Trump’s Golan Declaration: Foolish And Dangerous

You wouldn’t expect Twitter to be the outlet for sound policy announcements, and Donald Trump doesn’t disappoint. He uses the social media platform as his

Crossing at border between Occupied and Syrian Golan

alternative to facing the media in press conferences, avoiding questions about his impulsive and often ill-considered decisions.

The latest example occurred on Thursday, when Trump took to Twitter to announce that he intended to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the western part of the Golan Heights, territory captured by Israel from Syria in the 1967 war. It is unclear from Trump’s words whether he was actually recognizing Israel’s sovereignty or simply broadcasting his intent to do so.

In either case, his decision is foolhardy. It is unnecessary for either security or geo-strategic reasons. Trump is turning a fundamental principle of international law on its head just to help reelect his friend, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Read more at LobeLog

Beating War Drums At The UN

Just a few sentences into Donald Trump’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) yesterday, the entire world was laughing at the President of the United States. Reactions to the rest of his speech might have vacillated between anger and ridicule, while his loyal base and administration servants sat with self-satisfied grins. But some of what he said should cause concern. Whether it was his repeated emphasis on sovereignty over alliances—a common theme of authoritarian leaders—his railing about trade deficits whose effects on the US economy he clearly doesn’t understand, his attacks on international institutions and partnerships, or his general air of condescension and hubris, Trump reaffirmed his intention to move the United States deeper into a belligerent isolation from most of the world. Read more at LobeLog

The US Quits On Human Rights

In a move that seemed very likely when Donald Trump was elected president and was cemented when he appointed Nikki Haley as ambassador to the United Nations, the United States withdrew

from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on Wednesday. The stated reasons for the US decision were the bias against Israel at UNHRC and the fact that some undeniably egregious human rights violators sit on the council. But these explanations become flimsy once you examine them. Read more at LobeLog

Israeli Annexation And A Silent International Community

In December, President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and announced his intention to move the US embassy there. Condemnations abounded, with great hand-wringing and troubled emotions. The United States had to veto an otherwise unanimous United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the decision but could not block a similar UN General Assembly resolution, which passed overwhelmingly.

Palestinians took to the streets in protest, as did other people across the Middle East and around the world, including in the United States itself. There was some violence, but it was not very different from protests against past Israeli actions. Outside of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, those protests came and went in a matter of weeks.

Inside the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, the US decision shattered the last shreds of credibility of the “peace process,” which was long used to keep the lid on Palestinians while settlements expanded. As a result, Donald Trump has become as much an enemy to Palestinians as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

After Trump’s Jerusalem Declaration

Trump destroyed the basis for a two-state solution and crippled the chances for a peaceful alternative to that solution in the short term. He also radically shifted the United States from being a biased interlocutor between its dear friend Israel and the barely tolerated Palestinians to a full-fledged partner with Israel in its attempt to destroy the very concept of Palestine as a nation with national rights. In response, the international community did nothing but mutter some complaints, wag a finger, and move on with business as usual.

It was this very outcome that I warned about when Trump was making his decision on Jerusalem. I wrote, “there’s also a distinct possibility that after a week or two of protests, and even some violence, by the beginning of 2018, US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has become the new normal,” and that if that happened, “It would also tell Israel, in no uncertain terms, that its view that its national and territorial desires completely trump Palestinian rights is correct.”

Israel has received that message loud and clear, and both Jerusalem and Washington are moving forward on that basis. Benjamin Netanyahu said today that “I can tell you that I’ve been talking about [annexing the settlements] with the Americans.” Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely—Netanyahu himself holds the foreign minster’s portfolio—elaborated on this at a right wing conference in Jerusalem:

I have no doubt that with this current American administration, with the right cooperation and work, we can reach agreements on this topic — something that never existed on the past. There was never [before] a [US] administration that said settlements are not an obstacle to peace.

All of this comes amidst two other developments: the leaking of parts of the Trump administration’s plan for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the decision by the Israeli government to temporarily halt a bill that would extend Israeli sovereignty to the settlements.

Annexation of Settlements

Israel attributed its decision not to immediately move forward with the so-called “Annexation Bill” to concerns about the “security situation in the North,” which refers to the tensions with Iran, Russia, Hezbollah, and Syria that escalated this weekend after Israel conducted large-scale bombing raids in Syria and Syria downed an Israeli fighter jet. In fact, it was really done for two other reasons.

One reason is that Netanyahu, identifying the annexation of settlements correctly as a historic moment, said that “…it must be a government initiative rather than a private one.” The other is that Netanyahu wants to coordinate this move with the American “peace plan.”

Palestinian journalist Mohammed Othman describes the leaked details of the plan in Al-Monitor: “Palestinians will have their own ‘city of Jerusalem’ by building new villages and neighborhoods. This is combined with the establishment of a Palestinian state that includes over half of the West Bank area, all of the Gaza Strip and some neighborhoods in Jerusalem.” The Jerusalem point repeats what has been proposed many times, that Abu Dis or another Jerusalem suburb be renamed “al-Quds,” the Arabic name of Jerusalem. Such a sham has never gained any traction at all among Palestinians, and it is hard to see how it ever could.

The plan, Othman reports, is being prepared without any Palestinian input. It

allows for the annexation of 10% of the West Bank area to Israel; allocation of parts of Ashdod and Haifa for Palestinian use, while Israel remains in charge of the security there; the establishment of a safe passage between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank under Israeli sovereignty; and granting Israel the upper hand in the demilitarized Palestinian state, which will have its own police force.

It’s obviously not a plan that the Palestinians will accept. But it is also a plan that the US and Israel can impose on them.

Implications of Netanyahu’s Statement

After Netanyahu made his statement about discussing annexation with the Americans, Haaretz reporter Barak Ravid tweeted that a US official told him that, “The U.S. hasn’t received or agreed to any proposals from Israel about annexation of the settlements in the West Bank.” Israeli officials quickly confirmed that this was so, as did the White House’s spokesperson. But Netanyahu’s actual claim of having discussed the matter with the US was not contradicted, merely clarified.

Despite the back and forth over statements, it is clear that Israel would be annexing the settlements under the US plan. Netanyahu is probably discussing with Washington precisely what land Israel would annex. Although one leak of the US plan has Israel annexing some 10% of the West Bank, another gives the Palestinians just over half of the territory. The 10% figure refers to the built-up areas of the settlements, but a final Trump plan, worked out to Israel’s approval, would likely give Israel considerably more land around the settlements. The regional councils that govern the settlements, along with the closed “military zones” that essentially bar Palestinians from even entering, make up some 42% of the West Bank. This “less than half” figure is what Israel could reasonably expect to get in a Trump plan.

Although the Palestinian leadership will protest and appeal and the Palestinian people will surely take to the streets in prolonged demonstrations, the US and Israel can impose this plan. Israel can declare sovereignty over its settlements and the US can recognize it. If the Palestinians do not choose to self-govern, Israel can wall them off. And the plan is thus imposed.

Failure of the International Community

And why shouldn’t Israel do so? The international community has done nothing in response to Trump’s “taking Jerusalem off the table,” which effectively decides the matter in favor of Israel. The plan would implicitly keep the actual city of Jerusalem “united” under Israeli rule, would extend Israeli sovereignty to the settlements, would establish permanent Israeli borders, and resolve the Palestinian refugee question by telling those refugees that they’re on their own.

That’s the “peace” Netanyahu and Trump envision. A third intifada of some kind would probably result, but Netanyahu likely believes that he can quell that by outlasting and out-brutalizing the Palestinians as Ariel Sharon did during the second such uprising. Protests elsewhere would come and go.

The international community has enabled this by its muted reaction to the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Is it prepared to do more than author resolutions and issue statements? Is it ready to act against the United States and Israel in some meaningful way? If not, and it seems highly unlikely that it will, the Trump plan will go ahead.

I suspect that Netanyahu is underestimating the consequences. The reaction to such an imposed plan could be much wider than a third intifada. It could involve Iran. It could draw in other Arab states, as well as the United States in some fashion. And, like the Jerusalem decision, it will have long-term implications that are not immediately visible.

But Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition seem bent on this course, and it seems the Trump administration is all in. Only a concerted and unified effort by the international community can avert what, in the best-case scenario would be another, maybe even a bigger, catastrophe for the Palestinians and, in the worst case, could spark a regional war as well.

The Peace Process Is Dead: Thanks, Obama

As the curtain drops on 2017, it drops too on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as we have known it. At the age of 24, that process has finally died, with none other than President Donald Trump

Shimon Peres, John Kerry and Mahmoud Abbas at the World Economic Forum in May 2013

pulling the plug. But let’s not give him too much credit or blame for that. The killing blow was struck by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

There was much to like in Obama’s presidency, especially given the mess he was handed in 2009 and the unprecedented obstructionism of the Republican Party during his tenure. But he also had abject failures that were due to his own shortcomings, and the sharp degeneration in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict under his watch is at the top of the list.

The structure of the Oslo peace process probably doomed it to failure from the beginning. It was always meant to focus on bilateral talks, with the tough issues put off as long as possible. Meanwhile, nothing in the accords on which the process was based prohibited the expansion of Israeli settlements in the territories it occupied in 1967; human rights in general was barely an afterthought; and the dependence in the Accords on the political will of Israelis, the far more powerful party, opened the door for both demagogic Israeli leaders and violent Palestinian groups to erode that will very quickly.

The Rise and Fall of the Oslo Process

The hope that existed in the Oslo Accords, such as it was, arose entirely out of the will of Palestinian and Israeli negotiators. Unfortunately, those negotiators failed to address the political reality that the United States, a hopelessly biased party, had long since established itself as the broker of negotiations. In fairness, the U.S. record in 1993, while far from exemplary, was not nearly as bad as it would become. The Camp David agreement of 1979 fell far short of what President Jimmy Carter had wanted for the Palestinians, but it did reduce the threat of Middle East warfare by brokering Israeli-Egyptian peace. And George H.W. Bush had granted some legitimacy to the Palestinians as a people with rights by including them, even if not equally, at the Madrid conference in 1991. These may seem small achievements, and they are, but they are more than any subsequent US president managed to accomplish.

By the time Barack Obama came into office, more than 15 years into the Oslo process, the situation had deteriorated very badly. Then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s 1995 assassination at the hands of a right-wing extremist—who was encouraged, consciously or otherwise, by a slew of right wing rabbis and by Rabin’s main political opponent, Benjamin Netanyahu—was followed by a wave of terrorism that threw ice water on Israeli enthusiasm for peace and swept Netanyahu into office. The contentious relationship between Netanyahu and Bill Clinton resulted in the Hebron Agreement and eventually helped to push Netanyahu out of office, but it also slowed progress with the Palestinians to a near stop, and Oslo’s five-year deadline for final status issues passed with no progress on them at all. Clinton’s response to this, the Camp David II summit, was a disaster, as Clinton and Netanyahu’s successor, Ehud Barak, broke their promise not to blame Arafat for its failure. The second intifada ensued, and the Israeli liberal-left was destroyed while the West Bank and Gaza were decimated.

George W. Bush’s war on terror filled the void in the U.S.-Israel alliance that had been there since the end of the Cold War. His “Roadmap to Peace” might have been a useful document if there had been any enforcement mechanism in it, but there was not. The Roadmap and the Annapolis Summit were empty gestures against a regional policy, largely designed by neoconservatives, that destroyed not only the previous policy of “dual containment” of Iraq and Iran, but effectively destroyed Iraq, planting the seeds that sprouted into the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and regional chaos.

As Bush changed the regional context, fruitless talks between Israel and the Palestinians continued. Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw all Israeli forces and settlements from the Gaza Strip, and to remove four small settlements from the West Bank, demonstrated, as intended, how politically difficult evacuating settlements was for Israeli leaders—pouring, as Sharon’s aide Dov Weisglass put it, formaldehyde into the peace process.

Hamas’ electoral victory in 2006 made the Israeli public much more apprehensive, even as the intifada was winding down. The refusal of the U.S. and Israel to accept the results of an election they pushed the Palestinian Authority into holding culminated in a coup attempt by Fatah forces in Gaza. The attempt failed. Israel subsequently designated Gaza a hostile territory, and placed a full closure around the already horribly poor, mostly isolated, and overcrowded Strip that continues to this day. At the end of Bush’s second term, Israel launched the first of a series of large-scale military operations against Gaza.

That was the boiling cauldron into which Barack Obama stepped. Obama had openly expressed not only staunch support for Israel’s security but a deep and, for a U.S. president, unique sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians. Obama’s speech at the beginning of his term, made in Cairo on his first foreign tour, offered hope that his administration would be different.

Enter Obama

At first, it seemed the lofty words might even herald some substantial policy shift. Soon after taking office, Obama called for a total freeze on Israeli settlement construction. But Obama had failed to lay the groundwork in Washington for such a call, and when Israel as well as congressional Republicans attacked him for it, Democrats offered half-hearted support or stayed entirely out of the line of fire. Finally, desperate to salvage something, Obama accepted the partial freeze that Netanyahu offered, which essentially amounted to no freeze at all.

The episode laid bare the reality of Obama’s Middle East policy. He had good intentions, but could not overcome the inherent U.S. bias that many peace advocates had been pointing out for years.

Obama had two years with a Democratic Congress, and his failure with the settlement freeze meant he was faced with a choice. He was already thinking about a broader Middle East policy shift, considerations which eventually turned into new sanctions on Iran designed to force the Islamic Republic to the table on the issue of its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons. Concluding a deal with Iran would, and did, require enormous political capital. There was no way he could even consider substantive pressure on Israel and the Palestinians to push for a final status agreement and pursue the Iran nuclear deal. He wisely chose the latter.

But Obama made another fatal error, this one in 2011, when he vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution that had been intentionally drafted to reflect official United States policy on Israeli settlements. The resolution imposed nothing on the parties other than calling on Israel to stop settlement expansion, as Obama himself had called for, and negotiate the final status issues. By vetoing this resolution, Obama made it clear that there would be no pressure on Israel from him beyond rhetoric.

Few were ready to say so then, but it was on that day, nearly seven years ago, that the Oslo process died. Obama would, of course, continue to allow John Kerry to try his hand at making peace, but Obama’s own involvement was much more subdued and without a strong push from the president, there wasn’t even hope for a miracle.

Ironically, UNSC 2334, from which the US abstained in December 2016, was quite similar to the one Obama had vetoed. While the resolution gave Obama a small feather in his cap on his departure, and offered a strand of hope to those working for a diplomatic solution to the ongoing denial of rights to the Palestinian people, it was far too little and far too late.

Donald Trump, with his refusal to call for a two-state solution, his stacking his Mideast team with supporters of Israeli settlers and far right elements, his close relationship to Benjamin Netanyahu and, finally, his reckless recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, really did nothing more than proclaim the death that Obama had done much more to bring about. Their intentions couldn’t have been more different, but the result was the same.

Where to now?

At this point, the real question is how long it will take the world to acknowledge that the old game is over. The two-state solution need not be abandoned, but it must be reconsidered and reformulated. All options now must be considered, and it remains to be seen what outcome the Palestinians themselves will seek.

We know what Israel wants: continued control over the West Bank with very limited autonomy for the Palestinians in non-contiguous territory that, if they wish, they can call a state. Obviously, that is not what the Palestinians want. If it is true, as current rumor has it, that the United States and Saudi Arabia are working on a plan to force Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to accept such a deal, that effort is unlikely to succeed—especially now that Trump has turned up the tension with his Jerusalem declaration.

But as grim as things are, there is also a real opportunity here. The U.S.-led process is dead. The focus now must be on a new process. Whether that process has the same or a different goal, it cannot be led by the United States. If the last quarter century proves anything, that’s it.

An international coalition, along the lines of the P5+1 that negotiated the Iran deal, albeit with less U.S. leadership this time around, would have a much better chance to insulate itself against reactionary domestic pressures—in the U.S. and the European Union as well—that work to ensure the full denial of Palestinian rights.

This is a greater possibility than ever because Trump has already diminished U.S. influence significantly around the world, and the bullying style on display again at the UN in recent weeks will only accelerate that process. The European Union, even without the United Kingdom, is still Israel’s largest trading partner by far. If they can work with China and Russia on formulating a peace plan that has some teeth in it, Israel cannot ignore that. The U.S. can be involved, as an equal, and in that case, its role as Israel’s “lawyer” can be a positive, providing a voice for Israel without the ability to block the global consensus.

It can be tough for many to face, but the U.S. role as broker has been perhaps the biggest reason for the failure of the peace process. That’s not to absolve Israel or the Palestinians, both of whom have contributed plenty to that failure. But for the US, Israel is a key ally, while the Palestinians are, at best, a charity case. Israel has strong political pull in Washington, the Palestinians have none. The US cannot be anything but a destructive player in a negotiation where a great power is needed to mediate and bridge the gap between a regional superpower and a stateless people.

Now there is an opportunity for the international community to change this framework. As things stand now, they will not do it. The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS) has not succeeded in shifting the ground in Europe, let alone in the United States, toward serious action to press both sides into a workable and lasting agreement.

But a grassroots push is exactly the right idea. Now is the time for everyone who cares about Israel, the Palestinians, the Middle East, and global peace to organize, lobby, demonstrate, petition, and advocate in every way they can for an international coalition with limited U.S. involvement. It can work, the window of opportunity has never been wider.