View from abroad: The plight of Palestinians

Irfan Husain

JUDGING from the rhetoric emanating from Tel Aviv, Israel is about to unleash Armageddon on all the 14 members of the UN Security Council that supported the recent resolution condemning the Zionist state for its settlement policy.

It has stopped its aid programme to Senegal, and told New Zealand that its vote was tantamount to a “declaration of war”. Ambassadors of these countries have been summoned by Benjamin Netanyahu for a tongue-lashing.

The United States — the one member of the Council that abstained — has come in for special abuse. Words like “betrayal”, “ambush” and “a stab in the back” have been bandied around by senior members of the Israeli government in reference to its staunch ally and generous benefactor.

For decades now, the Americans have been using their veto to kill any resolution even remotely critical of Israel and its 50-year-old occupation of the West Bank. It has almost become a regular feature of the Security Council agenda for some members to table a resolution critical of Israeli occupation, and calling for it to cease further settlement-building that has virtually killed off any chance of a two-state solution. And each time, the US exercises its veto, relieving pressure on Israel to return occupied territory.

But this time around, the Obama surprised the world — and stunned Israel — by abstaining, thus allowing the resolution to pass 14-0. In an unprecedented bid to stall this move, Netanyahu asked president-elect Trump to intervene with General Sisi, the Egyptian dictator, to withdraw the resolution as his country had initially tabled it. On getting a phone call from Trump, Sisi promptly folded. But four other countries then stepped in and obtained a unanimous vote.

The fact that a foreign leader could intervene so blatantly in internal American politics is unheard of, and drew this rebuke in an editorial in The New York Times, normally a pro-Israel daily:

“The dispute reflects not any change in American policy, but a dangerous evolution in Israeli policy … away from an acceptance of a negotiated two-state resolution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. The dispute also arises from Mr Netanyahu’s lamentable practise of making his government a more nakedly partisan player in American politics than any foreign government in memory, save Russia.”

This resolution, followed by a passionate speech from John Kerry, the American secretary of state, pressing for an end to settlements and a return to peace talks, elicited further fury from Tel Aviv. The education minister said openly in an interview with CNN that there was no question of returning any occupied land to the Palestinians. According to him, they already had a state, and it was called Gaza.

Despite the steady rise of the right in Israel, there are still some who are highly critical of the settlement policy. Zvi Bar’el writes in the liberal daily Haaretz: “But it seems that even Netanyahu, during those interludes when rage isn’t blinding him, understands that the UN, the institution that gave Israel its international legitimacy, is more than the sum of its parts. It is neither Senegal nor Ukraine. When it imposes sanctions, leaders are put on trial and countries are liable to collapse…”

But such sane voices have been largely drowned out in a steady drift to the right. To an extent, Palestinian discord is to blame: the hundreds of home-made rockets fired from Gaza have caused little damage to Israel; but they have created a lot of sympathy for the country. And terrorist attacks, although caused by years of repression and humiliation, have won the Palestinians few friends abroad. The bickering between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority has ensured that there is no clarity and unity in their bargaining position. Israel justifies its unwillingness to negotiate by pointing to Hamas’s refusal to accept its right to exist.

These factors, combined with the turmoil that has engulfed much of the Middle East these last few years, thanks largely to American-led interventions, have made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a sideshow. With Saudi Arabia joining Israel in a tacit anti-Iranian alliance, and with General Sisi openly siding with Israel, the Palestinians have no supporters in the Arab camp. In fact, the younger generation of Arabs pay little heed to the suffering of their Palestinian cousins.

There are now over 600,000 settlers occupying large chunks of the West Bank that are dotted across the land that was once supposed to become the state of Palestine. But Israelis have steadily encroached, building settlements in remote parts of the West Bank, thus making it increasingly impossible to envisage a contiguous state.

The New York Times, in the same editorial quoted earlier, writes: “For a long time, Mr Netanyahu gave lip service to a Palestinian state. But there is no longer any room for illusion. Mr Netanyahu recently described his government as ‘more committed to settlements than any in Israel’s history’, and Naftali Bennett, one of Mr Netanyahu’s coalition partners, declared that ‘the era of the two-state solution is over’. Mr Netanyahu’s own United Nations ambassador, as Mr Kerry noted on Wednesday, rejects that solution, too.”

So what remains? Clearly, Obama’s and Kerry’s initiatives are too little, too late. With Trump about to take office, it is obvious that there is no hope for a two-state solution. Had Obama done what he did now two years ago, there might have been a chance of succeeding in attaining some momentum.

Right-wing Israelis — backed by their supporters in America — have proposed that Egypt could take over Gaza, while Palestinians in the West Bank would have certain rights that excluded the right to vote in Israeli elections. Isolated, divided and unsupported, Palestinians have little to look forward to over the coming years.

Published in Dawn, January 2nd, 2017

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