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( Palestine-Israel Journal, Vol. 25, 2020) By Ziad AbuZayyad
Regardless of public statements by some Palestinian leaders designed for local consumption, I want to emphasize that I have never heard a Palestinian leader who believes in the possibility of achieving a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without the United States. On the contrary, as a former negotiator and minster who worked closely with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Yasser Arafat and his associates at a crucial phase of the negotiations and efforts to seek a political solution to the conflict, I can confidently say that we all believed that nothing could move forward without the involvement of the U.S.
This is simply because it is the only country in the world that has influence over Israel, thanks to its special relations with the Jewish state. It is Israel’s biggest supporter, providing billions of dollars annually in economic and military aid, including the most sophisticated weapons and advanced military technology. In the political-diplomatic realm, successive U.S. administrations have always been ready to veto any United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution not favored by Israel. The single exception was the U.S. abstention on UNSC Resolution 2334, but after taking office, President Donald Trump sought to overturn that as well.
Taking this into account, the Palestinian leadership tried its best to be on good terms with the U.S. Administration and establish direct contacts with it. This became possible in the late 1980s after the PLO adhered to the U.S. conditions by recognizing UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338, denouncing terror, and recognizing Israel’s right to exist. Direct contacts between the two parties became possible in the late ’80s and were strengthened after the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 and the peace negotiations in Washington that began in December 1991 and ended in January 1994, four months after the signing of the Oslo Accords at the White House on September 13, 1993, under the auspices of President Bill Clinton.
Retreat from U.S. Policy against Settlements
Following the establishment of Israel in 1948, successive U.S. Administrations followed a two-track policy which was supportive of Israel and its security while, at the same time, tried to maintain a balanced relationship with the Arab countries in the region to counter Soviet influence at that time.
In an excerpt from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s book The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963-1969, published in the New York Times on October 23, 1971, he wrote:
“From the founding of Israel in 1948 we had supported the territorial integrity of all the states in that region. Our commitment was rooted in the tripartite declaration of 1950, in which the United States, Great Britain and France promised to oppose any effort to alter by force the national borders in the Middle East.”
Later on, after the 1967 War, the U.S. continued to be committed to achieving a political settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while opposed the settlement activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT).
In an article published in Foreign Affairs on January 13, 2016, former U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer wrote: “For the past four decades, every U.S. Administration has opposed the construction of settlements in the territories that Israel has occupied since 1967. The Carter administration termed the settlements “illegal.” President Ronald Reagan called for “the immediate adoption of a settlement freeze,” noting that “further settlement activity is in no way necessary for the security of Israel and only diminishes the confidence of the Arabs that a final outcome can be freely and fairly negotiated.”
Kurtzer added: “President George H.W. Bush withheld loan guarantees that Israel needed to absorb Soviet Jewish immigrants until Israel agreed not to settle the immigrants in the occupied territories. And during the Clinton administration, the U.S. Congress passed legislation to deduct the amount of money Israel spent on settlement-related activity from U.S. assistance to Israel (apart from security aid).”
Subsequently, the U.S. gradually retreated from this strong position that settlements are illegal to milder language that called settlement activities an obstacle to peace and then to a rather vacuous position that cautioned Israel against taking “unilateral steps.” While engaged in this retreat, the U.S. continued to monopolize efforts to achieve a political solution and blocked the road to European or any other international intervention except by the Quartet, which is dominated by the U.S., while neutralizing the role of the UN.
This policy continued until very recently, when the Trump administration did a 180-degree turn and abandoned the traditional American position against Jewish settlement in the OPT and in favor of a two-state solution to the conflict. The official American position today, as expressed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador to Israel Daniel M. Freidman, is that settlements are legal.
Steps to Sideline the Palestinians
In his first meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in the Oval Office on May 3, 2017, Trump said that the U.S. could not impose an agreement on Israel and Palestine and emphasized that “the Palestinians and Israelis must work together to reach an agreement that allows both peoples to live, worship and thrive and prosper in peace.”
A few weeks later, speaking alongside Abbas after their meeting in Bethlehem on May 28 on the second day of Trump’s trip to Israel and Palestine, Trump said: “I am committed to trying to achieve a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and I intend to do everything I can to help them achieve that goal,” adding that “President Abbas assured me he is ready to work toward that goal in good faith, and Prime Minister Netanyahu has promised the same. I look forward to working with these leaders toward a lasting peace.”
This attitude was welcomed by the Palestinian leadership and raised hopes that Trump would contribute to the achievement of a fair settlement. Yet, the U.S. Administration had already started sending signals that this was not the case. The appointment of Friedman, a strong supporter of Jewish settlements in the OPT, as U.S. ambassador to Israel was the first indication that the peace plan that Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, had in mind would be bad news. This act was followed by several moves that worsened relations with the Palestinians and dashed any hope they had. Among them was the closing of the PLO Mission in Washington, D.C.; cuts in aid to the PA, including funds allocated to East Jerusalem hospitals that care for Palestinians, recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the transfer of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; cuts in aid to UNRWA in an attempt to eliminate the Palestinian refugee issue, the change to the status of the American consulate in Jerusalem, making it subservient to the embassy and ending its role as the address for the Palestinians; and, finally, the announcement of the so-called “Deal of the Century.”
The measures taken against the Palestinians came as a shock and put the Palestinian leadership on alert, expecting the worst. As different Palestinian forums and circles discussed the new situation, some Palestinian security officials visited Washington to meet with CIA personnel and others, but all these efforts failed to reverse the new trend taking root in Washington. It became clear that the U.S. Administration is fully under the influence of the Evangelical messianic right-wing Christians in the United States led by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and its pro-settlement Ambassador to Israel Daniel Friedman, and the right-wing Israeli government, in addition to adopting Netanyahu’s argument that normalizing relations with the Arab world should come before resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This argument was strengthened by the escalation in tensions between Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states on the one hand and Iran on the other. This escalation created the impression that Israel and the Arab world shared a common enemy against whom they can cooperate, while setting the Palestinian issue aside. The establishing of relations between some Gulf States and Israel, both publicly and secretly contributed to strengthening this impression. As such, changing regional dynamics and nods of approval from Arab states that they are willing to partner with Israel, for their own interests at the expense of the Palestinians, probably played a role in emboldening Israel and the U.S.
Since the early days of the Israeli occupation in 1967, Israel’s policy has been to ignore the Palestinian partner and seek a functional solution with Jordan. In the 1970s, this developed into a process of undermining any possibility of a withdrawal from the OPT or the creation of a Palestinian state by enhancing settlement activity to fragment the OPT, disconnecting cities and villages from each other by surrounding them with Jewish settlements and expanding the Israeli infrastructure of roads, highways, water, electricity, communications, legal constituency, administration, and other means of integrating the settlements into Israel.
The Trump Deal Demonstrates Ignorance and Defies International Law
Looking at the Trump deal or vision — call it whatever you want — one finds that it lacks a minimal understanding of the complexity of the Palestinian issue in all its aspects from 1948 to today. It demonstrates total ignorance of international politics and defies the fundamental principles of international conventions and laws, including international customary law that has developed and become part of the international legal system and behavior since World War II.
On the eve of Trump’s announcement of his deal, some argued that the Palestinian leadership should not dismiss the plan out of hand but rather wait for its release and make a positive response by accepting its positive components and engaging in negotiations to change its negative components. They said the Palestinians shouldn’t and affirm former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban’s statement that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
I myself, two days before the announcement of the plan, wrote the following in my weekly column in al-Quds Arabic-language daily newspaper: “I call upon the Palestinian leadership not to give this gift to the Israelis who count on the Palestinian rejection of the plan, and for the response of the Palestinians to be that we … welcome the positive elements contained in President Trump’s plan and call on the United Nations and major countries, including America, to hold a peace conference to develop the Trump plan and address the negatives it includes through serious negotiations and on the basis of international legitimacy resolutions.”
Looking back on what I wrote then, I regret to say that I was overly optimistic or even naïve in expecting something positive to come from a process dominated by Friedman, Kushner, and Jason Greenblatt, all of whom were known to be supporters of the settlers and of the right-wing policies of the Netanyahu Government. This was one of few things I have written and come to regret, because Trump’s deal is a nonstarter and a vision that has no vision. It is a document written by settlement supporters with input from fanatic Jewish settlers themselves, and it is riddled with the ideological expressions and terminology used by the Israeli right wing.
The Trump-Kushner team dealt with the Palestinians with superiority and arrogance. They underestimated their national aspirations, self-respect and dignity of the Palestinian people and thought it possible to use their material needs to squeeze them and blackmail them. They took the Palestinians for granted as a defeated people willing to surrender. Trump’s “deal,” which is not a deal, is based on the assumption that the Palestinians have lost and the winner has the right to dictate the terms of the settlement rather than negotiate it.
A Demand to Accept the Current Reality
The Trump team led by Kushner had no background in diplomacy or international relations. They came from the world of business and real estate. Kushner declared that we are in 2020, not in 1967, and that the solution to the conflict should be based on the reality on the ground today and not what was then! In other words, he said that the Palestinians should abandon all previously agreed, negotiated peace agreements, all relevant UN Resolutions, and international law and just accept today’s reality.
The reality that Kushner is suggesting that we accept is Israel’s fragmentation of the Palestinian space by building settlements, putting restrictions on movement, and integrating the settlements into Israel. This is what he proposes as a solution, instead of calling it a problem that needs to be dealt with and resolved. Thus, the essence of the Trump plan is about making permanent what was supposed to be temporary, instead of recognizing and addressing a problem that should be resolved via negotiations based on internationally agreed parameters, international law and the principles of UNSC resolutions. Calling this plan a political solution makes it worse than the current reality, because it means that there is no more occupation and that the Palestinians should be happy to give up their land and national rights and live under ongoing occupation which is nothing less than an apartheid regime.
Even if not fully implemented, the Trump plan has given Israel the green light to turn the temporary occupation into permanent annexation, thereby achieving its true goal of changing the paradigm of the two-state solution. It’s intended to leave us with an apartheid state in which some people have rights and others do not. If this becomes the baseline, it will not be a recipe for peace but for permanent, perpetual conflict. The idea that the Palestinians will agree to live forever without rights isn’t going to work.
If annexation takes place, that’s a tectonic shift. The cornerstone of the international rules-based order is the non-acquisition of territory by force. This principle is embodied in UNSC Resolution 242, which was considered as a reference point for the peace process that started with the Madrid Conference and all the negotiations that followed.
According to the Trump plan, Israel will annex about 30 % of the West Bank, which is fragmented and clustered by settlements. The so-called Palestinian state will then be a cluster of pieces of land that are disconnected and completely encircled by Israel. These pieces of land will be connected by bridges and tunnels that are under Israeli control, and Israeli occupation soldiers will decide who moves around the so-called Palestinian state. A single military vehicle at any of these tunnels, bridges or roads can halt any contact or movement between the Palestinian areas that constitute the so-called state, and all exits from the Palestinian territories to and from the outside world will be under Israeli military control. Thus, the Israeli army will continue to have full control over the daily lives and freedom of movement of the Palestinians within their so-called state-to-be.
Although the plan speaks of the establishment of a Palestinian state in this fragmented area after four years, it gives immediate recognition to Israeli sovereignty over the settlements on the one hand while it presents a long list of conditions that the Palestinians must meet before the establishment of their so-called state. Furthermore, it gives Israel the right to decide if the Palestinians have met these conditions. The answer is known in advance.
Israel will never admit that the Palestinians are ready for statehood, and there will never ever be a Palestinian state on the basis of this vision of annexation and normalization of the occupation. As for Jerusalem, it is needless to say that Jerusalem lies at the core of the conflict. Despite Trump’s declaration that he took Jerusalem “off the table” and his deluded belief that he could do so and still propose an acceptable peace plan, no Palestinian leader will accept a solution without having Arab Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine and having full control and sovereignty over al-Haram al-Sharif.
The Palestinian Struggle for Peace and Justice Will Continue
This plan is a total surrender to the Israeli policy of eternal occupation and the creation of Greater Israel on all of historical Palestine while completely denying the Palestinians’ existence and rights.
The dangers posed by the Trump plan go beyond annexation, perpetual occupation, and the eradication of the two-state solution. The plan is a recipe for an apartheid regime and will lead to continuous conflict accompanied by violence and bloodshed on both sides. Its release alone has emboldened the fanatic Israeli settlers to escalate their attacks on the Palestinians and their property. What is urgently needed is to renewal negotiations process under international legitimacy, represented by international law and relevant UN resolutions as its terms of reference.
In his speech before the UN Security Council on February 11, 2020, President Abbas rightly described the Trump plan as “an Israeli-American preemptive plan in order to put an end to the question of Palestine. The plan rewards the occupation instead of holding it accountable for all the crimes it has perpetrated against our people and our land. This plan will not bring peace or stability to the region and therefore we will not accept this plan. We will confront its application on the ground.”
With these words, Abbas expressed what every Palestinian feels and thinks. We have survived all attempts to liquidate our cause over more than a century, and we will continue our struggle for peace and justice with dignity while recognizing the universal human values of justice and human rights of every human on earth, including our neighbors, the Israelis.
Rejecting Trump plan is rejecting the denial of the Palestinian narrative, the denial of the Palestinian peoples’ right of self-determination, and the denial of the Palestinians right to live in peace, security and dignity on their own land.
“The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily express Fanack’s views.”