The US is no honest broker in Israel and Palestine
For nearly half a century, it has been an axiom of international politics that the United States is the sole fitting mediator in the conflict between Israel and the Arab World – specifically, between Israel and the Palestinians.
In 1974, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger edged the Soviet Union out of co-sponsoring Middle East peace efforts, in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, and arrogated further mediation to the US alone. Since then, all successive US presidents and secretaries of state have felt obliged to dabble in Middle East mediation – some of them taking this task very seriously, others paying little more than lip service.
This American diplomatic monopoly has been taken for granted for such a long time that few have paused to ask the elementary question: how could Israel’s main economic and military ally, which provides enormous sums in annual aid and state of the art weaponry, be at the same time a neutral and impartial mediator between Israel and its foes? After all, in no private commercial dispute would one of the parties involved be considered for the role of arbiter.
The American mediation paradigm emerged in the direct aftermath of the 1967 six-day war, when Israel conquered territories from Syria, Jordan and Egypt. The paradigm arose because the US was the only nation with the clout to make Israel disgorge the territories it had conquered. In fact, the US had already pushed Israel back: in 1957, President Eisenhower forced Israel to withdraw from Sinai, acting far more bluntly than any later American president.
In 1975, Kissinger got a slice of Sinai back for Egypt, which was enough for the latter country to repudiate the Soviet Union. President Jimmy Carter brokered the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty in 1978, which gave Egypt the whole of Sinai and also generous US aid on an annual basis. The treaty endured all of Egypt’s vicissitudes and a couple of regime changes, and the US got a solid and reliable ally in the Middle East thereby establishing its unassailable position as the indispensable mediator.
The Oslo failure
Yet the effort to mediate Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians – which involves a smaller territory but far more people, together with sensitive historical and religious issues – ended in dismal failure.In 1993, the US butted into the Oslo Peace Process, negotiated – as a rare exception – under the auspices of Norway: a country which had a real claim to be a disinterested mediator with no axe of its own to grind in the Middle East. Partly, this can be attributed to the Palestinians being a stateless people with much less leverage than Egypt, and that their armed struggle – even when directed towards soldiers – could then be tainted as ‘terrorism’.
The Norwegians were unceremoniously shoved aside. A preliminary document – which had been carefully worked out by well-meaning Israeli intellectuals negotiating with well-meaning Palestinian intellectuals, under the sponsorship of well-meaning Norwegian intellectuals – fell into the custody of Bill Clinton, then President of the United States.
It was Clinton who personally oversaw the attempt to transform it into a full-fledged Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement – an attempt that ended in disastrous failure and thousands of violent deaths.
Clinton may have had good intentions. He did make some worthy gestures and delivered a very moving eulogy for the assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a martyr for peace. Still, during his seven-year stewardship of the Oslo Peace Process, it became hopelessly entangled in Israel’s special relationship with the US and a hostage to Israel’s considerable leverage in American domestic politics.
The disastrous conclusion came in August 2000, when Clinton spoke on prime-time Israeli TV squarely placing the blame for the failure of the Camp David Summit on Yasser Arafat, asserting that he had unreasonably rejected Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s ‘astonishingly generous offers’.
More than any other single action, that statement by Clinton helped fix within the Israeli collective consciousness the perception that ‘there is no Palestinian partner’ and hence peace is impossible. This directly led to the complete ascendancy of the rightwing in Israeli politics – specifically, the prolonged tenure of Benjamin Netanyahu.
If there is no Palestinian partner for peace, there is no raison d'être for an Israeli leftwing and no reason why Israelis should vote for a peace party. In all my years as an activist, there has never been a harder task than trying to convince mainstream Israelis that Ehud Barak’s offers to the Palestinians were not, in fact, all that generous. An impossible mission if there ever was one.
Though I have no concrete proof, I feel quite sure that Clinton’s posture at that critical juncture had a lot to do with the fact that his wife Hillary was running for the Senate in the State of New York at the time – and therefore highly vulnerable to the influence of the domestic pro-Israel lobby.
The painful years of the second intifada followed for Israelis and Palestinians – coinciding with the years of George W Bush in the White House. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Bush was quickly persuaded to include Yasser Arafat on his list of ‘world terrorists’ and authorize Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to bloodily reoccupy the West Bank cities evacuated in the Oslo years.
In the process, Bush undermined the position of his own Secretary of State, Colin Powell, who made some effort to take a more nuanced position. Sharon soon learned that he could countermand whatever Powel said with a simple phone call to the White House.
Bush also declared that Israel would not have to go back to its original 1967 borders, but would be able to retain ‘major population centres’ that had been established in the Palestinian Territories. Exactly what these were has never been clarified. Bush probably meant a few big Israeli settlements with a population exceeding 10,000 each; in Hebrew, this was regularly translated as ‘settlement blocks’ – in other words, a large centre plus a cluster of 10 or 20 smaller surrounding settlements.
Too little, too late
Before getting to Donald Trump, I must say a few words about Barack Obama – the president who aroused many hopes and dashed most of them. There is little doubt that Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry were sincere in their wish to achieve peace, end the occupation and let an independent State of Palestine come into being. But achieving this required a head-on confrontation with Netanyahu – and with the support that Netanyahu could mobilize on Capitol Hill and in wider American society, Obama never quite steeled himself to do it.
Again and again, during the eight years of Obama’s two terms in office, it looked like this confrontation was coming. For instance, the memorable occasion when Vice President Joe Biden arrived on a state visit to Israel to be greeted with the announcement of a large-scale settlement construction project approved on the very same day.
On only one occasion did Obama go all the way in a confrontation with Netanyahu – and it was not about the Palestinians but on his nuclear agreement with Iran. Evidently, Obama either considered this to be of greater strategic importance or an issue where it would be easier to overcome Netanyahu's American supporters.
Only at the very last moment, as a complete lame duck, did Obama get around to releasing the stranglehold of the American veto in the UN Security Council to allow a resolution declaring the settlements a ‘flagrant violation of international law’ to pass.
Far too little and too late, as Trump was already elected and had made clear he was going to reverse this position as soon as he got to the White House. Had Obama done it in the first month of his first term – rather than in the last month of the second – the Middle East might be a very different place now.
Trump and the evangelical vote
One could say that Donald Trump’s support for Israel unashamedly brings to light the pre-existing absurdities and hypocrisy of America’s foreign policy. Or perhaps to provide an especially glaring example of Marx’s dictum that history repeats itself ‘first as tragedy, second as farce’.
The signs were clear from the outset when the new president announced his choice of ambassador to Israel: David Friedman, a close associate, donor and staunch ideological supporter of the radical religious-nationalist-messianic settlers on the West Bank.
It could have been predicted (and indeed was predicted by the demonstrators who protested at the Senate hearing of his confirmation), that Friedman would consider his primary duty to lobby on behalf of the settlers and the Israeli extreme right. And he has proved quite adept at that.
A pattern soon developed. The settlers would call on the US to take a certain unprecedented position, with the tacit backing of the Prime Minister’s office. Ambassador Friedman would then give an interview to one of the Israeli rightwing papers, saying that ‘the matter is under discussion in Washington’.
The career diplomats still left in the US State Department would cry out in protest as the proposed action violated long-established US policies – but they have very little influence left. (Rex Tillerson did try to block some of the wilder initiatives while Secretary of State – until he was sacked.) Meanwhile, the pattern appeases other Trump supporters like billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a major backer of both Trump and Netanyahu, and the president’s evangelical supporters.
The first clear indication that the Trump administration would make no pretence of impartiality came with the American embassy move to Jerusalem. It was much the same with cutting American aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), closure of the Palestinian Representative Office in Washington. and recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights. Last but not least, in 2018 came Trump’s repudiation of Obama’s agreement with Iran.
For Netanyahu, tearing up the Iran nuclear deal was clearly the most important of Trump’s ‘gifts’, though the prime minister was bitterly disappointed that the US president had no intention of following-through by going to war with Iran.
Since Netanyahu’s position in Israel has become increasingly precarious – repeat general elections, failure to form a government, facing criminal charges for corruption – Trump has become charier of offering further gifts, and there are reports that ‘the president does not like losers’.
However, back in June Ambassador Friedman gave one of his periodic interviews to the extreme-rightwing paper Makor Rishon saying: ‘The president thinks it is nonsense to say it is illegal for Jews to settle in Judea and Samaria,’ adding that Trump might find ‘the right occasion’ to make this opinion public.
The exact timing seems to have been provided by the European Union’s Court of Justice, which ruled in November that EU member states were obliged to clearly label products coming from Israeli settlements in occupied territories to note their true origin, rather than allowing them to be marked: ‘Made in Israel’.
Though a minimal step, as settlement goods were not banned from the European market, Netanyahu’s government and its supporters protested loudly of antisemitism and hollered for the Trump administration to provide a suitable counter-measure. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo duly announced a week later that Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank are not ‘inconsistent with international law’, reversing four decades of US policy.
The ‘pro-Israeli’ announcement got only tepid reactions from most Jewish people living in America, who thoroughly detest Trump and have become increasingly alienated from Netanyahu’s Israel. But it was greeted very warmly among Christian evangelists. Mike Evans, the founder of the Christian Zionist organization and the Jerusalem Prayer Team, and a member of Trump’s informal group of evangelical Christian advisers, said in an interview with the Religion News Service that: ‘It was a tremendous answer to prayer from evangelicals. In our opinion, it’s recognizing the Bible as legal.’
Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the US, pointed out that ‘to
win re-election, Trump needs to win in four or five battleground states – and all those four or five states have a strong evangelical presence.’ Pompeo himself is rumoured to be contemplating running for the Senate in Kansas, a state where evangelicals are especially strong.
Except for a brief period under the Carter administration, the US has never declared the Israeli settlements to be illegal. In fact, Ronald Reagan openly declared that he didn’t believe the Israeli settlements in the West Bank were illegal.
However, the US has habitually declared the settlements to be ‘unhelpful’ or ‘an obstacle to peace’ and the like. Such terms were used in often perfunctory statements issued by the US State Department, under previous administrations, whenever a new Israeli settlement project was announced.
Since Trump’s arrival in office, there have been no such statements. This was correctly regarded as tacit American authorization of settlement construction, even before the US officially declared them ‘not illegal’. The settlers now hope for an increased construction spree following the Pompeo statement.
However, as veteran Israeli commentator Nahum Bar’nea wrote in a weekly column in the national newspaper Yediot Aharonot, there are already about 500,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank. Legal or not, for any Israeli government to remove them – or withdraw the army and leave them behind – would be an extremely difficult political operation.
Ahead of the 17 September general election, Netanyahu floated the idea of annexing the Jordan Valley, which has a comparatively small Palestinian population and comprises about a third of the entire West Bank.
Its annexation would spell the end of any chance of creating a viable Palestinian state. Most West Bank Palestinians would remain in an enclave, surrounded by Israeli territory but not annexed themselves; thereby remaining under military rule and denied any kind of civil rights. Pompeo’s statement effectively backing settlements in the West Bank signalled a dramatic shift in US policy on Israel and has been widely interpreted as a tacit go-ahead for the Jordan Valley annexation.
For the time being, Netanyahu’s annexation plans have been put on hold by his failure to secure a majority in the elections and his indictment for corruption. The current parliamentary stalemate seems bound to end in another general election – the third within 12 months – and it may take some time to form a stable Israeli government that can take far-reaching decisions. But possible Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley will remain on the agenda and is likely to surface again for Netanyahu’s replacement.
The consequences of the Pompeo Statement for Israel and the Palestinians will depend on the outcome of the 2020 US elections. Trump’s re-election would be disastrous for the US and the whole world. In the Middle East, four more years of Trump would likely spell the end of any hope for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Israel would be set firmly on its way to becoming an oppressive apartheid state, offering the Palestinians neither a nation of their own nor equal rights; and so it would likely remain as long as Israel maintains regional military superiority and the US is able and willing to keep up its backing.
The only recourse for the Palestinians would be to remain infinitely patient, endure oppression as best they can, and bide their time for decades or generations to come – waiting for an eventual overturn of the regional and global balance of power.
On the other hand, should the Democrats succeed in ousting Trump in November 2020, there could be room for cautious hope. Netanyahu and Trump between them have managed to drag the Democratic Party to the left. Outspoken criticism of Israeli policies, of the kind that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago, has become commonplace today.
A Democrat in the White House would likely make as much effort to erase the Trump legacy as Trump has done for Obama. All leading presidential candidates – not only the radical Bernie Sanders and left-leaning Elizabeth Warren, but also the moderate Joe Biden – have denounced Pompeo’s statement on the settlements and are likely to rescind it if elected.
In November over 100 Democratic Congress members, including 12 committee chairpersons, sent Mike Pompeo a letter condemning his statement, alleging that it ‘discredited the United States as an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, severely damaged prospects for peace, and endangered the security of America, Israel and the Palestinian people.’
The letter is cause for some hope – that under a post-Trump Democratic administration, the US would make some effort to be, in truth, an honest broker.