U.S. Policy toward Israel/Palestine in a Deglobalizing World: A Pre-Pandemic Perspective
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 11 May 2020
7 May 2020 – The text below is drawn from my presentation at the TRT World Forum, 21-22 October 2019. The conference theme was ‘Globalisation in Retreat: Risks and Opportunities.’ What strikes me now is how different the world seems only six months later due to the surreal impacts of the Coronavirus Pandemic on all aspects of perception and assessment, the totality of dislocating developments, and the heightening of an existential appreciation of the precariousness of individual and collective experience and of the radical uncertainty clouding our expectations of the future. Surely my paper would read radically differently if rewritten in ways that took fuller account of intervening developments (the Trump/Kushner Plan) as well as the pandemic.
U.S. Policy toward Israel/Palestine in a Deglobalizing World
Points of Departure
This paper considers some impacts of the retreat from globalization on the evolution of Israel/Palestine relations, giving special attention to the regressive character U.S. policy toward the unresolved conflict. This retreat is a complex ongoing phenomenon, generating both risks and opportunities, which are changing through time, and the present character of these threats and opportunities will be explored here. A central feature of world order in the course of this retreat from globalization is the rise of ultra-nationalist political leadership in many important countries that has resulted in a generalized withdrawal of support from cooperative responses to global problem-solving, relying instead on transactional bargains between governments as shaped by geopolitical disparities rather than by deference to considerations of international law, diplomatic compromise, and global justice.
Despite these recent negative developments, the politics, culture, and economics of globalization should not be romanticized (Falk, 1999), or more specifically not viewed as achieving positive results in relation to the century of struggle by the Palestinian people to address their legitimate grievances. Above all, the Palestinians have endured the denial of their inalienable right of national self-determination and been victimized by the imposition of apartheid structures of control on the Palestinian people as a whole, that is, whether living under occupation or otherwise. (Falk & Tilley, 2017). The Palestinian people have been victimized by the primacy of geopolitics for more than a century, ever since the issuance of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, which has illustrated the limits of normative (legal and moral) globalization. The retreat from globalization seems to have accentuated the disregard of international law and the authority of the United Nations, highlighted in relation to Israel/Palestine by the release of the Trump/Kushner plan with the absurd claim to offer ‘the deal of the century.’(U.S. Government, 2020). Such a trend if allowed to continue does amount to a severe setback for Palestinian legitimate aspirations, but such a bleak prospect is being challenged by parallel developments.
Whether this retreat from globalization is cyclical, soon to be reversed, or a longer-term linear trend is difficult to discern at this time. Its trajectory is highly contingent on the impingement from unforeseeable political, economic, and ecological developments. It may depend on the outcome of such currently unpredictable developments as to whether the Democratic candidate selected to oppose Donald Trump will go on to win the November 2020 elections, and whether the COVID-19 virus can be contained without producing a global economic collapse. As well, it is important to interpret the depth and breadth of this retreat. It certainly reflects a populist reaction of angry frustration against various forms of inequality that led many people to feel disadvantaged by ‘neoliberal globalization,’ and a turn toward demagogic leaders who denounce such developments and point fingers at the imagined culprits, real and imagined. It has also given rise to an affirmation of nationalism as the most existentially relevant political and ideological alternative to globalism. This economistic mood of grassroots alienation also reflects hostile attitudes and disruptive adjustments that pertain to such historically conditioned challenges as global migration flows and trade tensions. Also relevant for achieving an understanding of these recent developments is whether the apparent re-bonding of peoples on the basis of nationalist, and even racist and civilizational conceptions of the outer limits of political community, is integral to the retreat or just a temporary shift in focus away from the global.
We need to keep in mind that despite these evident patterns of retreat, the world in many respects continues to be more interconnected and networked than at any time in human history, and these dynamics are continuing, perhaps even accelerating as technology advances, a largely unacknowledged new interconnections in this digitally driven form of ‘globalization-from-below.’ (Slaughter, 2004, 2019) As well, on ecological and health frontiers, climate change and the global spread of lethal disease, remind us that we cannot hope to address effectively the challenges of the contemporary world without strengthening mechanisms of global cooperation. The behavior of the United States Government in leading the retreat, withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the Nuclear Program Agreement with Iran (JCPOA, 2015) help us to appreciate how dysfunctional from a world order standpoint is a generalized retreat from globalization, and more concretely, what the loss of U.S. leadership in many global policy domains has meant. Such an endorsement of globalization should not, for instance, be understood as the approval of neoliberal globalization as it unfolded after the end of the Cold War. Indeed, this largely under regulated market driven approach to economic globalization greatly contributed to various types of inequality and alienation that led many peoples throughout the world to be receptive to the appeals advanced in favor of ultra-nationalism. In other words, the ultra-nationalism of the present should not be separated from a variety of disappointments brought about by predatory capitalism (Falk, 1999).
U.S. Retreat and Israel/Palestine
The reality of retreat bears crucially on the particular conflict between Israel and Palestine as reflected in the shift of the U.S. approach from its earlier pre-Trump role as partisan intermediary to its hyperbolic identity during the Trump presidency as super-partisan deal maker. Such a shift is fully in keeping with the broader pattern of retreat from globalization, but it has some additional distinguishing features. Above all, the personality and style of Trump, as reinforced by the influence of extreme Zionists donors and Evangelical Christians who constitute powerful elements of his political base. Translated into foreign policy this has meant that undisguised pro-Israeli unilateralism has replaced the earlier American diplomatic public stance of peacemaker, which uneasily coincided with the undisguised ‘special relationship’ with Israel. This special relationship meant concretely unconditional support in all security domains, although tempered by occasional murmurs of disapproval as by calling Israel’s periodic moves to accelerate the expansion of its unlawful settlements as ‘unhelpful.’ By way of contrast, in relation to the settlement movement, which struck an Israeli dagger into the heart of the two-states approach, the presidency of George W. Bush and continued under Barack Obama, Trump’s Secretary of State, agreed to close his eyes on their unlawfulness, but only in the context of an agree peace arrangement. Mike Pompeo abandons altogether the view that the establishment of settlements violates international law without the precondition of reaching an overall agreement (Pompeo, 2020). Beyond this, even before the release of the Trump/Kushner plan, U.S. foreign policy toward Israel after Trump assumed the presidency in early 2017 exhibited a blatant form of one-sided unilateralism with regard to previously unresolved issues: appointing as his principal advisors on Israel and Middle East policy only Zionist extremists (Kushner, Friedman, Greenblatt), moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights that were widely assumed to be occupied Syrian territory, cutting U.S. funding for UN humanitarian relief efforts in Gaza, and openly embracing Netanyahu’s racist leadership of Israel while turning his back on his Palestinian counterparts and their concerns.
Such a pattern of unilateralism is illustrative of the retreat hypothesis because it so directly undercuts not only the earlier somewhat more internationalist American approach, but also so bluntly departs from the global consensus at the UN that favored a negotiated solution that upheld Israel as a legitimate state but based its vision of peace on an agreed establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state that would then be accepted as a full member of the UN. A major component of this consensus was the view that diplomacy would be relied upon to resolve the future of Jerusalem, settlements, the treatment of Palestinian refugees, the fixing of borders, and the overall arrangement of security guarantees. On all counts, Israel has recently moved with the apparent approval of Washington to resolve these issues on its own by completing its expansionist agenda. This coordinated Israel/U.S. provocative postures was dramatized by the movement of the American Embassy to Jerusalem in early 2019, an initiative overwhelmingly condemned to no avail by the UN General Assembly (UNGA Res., 2019). The Jerusalem provocation, in particular, was a direct assault on the earlier global consensus and strong Islamic that had insisted that such issues, and especially the status of Jerusalem, be settled by compromises achieved in a negotiating process so as to give both sides the sense of win/win outcomes.
In important respects, what this Trump turn represented beyond its affinity with other expressions of anti-globalization was an assessment that the Oslo diplomacy had been tried and failed, and that it was an opportune time to make a shift toward a more muscular, less consensual, geopolitics.
Daniel Pipes, long a Zionist proponent best articulated this approach on his website, Middle East Forum, months before its adoption is slightly less crude form by Trump/Kushner (Pipes, 2017). Pipes insisted that diplomacy had been tried in good faith as the means to resolve the Israel/Palestine conflict, but had failed, and it was time to try a different approach. In his view, conflicts of this sort that prove difficult to resolve by diplomacy are shown by history to be ended only through the victory of one side that then dictates the terms of peace, with the losing side being compelled to surrender its political objectives. Without a glimmer of surprise, it was Pipes’ view that objective analysis identified Israel as the winner, Palestine the loser. Yet despite this, the conflict dragged on because the Palestinian leadership with its head in the clouds refused to accept this reality. The task of Israel, with U.S. backing, was to intensify coercion until Palestine sees the light and surrenders, and a new normal can be established. Trump/Kushner use a twisted language of ‘peace’ rather than the transparency of a ‘victory’ to set forth their conception of the end-game in the long struggle. The substance of the plan legitimizes Israel’s territorial and security ambitions and offers the Palestinians what is called ‘a state,’ but is in fact ‘a statelet’ that is nothing more than ‘a Bantustan,’ a shorthand reference to South African way of setting up totally subordinates political entities subject to the rigors of its apartheid structures of control. To encourage the Palestinians to swallow the Kool Aid of the deal of the century, the Palestinians are threatened with unnamed dire consequences if they reject, and enticed with sugar-coated offers of economic development assistance if they accept.
It is too early to gauge whether Palestine’s immediate rejection of the Trump/Kushner/Netanyahu victory approach will prevail. This undoubtedly depends on whether such an outcome is endorsed by the Israeli and American election results in 2020, especially the latter. If Netanyahu and Trump both win, then the Palestinian Authority will likely experience coercive pressures to give up their political ambitions, and opt for a more normalized economic and social life as the best result they can hope for. What is striking from the perspective of the globalization hypothesis is the willingness of the U.S. to depart so unconditionally from the global consensus to support Israel in a manner that seems not only anti-internationalist, but also in all likelihood works against its broader and longer term strategic national interests in the Middle East, which cannot count on the indefinite repression of fiercely pro-Palestinian sentiments among Arab populations. As such, this path to ‘peace’ compounds the retreat from globalization with a costly challenge to stability in the region. This imprudent posture is domestically driven by narrowly parochial interests as epitomized by AIPAC lobbying leverage and Zionist donor pressures on the American political process (Mearcheimer & Walt, 2003). Although these features of the American political scene antedated Trump, his presidency has accentuated their relevance.
With respect to the U.S. approach to Israel/Palestine it might not have assumed such an extreme form without the specificity of the Trump election. In other words, retreat from globalization would likely have been present whoever was the Republican nominee in 2016 and even likely, in the event that Hillary Clinton had been elected. Yet the anticipated retreat would have taken place in those circumstances of new American political leadership without breaking the continuity of approach to Israel and the conflict in the radical manner adopted by Trump. The American retreat might have emphasized anti-migrant, economic nationalism, and confrontation with Russia to a greater extent, and possibly less drastic withdrawals from globalist engagements in the security domain. That is even with American leaders other than Trump accepting the politics of retreat, it seems rather likely that policy toward Israel and Palestine would have displayed only minor changes from the Bush/Obama years, probably becoming even more reluctant to criticize Israel on settlement expansion than was Obama’s willingness to break with his own practice by allowing the 2016 criticism of Israel by the Security Council to reach a decision, abstaining rather than as on prior occasions, using its veto to shield Israel from formal censure even if it stood alone in doing so. It is never possible to be very confident about ‘what if’ conjectures, but nevertheless it seems highly unlikely that had a different president been voted into office in 2016 the approach to Palestinian grievances would have abandoned diplomacy and opted so openly for coercion and unilateralism. (Falk, 2017)
What likely would have occurred with the Republican alternatives to Trump in 2016 but not so if Clinton had won is a retreat from what might be called ‘normative globalization,’ which is the most obvious common anti-globalization stance being taken across the globe. What this normative dimension of retreat entails is a general lessening of confidence in and respect for the UN and international law, and a declining reliance on global approaches to problem-solving, whether the subject-matter is trade relations, human rights, migrant flow, or climate change.
In such a transactional atmosphere, problem-solving with respect to international conflict resolution relies heavily on coercive diplomacy among states and the geopolitical priorities of dominant states. The effect could be to sharpen geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China, U.S. and Russia, and possibly give rise to a new Cold War, with regional military confrontations and dangerous escalation dangers. In this set of circumstances, the emergence of autocratic and ultra-nationalist leadership would lead to more pragmatic relationships reflecting geopolitical priorities rather than normative affinities based on shared values and world order commitments.
Risks Associated with Trump’s Version of Retreat from Globalization
Superficially, and in the short run, Israel has been a beneficiary of this U.S. shift in diplomatic posture, but there are secondary effects and contingencies that may yet turn out to be favorable to the Palestinian struggle. More concretely, this means that the United States no longer seeks to act in general accord with the international consensus that has been shaped over the decades at the UN and elsewhere, which although reflecting a pro-Israel bias, endorsed the view that this conflict could only be resolved by some sort of negotiated accommodation between Israelis and Palestinians that set the terms and established a process for achieving a sustainable peace.
Of course, this shift in U.S. policy reflected several converging factors that resulted in the Trump presidency of which a retreat from the UN consensus and rule-governed global diplomacy was only one element. Other factors included the influence exerted by Zionist donors in American domestic politics and by Trump family members, the softening of the attitudes of Arab governments toward Israel, the reduced Western dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and the heightening of tensions with Iran. Yet the retreat from globalization is of the greatest importance as explaining the disregard of the international consensus exhibited at the UN that had somewhat constrained earlier U.S. policy, yet these limits should not be overstated as they did not prevent the continuous erosion of Palestinian rights and expectations as measured by the rules and principles of international law. That is, despite U.S. global leadership, and endorsement of globalization, in relation to Israel/Palestine an incremental coercive diplomacy that favored Israel was what led to a steady deterioration of the Palestinian position. In this respect the super-partisanship of the Trump presidency removed the pretenses and inconsistencies of normative globalization that had not materially helped the Palestinian side, while covering up the one-sided support of Israel’s political zero-sum agenda. Does this greater clarity give Palestinians new opportunities as well as pose more severe challenges?
The United States has for more than 25 years claimed the role of indispensable intermediary in working toward a negotiated peace arrangement between Israel and Palestine. Such a role reflected its global leadership status that was without challenge after the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, as well as Israel’s insistence that if negotiations were ever to occur, they had to be conducted within a framework presided over by the United States. The U.S. status as global leader also corresponded with a renewed emphasis on the Middle East (and East Asia) given the altered historical circumstance. This meant replacing Europe as the strategic site of geopolitical struggle in a globalizing world. The importance of the Middle East for the United States reflected four interrelated concerns: access to the regional oil reserves at affordable prices; ensuring Israeli security; containing the spread of political Islam in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution (1979); avoiding any further proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region.
Given these realities there existed a strong diplomatic incentive on the part of the United States to find a solution to the Palestinian struggle that would alleviate pro-Palestinian pressures without appearing to weaken the ideological and strategic special relationship between the United States and Israel. After years of frustration on the diplomatic terrain, the Oslo Framework of Principles, agreed upon in 1993, seemed to provide a credible path to compromise and peace, consisting of the regional normalization of Israel as a legitimate state within agreed borders and the establishment of a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as the joint capital of the two states, the satisfaction of Israeli security concerns, some kind of compensation as a substitute for the repatriation of Palestinian refugees, and the legalization of most of Israel unlawful encroachments (separation wall, settlements, road network, security zones) on formerly occupied Palestine. This peace dynamic, although sharply favorable to Israel, was viewed as the most realistic political compromise that could be achieved. Its adoption by the most affected parties also silenced most opposition in international arenas.
This new dynamic was celebrated as a major breakthrough, launched with theatrical fanfare by the dramatic handshake on the White House lawn. The famous 1993 picture of the Israeli leader, Yitzhak Rabin, shaking hands with the PLO leader, Yasir Arafat, and a smiling U.S. President, Bill Clinton standing in between, was the iconic climax of choosing this delusionary path to peace. These delusions were challenged two years later by the assassination of Rabin, and even more by the rightward drift of Israeli politics and the growing influence of the settler movement, but the diplomacy dragged on and on, and even the Palestinians seemed lulled to inaction as the diplomacy continued wending its way through a labyrinth without an exit.
What is most relevant to the focus adopted here is that this diplomatic approach under U.S. auspices was superficially respectful toward the international consensus on how to address the conflict—that is, by diplomacy that was framed as negotiations between the parties, and was understood to seek compromises on the main issues in contention (territory, settlements, refugees, Jerusalem, security). This outlook, supported by bipartisanship in the United States, meaning overwhelming Congressional support and a continuity of approach whether the president was a Democrat or Republican. This Oslo peace process seemed consistent with American foreign policy of ‘liberal internationalism’ that persisted throughout the Cold War, and endured until 9/11 occurred, and being finally discarded by Trump. The Trump orientation may be described as militarist geopolitics and ultra-nationalist illiberalism. As applied to Israel/Palestine this means the Pipes victory scenario presented as diktat with scant interest in enticing Palestinian acceptance. As such, with irony, this most pro-Israeli of all American presidents has ironically fractured Jewish support for Israel, alienating not only progressive Jews but also many liberal Zionists who believed in a negotiated two-state peace agreement (Bishara, 2020).
However, to gain a proper attitude toward the Trump stance, it is necessary to avoid an unjustified embrace of this prior American peace diplomacy. it is crucial to identify the weaknesses of an approach that claimed fairness to the Palestinians while strongly slanting the process and its intended outcome toward Israel. As with Pipes, yet skillfully disguised as a compromise, Oslo diplomacy when deconstructed reveals a weaker version of an Israeli victory scenario (Baake & Omer, 20–). By failing to mention a Palestinian right of self-determination or affirm the equality of the two sides, the Oslo framework of principles set in motion a one-sided diplomacy that gave weight to power disparities, a bias further reinforced by having an overtly partisan intermediary.
This imbalance was further accentuated by the insistence that Palestinian negotiators swallow all objections to Israeli violations of international law until the so-called ‘final status’ negotiations at the last stage of the process. Palestinians were told that objecting in the present context would jeopardize the negotiations. Israel never ceased building and expanding its network of unlawful settlements and further encroaching on the Palestinian territorial remnant by securitizing the settlements, including connections to Israel, which truly undercut the credibility of negotiations. Beyond this, what were called ‘negotiations’ were basically occasions for Israel to put forward self-serving proposals for conflict resolution on a take it or leave it basis, realizing Israeli goals and neglecting Palestinian priorities, and undoubtedly expecting the Palestinian side to reject. In this period, the two sides also sought agreement in direct secret negotiations that were similarly, yet more explicitly, weighted in Israel’s favor, and indicated that despite the willingness of the PLO to give Israel most of what it wanted by way of keeping its settlements and meeting its security concerns the their Israeli counterparts showed little interest (Palestine Papers, 2—).
Even if the two sides somehow had signed such a one-sided peace agreement it might not have produced anything more substantial than a pause in the struggle, in effect, one more periodic ceasefire, and quite likely rejected by both the Israeli and Palestinian publics. Succeeding generations of Palestinians would not be likely to accept the validity such permanent subjugation in what purports to be a post-colonial world order. The wild fires of the ethics of nationalism and the politics of self-determination would almost certainly have doomed an arrangement that left Palestinians languishing in an entity called a state, but lacking in the most elemental aspect of sovereignty, control over its own security.
Even on the Israeli side, the Oslo slant may not have satisfied the implicit Zionist agenda of recovering the whole of the Promised Land, the biblical entitlement on which Israel’s claims rest, but was temporarily and tactically acceptable as it improved overall prospects to reach such a goal. This helps explain Israeli contentment despite a diplomatic process that seemed a bridge to nowhere, and never acknowledged Jewish biblical entitlement. For Israel the Oslo process was a bridge to somewhere, allowing the country to accumulate many facts on the ground, while further structuring the kind of apartheid state needed to check Palestinian resistance, thereby ensuring the stability of an ethnically based hegemonic social, economic, and political order. For Palestine, Oslo diplomacy proved to be a political disaster despite its initial gift wrapping, as the noose of victimization tightened to the point that Palestinians became virtual strangers, or even captives, in their own homeland, slowly recognizing that when the wrappings were removed the package within was an empty box. Such a dual process of Israel’s gain and Palestine’s loss occurred while the globalization fever remained high, and this one-sided dynamic achieved its momentum years before deglobalization trends became evident.
When Trump arrived on the political scene in 2017, the de facto reality of an Israeli one-state solution coexisted with defunct governmental and UN continued adherence to a de jure vision of a two-state outcome. What Trump sought by dropping the pretense of negotiating the future for Israel and Palestine was a changed formula for ending the struggle over the sequel to the British Mandate. Even Trump did not overtly affirm the major Zionist premise of biblical entitlement, using the accepted international terminology of ‘the West Bank’ rather than the promised land language of ‘Judea and Samaria.’ The Trump/Kushner approach legitimized facts on the ground as of 2020, suspending all scrutiny of the lawlessness by which the facts were accumulated. Kushner expressed this outlook clearly in an interview the day after the White House finally released its peace plan: “I’m not looking at the world as it existed in 1967. I’m looking at the world as it exists in 2020.” As well, Trump/Kushner’s deal avoided an explicit endorsement of the analysis of Pipes based on using force to induce the Palestinian leadership to surrender its political goals and accept Israel’s victory in the long struggle between these two peoples to control the identity of the homeland in what had been a Palestinian entity during the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate.
The other distinctive feature of the Trump approach was the explicit disregard of Palestinian rights under international law. The American Secretary of State in language rather parallel to the sentiments expressed by Kushner articulated the view that it was time to abandon the earlier U.S. official stance of regarding Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory as unlawful. In Mike Pompeo’s words of explanation, “… arguments about who is right and wrong in international law will not bring peace.” On behalf of the PLO, Hanan Ashrawi articulated anger and frustration in a tone of understandable exasperation: “We cannot express horror and shock because this is a pattern, but that doesn’t make it any less horrific..total disregard of international law, what is right and just, and for peace.”
Although Ashrawi’s words resonate with attitudes toward international law pre-Trump and pre-retreat, the discontinuity is not as great as liberal internationalists contend (ICJ, 2004). All through the post-1967 period of occupation, while the settlement process and related encroachments on Palestinian rights and aspirations occurred, the Palestinians were counseled to withhold their international law objections so that the peace process might go forward, and the Israelis were lightly scolded as their expansionist dreams became building projects. In this spirit violating international law was ‘unhelpful,’ but if sustained, could gain legal acceptance as they did in 2004 when the Bush/Sharon exchange of letters (Bush/Sharon, 2004) declared that the settlement blocs would become part of Israel’s sovereign territory in any future peace arrangement.
Rhetoric matters. And this overt show of disregard for international law is an integral aspect of this broader retreat from globalization. Respect for and confidence in international law and procedures is a vital precondition for encouraging globally cooperative approaches to problems that affect the world as a whole. The proudest achievements of liberal internationalism along these lines were based on lawmaking treaties governing such disparate matters as the public order of the oceans, the development of Antarctica, and some aspects of military competition in the nuclear age. With the rise of ultra-nationalism and the decline of global leadership by the United States, world order is again reliant on the pre-1945 state-centric style of geopolitical rivalry, but facing the severe diverse challenges of global scope that threaten the world with catastrophe in the 2020s and beyond.
The main risks attributable to this interplay between the retreat from globalization and the super-partisanship of American policy toward Israel/Palestine can be summarized as follows:
- stabilizing Israel’s apartheid state, while denying the Palestinian people basic human rights, particularly, the right of self-determination;
- weakening respect for international law, the UN, and the authority of diplomatic resolution of international disputes;
- expressing the transition in the American global and regional leadership roles from a liberal internationalist perspective to that of rogue superpower;
- lending support to an outcome of the long struggle based on power rather than law or ethic, thereby establishing a very unfortunate precedent for conflict resolution in the 21st
Opportunities Resulting from the New Realities of Retreat and U.S. Hyper-Partisanship
At first glance, the situation following the release of the Trump/Kushner seems totally discouraging. It affirms the form and substance of Israel’s right-wing leadership, whether Likud or Blue/White, and reflects the dominant Zionist agenda reflecting ‘biblical entitlement’ to the whole of the promised land, either by direct or indirect sovereign control. As such it rejects a political compromise. It seems to confront Palestinians with the unhappy alternatives of political surrender or forcible resistance. Paths promising a political compromise, sovereign equality, and resting on international diplomacy seem indefinitely closed. Beyond this, the important Arab governments are silently siding with Israel, and Palestinians are without any realistic prospect of unified leadership. Given the recognition of this situation, it is difficult not to succumb to despair.
And yet, the Palestinians show no sign of regarding their struggle as ‘a lost cause.’ Resistance activity remains robust, and no element of the Palestinian leadership seems ready to sign on to the U.S. proposals, despite the temptations afforded by the offers of economic relief, which must be difficult to dismiss given the desperate plight of the 2 million Palestinians living in Gaza and the diminishing sense of national territory in the West Bank, given Israeli accelerating encroachments and Washington bright green light given expansionist ambitions and cruel, coercive tactics.
Such an unfavorable context is reinforced by the retreat from globalization. This retreat as complemented by ultra-nationalism has resulted in reduced respect for the authority of the UN, as well as weakened pressures for a genuine two-state compromise at the UN, which is itself supplemented by less willingness to challenge Israeli defiance of international humanitarian law. The utter disregard of Israeli continual reliance on excessive violence at the Gaza border is emblematic of both disregard by the media, UN, and EU for Palestinian rights and Israeli lawlessness.
Yet these developments, as paradoxical as it may sound, also have the potential to improve Palestinian prospects. There are two broad explanations. First, the earlier posture in international society had not been helpful to the Palestinian struggle for basic rights. As earlier suggested, Israel acted to undermine the core element in what was regarded as the international consensus, namely, the establishment of a viable sovereign Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. By allowing the settlement movement to go forward with subsidized government assistance and encouragement the Israeli government signaled its intention to never let go of control over ‘the promised land.’ Even if forced by geopolitical pressures to accept some kind of demilitarized Palestinian state, the obstacles involved in reversing the settlement dynamic in the West Bank and Jerusalem became more formidable with each passing month. Almost as tellingly, the internal Israeli reference points of ‘Judea and Samaria’ of the West Bank along with the unification and formal annexation of Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the Jewish people underscored the Zionist sense of biblical entitlement as the non-negotiable foundation of its claim rather than the mixture of legal, moral, and political considerations that formed the vision of both the consensus at the UN and the outlook project by ‘liberal Zionists’ in the Jewish diaspora (Khalidi, Brokers, 200-).
Secondly, the combination of releasing the Trump/Kushner plan and its embrace not only by Netanyahu, and the Likud Party, but by Gantz and Blue and White, clarifies two aspect of the overall situation that had been previously somewhat obscure: (1) present prospects of any form of political compromise to resolve the conflict by diplomacy between the parties are dead for the foreseeable future; (2) advancing the Palestinian struggle at this stage depends on sustaining the legitimacy war that uses all means available to react against Israeli lawlessness and immorality, including international judicial tribunals and the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly (Falk, 2017), continuing various forms of Palestinian resistance to demonstrate that the struggle lives on within Palestinian society, and building momentum in global civil society by soft power means, currently most effectively expressed by the BDS Campaign.
In effect, the Palestinian struggle has shifted its center of gravity from its intergovernmental axes to that of the resistance and solidarity. In other words, the role of governments and international institutions, once dominant, is now discredited and subordinated. At some later stage of the conflict, if a balance more favorable to the protection of Palestinian rights is achieved or there is some kind of change of outlook in the United States and/or Israel, then there might again emerge a greater willingness to allow a diplomatic framework to help fashion a mutually acceptable political compromise, but with a major difference. The new diplomacy to have any chance of success in producing a sustainable peace arrangement, must proceed on the basis of the formal and existential equality of the parties, either relying on direct inter-governmental negotiations or by selecting a credibly neutral mediating framework.
This alternative more positive framework for conflict resolution not only depends on delegitimation, resistance, and solidarity, it also depends critically on a prior Israeli decision to dismantle the apartheid features of its state structures that now subordinate and victimize the Palestine people as a whole (including refugees, exiles, minority in pre-1967 Israel) on the basis of racial criteria (Falk & Tilley, 2017). Considering the similarities and dissimilarities with the South African experience is also illuminating. The changed balance achieved with respect to South African apartheid was largely achieved by resistance and solidarity initiatives, although unlike the Israel/Palestine conflict, aided by a globalized anti-apartheid campaign.
It was a soft power triumph in the end, although that the threat and reality of armed struggle was never eliminated. In the end, the white leadership made a calculated decision that their interest would be better served by accepting what a decade earlier seemed a utopian impossibility—that is, a transition to a multiracial constitutional democracy, which the demographics made clear, would means that the long victimized African majority would control the political destiny of the country. The bargain, a kind of ‘genuine deal of the century’ was a tribute to the skills of Nelson Mandela and the leadership of de Klierk, that made the white minority take their chances based on guarantees of their economic and social rights. Mandela has been criticized for allowing the white to retain their privileged economic position and social status, but without such flexibility, any transition to post-apartheid South Africa would have been violent and bloody.
Although Israeli Zionists have genuine demographic concerns given the relative size and fertility rates of the two peoples, their prospects in a secular constitutional democracy for a large share of control over the institutions of governance would remain much more favorable to Jews, provided Jews would not abandon such a post-apartheid state and Palestinians would uphold the rights of the Jews if they were to gain control over the governing process. Undoubtedly, the situation would reflect the context, including geopolitical factors and the motivations, wisdom, and skills of the leadership on both sides.
What seems clear, whether the retreat from globalization deepens or is reversed, is that the preconditions of ending Israeli apartheid and accepting commitments to the substance and spirit of equality on both sides is essential to overcoming the present approach premised on a victory scenario combined with the spirit and substance of inequality, which will add to Palestinian suffering without achieving Israeli peace and security. In these circumstances, unlikely to be altered in the near future, the present pattern of control and encroachment will continue.
A Concluding Comment
The preceding analysis leads to the conclusion that the retreat from globalization is one factor in altering the nature of the Palestinian struggle, but may not in the end affect the outcome. In the immediate setting, it seems like a major setback for the Palestinians as the Israelis have unambiguous geopolitical support for their most extravagant claims, and there is no meaning countervailing power at either the regional or global levels. Yet in the post-colonial period, a long subjugated people do not give up their dreams of political independence and their grievances of rights denied, especially in the Palestinian as long endorsed by the UN and international public opinion. One development favoring the Palestinians, and evidently worrying the Israelis, is the increasing acceptance of the view that Israel maintains an apartheid structure of control over the Palestinian people and that the Israel needs to be perceived as the last remaining significant settler colonial state. This chance of discourse has been countered by branding activists and critics as ‘anti-Semites’ although their opposition to Israel is nonviolent and unrelated to hostility to Jews as a people, but to the Israeli state as depriving the majority resident population of its rights of self-determination and its overall human rights.
Each struggle has its own features, and this is particularly true in the case of Israel/Palestine. A crucial such distinguishing feature is that Israel managed to impose its political will on Palestine with the help of British colonial support, yet able to come to independence as a powerful manifestation of anti-colonial struggle by coercing not only the Palestinians, but making life untenable for the British (Kaplan, 2019). Of course, the last stage of the struggle to establish Israel in the face of Palestinian and Arab opposition were a series of developments in Europe favorable to the Zionist project, especially the moral sympathy arising from Nazi genocidal behavior and the liberal guilt of Europe and North America arising from their failure to challenge German murderous racism. These factors led to the premature legitimation of Israel in 1948, reaching its climax by admission to the United Nations without first resolving Palestinian grievances in a satisfactory manner. Such an attempt might not have succeeded in any event as the Palestinian side refused the idea of partitioning its homeland, and the Zionist side, although outwardly ready to strike a pragmatic bargain never gave up its vision of restoring sovereignty over the biblical homeland of the Jewish people.
Finally, the retreat from globalization is too new and contingent, to serve as a basis for anticipating the future as it impacts on the Israel/Palestine struggle. As suggested, present realities suggest that the situation seems to favor Israeli ambitions, but some factors could strengthen the Palestinian position overnight, such as the rejection of Trump in the 2020 American elections, the true unification of Palestinian leadership, or the shift toward democratic populism in the Arab world as foreshadowed by the 2011 uprisings. In the event of a restored spirit of globalization an early undertaking might be renewed attention to Palestinian grievances, and a resolve to take action to complete the policy agenda of decolonization and racial equality that dominated the last decades of the prior century.
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Falk, R. Blog on Security Council 2016 decision on settlements
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Kaplan, A. (2018) Our American Israel: The Story of an Entangled Alliance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. )
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Slaughter, A-M. (2004) The New World Order. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, Distinguished Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies, UCSB, author, co-author or editor of 60 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to two three-year terms as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and associated with the local campus of the University of California, and for several years chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is On Nuclear Weapons, Denuclearization, Demilitarization, and Disarmament (2019).
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