan Heights, so what next for the president? Let me start off with five truisms.

  • Ever since I became involved with Israeli-Palestinian second-track negotiations in the 1990’s on behalf of all thirteen traditional Churches of Jerusalem, the constant key issues facing negotiators included mutual recognition, borders, security, water rights, (East) Jerusalem, settlements, freedom of movement and the right of return for refugees. How many of these so-called core issues remain negotiable today according to the US-Israel latest scenarios? A negotiation is not a humiliation; it is a give-and-take process with a win-win objective. Sadly, the process is comatose.
  • As the final-status issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been taken off the negotiating table piecemeal, the dream for a two-state outcome that would flesh out the bones of Palestinian self-determination has been shrinking too. And with it the two-state solution, so much so that many younger Palestinians today no longer talk of two states but increasingly more of a rights-based resolution that would result in a binational reality wherein Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs would live together in one state and enjoy equal rights under the law. A more intricate scenario is emerging slowly.
  • As far back as 2002, a 10-sentence proposal to end the Arab-Israeli conflict was endorsed by the Arab League at its Beirut Summit. The Saudi proposal, which came to be known as the Arab Peace Initiative, was re-endorsed in 2007 and 2017. It called for a normalisation of relations between Arabs and Israel in exchange for a full withdrawal by Israel from occupied territories and a just settlement to the Palestinian refugee problem on the basis of UNGA Resolution 194. This initiative has never been taken up by Israel, and its components - Jerusalem, refugees, lands - have been pointedly eroded over time.
  • Much is being made of the so-called “deal of the century” that has been percolating in the White House anterooms since 2017. I have no direct knowledge of the contents of this document that President Trump once described rather grandiosely as ‘the ultimate deal’. However, if political leaks and occasional op-eds are anything to go by, it is purportedly meant to be unveiled after the Israeli parliamentary elections of 9th April. It also seems to be a document of some 60 pages long that focuses on security arrangements as well as economic deals rather than on political issues.
  • If such speculation were at all true, I would posit that any deal offering Palestinians economic incentives cannot succeed minus any concrete momentum on the political issues. Planning to midwife a Palestinian entity that is neither sovereign nor contiguous, or one that gerrymanders the occupied borders in order to carve up the semblance of a pseudo-state, will be stillborn. Nonetheless, Palestinians should not be impulsive. Rather, they should study the deal ‘for five minutes’, coordinate with Jordan and consult with friends and allies, before responding with their own counter-proposal. They should not simply come up with a blunt refusal that would make them appear as the obstructionists or rejectionists of a ‘peace’ deal.

With these five self-evident bullet points, let me focus anew on my three expectations for the present moment.

  • It is evident that President Trump and his close associates think that they can do anything and pull off any decision. For them, foreign policy is framed by presidential instincts, impulses, tweets and financial interests, not by norms of International law or customary practice. But being the leader of the most powerful political and economic country does not arguably empower one to behave like a tin-pot dictator.
  • However, this brash attitude to politics that the US Administration exhibits in its foreign relations is not inimical with the interests of some politicians in the MENA or Gulf regions. Hence, a few Arab countries seem to be among those that agree with such transactional and whimsical proclivities when it comes to the pursuit of foreign policy objectives. It is easier to accept ‘deals’ or ‘initiatives’ that are not bookended by human rights issues or defined by international norms, but massaged instead by sheer economic and ideological interests. Why not, after all, when some of these countries are quite happy with the wholesale oppression of their own populations and a perpetual belief in their own infallible powers that brook no opposition or criticism from those who disagree with them.
  • However, Newton’s third law of physics kicks in to remind me that in politics too every action often has an equal and opposite reaction. Consequently, the measures taken by the US Administration against Palestinian and Syrian (read Arab) interests exacerbate tensions with a number of EU and Western countries as well as with the community of nations or organisations that subscribe to legitimacy. Moreover, add to this maelstrom the fact that such actions also inevitably benefit Iran that is the very country whose purported hegemonic moves in the MENA region the USA and Israel oppose fiercely.

But the problem is not only a US Administration that has discarded its moral compass. What renders the situation in the Middle East far more unsustainable is that the Arab countries themselves are in a never-ending spiral. Whether I look at the situation in the MENA or the Gulf regions, the Arab realities are made visible not only by naff embargoes, conflicts, lamentable human rights records or a lack of political space for their citizens, but also by Arab League summits that have alas been classic examples of ‘talking the talk’ but not ‘walking the walk’.

In the Israeli-Palestinian context, it is not a secret to an overwhelming majority of Arab men and women that very few Arab countries are genuinely interested in the creation of a Palestinian state. In fact, some of them would rather not have one at all. So the political theatrics are maintained in the form of initiatives and summits in order to avoid an eruption of popular anger by the Arab masses. After all, what were the concrete and proactive measures adopted by Arab states, whether collectively or individually, as a consequence of the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem or the recognition of Israeli dominion over the Golan Heights? Was a decision not adopted at the Arab Summit in Jordan in 1980 for instance to sever diplomatic relations with countries that move their embassies to Jerusalem?

So I reiterate my question: Jerusalem, then the Golan Heights, and what next now?

I am not a prophet in a land of far too many false prophets. However, I would not be surprised at all if the next stage of this political choreography would amount to a US recognition of Israeli jurisdiction over Area C in the Palestinian West Bank. When? I have no idea, but once Palestinians have been exhausted and dispossessed of the very tools that edify their sovereignty or secure their geographical contiguity and ensure basic freedoms, Jared Kushner’s ‘deal of the century’ will become the latest US-manufactured narrative.

This is when Palestinians will find themselves in an existential choice between a rock and a hard place. They cannot accept such a deal but they also cannot alone face the might of a US-Israel behemoth. So this becomes another moment when the loud words uttered by the 22 members of the Arab League at their 30th Summit in Tunis should lead to strong deeds in support of Palestinians. Will Arabs put their money where their mouth is and help provide a pushback? Or will their inertia prove how marginalised and irrelevant the Arab World has become nowadays? Who will speak out against the insidious dispossession and incremental disempowerment of Palestinians?

Have the Arab rulers and their representative League heard of Newton’s third law? Or have the wealth, human resources and creative knowhow of this predominantly young region become a political doormat for others to tread on? The proof of the pudding is in the eating: sadly, I am not familiar with the Arab translation for this phrase.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2019   |   2 April


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