By Ali R. Abootalebi | (Informed Comment) | – –
President Trump recently told the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), Mahmoud Abbas, that “I’ve always heard that perhaps the toughest deal to make is the deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians,”…Let’s see if we can prove them wrong,” insisting that “We will get it done.” This is while, vice president Mike Pence said some days prior that President Trump was still “giving serious consideration to moving the American embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem”. Interestingly enough, the administration’s ‘front men’ in negotiations between Palestinians and the Israelis are none other than Jared Kushner, president’s son-in-law, and David Friedman, a lawyer with long history of ties with Israel; both men having strong ideological and business ties with Israel. Then, Armin Rosen in an article in Foreign Policy argues that President Trump’s front man negotiator in the Israel-Palestine conflict, Jason Greenblatt, is ‘perfectly unqualified’ and that ‘might be exactly why he pulls off a peace deal.’ This is because he is not part of the Washington establishment and entrenched interests. Although there is merit in this observation, reasons behind the failure of a Palestinian-Arab-Israeli peace agreement is a great deal more complex. No, Mr. President, it is harder than you think.
Whether deliberately stated to gain political score or naively believing a quick-fix is within reach, this is purely a simplification of the situation and closer to a fantasy. Beyond such declarations remains the hard reality of the state of the conflict and what has prevented its resolution throughout decades: the imbalance in power of the opposing negotiating sides. First, Arab governments have been too inept and corrupt to effectively negotiate on behalf of their own peoples and in the interest of the Palestinians. Second, successive Israeli governments have had the upper hand in power parameters and in negotiations, with the intention to dictate the terms of a Palestinian surrender while neutralizing Arab States’ security threats. Finally, the United States has been far from a neutral third party mediator, using its hard and soft power in the service of a ‘peace settlement’ or a ‘conflict resolution’ and not reaching for a true ‘positive peace’.
It is well known that the mother of all conflicts is the Arab (Palestinian)-Israeli conflict that has engaged major actors in global politics. After decades of conflict and repeated wars since 1948, the end result for the Arab States has been military defeat and loss of territories and national pride. Years of negotiations and attempts at safeguarding peace has resulted in a cold peace between Israel and some Arab States—Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994—and a long arduous negotiation process resulting in the 1993 Declaration of Principles and Palestinian self-rule in parts of the occupied territories. That process, as imperfect as it was, finally saw its demise after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and the rise of political right in Israel in the ensuing years. The failure of Camp David II in 2000 effectively declared the demise of the Oslo Process.
Today, the PNA is in charge of merely 18% of the West Bank, where it can exercise respectable but not complete sovereign control in the designated Area A. Areas B (22%) and Area C (60%) are outside PNA’s sovereign control, where Israel has the ultimate say in matters of security and all that falls within its security parameters, including, communication, transportation, and all matters of governance in general. The Palestinian people remain divided between those living in the West Bank under the PNA rules and those living under Hamas control in the Gaza Strip. Israeli settlements have expanded in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where settlers’ population now exceeds over one-half a million. Gaza is a vast prison camp surrounded by Israeli and Egyptian soldiers, and at the mercy of political events happening outside its borders. Syria’s Golan Heights and its precious water resources also remain under Israeli control.
Wider regional and global events have overshadowed and marginalized the plight of the Palestinian people. These events include, but not limited to: the September 11, 2001 terrorists attacks on America, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003), Israeli invasion of Lebanon (2006) and Gaza (2008; 2014), the rise of Hamas in Gaza (2006), Arab Spring (2011—present), U.S. and NATO intervention and regime change in Libya (2011), political change in Egypt and the 2015 military Coup d’état with silent U.S. approval, Saudi Arabian intervention in Bahrain (2011) and Yemen (2015), and the ongoing, devastating war in Syria since 2011.
The latest blow to the Arab States and the Palestinian leadership and people is the destruction of Iraqi and Syrian states and infrastructure and the threat of Daesh and instability to Lebanese and Jordanian national cohesion, as well as the Palestinian refugees. The Arab world, for the most part, remains divided and uncertain over domestic and regional ‘security threats,’ only to show frivolous unity in the Arab League meetings. The rise of Iranian power is the Arab States’ latest excuse to deflect their endemic problems in governance by inflaming a Sunni-Shi’a divide and the fabrication of a security threat to their respective states.
The security threat to many Arab governments emanates from within these countries. Many Arab regimes have for decades neglected their own population and have ruled with impunity, pillaging national treasures in the service of the elite and the privileged. Gilbert Achcar explaining Arab states’ political economies, argues that the peculiar modality of the capitalist mode of production dominant in the Arab region is a mix of patrimonialism, nepotism, and crony capitalism; and pillaging of public property, swollen bureaucracy, and generalized corruption. All of this occurs against a background of great sociopolitical instability and impotence or even nonexistence of law.
The central threat to Arab regimes’ existence is due to the archaic nature of Arab states’ governance, where people are treated as subjects and not as citizens. The Arab Spring movement in 2011 was a manifestation of Arab peoples’ frustration with governance that unfortunately has since produced more hardship instead of liberation. Arab populace for long has been kept marginalized. The Iranian threat to Arab regimes is not due to its military might and/or threat of an invasion. In spite of all its shortcomings, majority of Iranians today consider themselves as participatory citizens in Iran’s political economy, and not as mere voiceless subjects of the ruling elites.
The Palestinian leadership for its part has failed to either chart its struggle separate from the Arab States or maintain a degree of independence free from the Arab regimes’ control. So, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and later the PNA, have remained dependent on the Arab regimes’ largesse and political whims and power play. The history of the conflict testifies in many occasions when Palestinians have been victimized by the Arab regimes’ armies and their cronies. Yasser Arafat endlessly struggled to keep Palestinian national aspirations for statehood alive while facing Jordanian, Syrian, and Lebanese military and militia onslaughts and resisting Israeli war machine, control, and occupation.
The end of the cold war pushed a desperate Palestinian leadership into a ‘process of negotiation’ that was paved from the beginning with unsurmountable obstacles, destined to failure. The Oslo process only neutralized the Jordanian threat and left the Palestinian leadership at the mercy of the Israeli protagonists and their American supporters. The failure of the Camp David II (2000) showed the total weakness and dependence of the Palestinian leadership on their Arab patrons and the United States who in the end blamed Yasser Arafat for its failure. Abandoned by the Arab States, Yasser Arafat could not betray the Palestinian people’s trust and agree to the terms of the agreement: to effectively forsake the dream of statehood and control over East Jerusalem and the right of return of the Palestinian refugees. The rise of Hamas and the split in leadership since 2006 has eroded the Palestinian position. President Mahmoud Abbas term ended in 2009 and he has ruled since without a mandate from its people—the irony of Arab leaders’ political legitimacy. There is also no united front in support of the Palestinian people in the Arab League. Unsurprisingly, Iran, and not Israel, the threat of the Daesh, sectarian violence, chaos of war and refugees, and extra-regional invasion and intervention is named the undeclared enemy of the Arab regimes!
Israel in the past seventy years has been transformed from a small state with a population of less than one million to a regional hegemon with the fifteenth powerful military in the world, nuclear weapons, an advanced economy, and a democratic political system, imperfect as it is. The cold peace with Egypt and Jordan still is holding and the flux of over one million Russian Jews in the 1990s brought more economic vigor, as well as challenges, to its political economy. Israel with a population of just over seven million had a GDP of $312 billion and ranked 34th in the world in 2016. Israeli democracy has many faults, including the ambiguity over its secular and religious divide and its overall treatment of its twenty percent non-Jewish citizens. Yet, Israeli citizens’ participation in politics and civil society is highly valued.
Israeli politics have shifted to the right since the demise of the Oslo Process and the years of increased violence in the 2000-05 period, coinciding with America’s declared war on global terrorism in 2001. The Obama years of presidency will be remembered as a disappointment to many Israeli pundits. Obama met with Prime Minister Netanyahu 17 times, approved in 2016 a sizeable $38 billion aid for the decade ahead, and yet could not convince Israeli leadership to stop its settlement activities in the occupied territories, effectively killing any prospects for meaningful negotiations.
The unbiased and keen observer notices that the United States has not been completely an honest broker throughout the years of the conflict. The U.S. pursued a four-tiered policy of anti-communism, stability, free flow of cheap oil, and ensuring Israeli security throughout the cold war. Such umbrella policy goals often meant U.S. support for authoritarian Arab regimes and in Iran, large cache of arms transfer, political, and covert and overt military intervention. The U.S. policy in the region since 1990 has continued the tradition of strong support for Israel and the defense of authoritarian but friendly Arab regimes, significant arms transfer, and a ‘declared war’ on terrorism that has effectively brought chaos and destruction to much of the region.
The United States’ policy preferences have helped perpetuate a dominant Israeli position in its relations with the Arab states and the unresolved Palestinian dilemma. The U.S. continues to overlook Israeli stockpile of nuclear weapons, its illegal occupation of Arab lands and settlement activities, and its repeated violation of its Arab neighbors’ national sovereignty through military incursions. This has been occurring in defiance of international law and in violation of the United States’ declared core values—human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.
What has remained constant in U.S. Middle East policy since 1945 is inattention paid to the legitimate will of the Arab populace for popular participation and democracy, and national development and pride! Therefore, Arab peoples’ frustration with authoritarian rule, corruption, military defeat on the battlefield (1967; 1973; 1991; 2003; 2011), and low level of socioeconomic development in human capital, technological penetration, and innovation instigated the Arab Spring revolt in 2011.
Today, the U.S. policy in the Middle East is viewed as unpopular, biased and even hostile to the welfare of the people in the region. The U.S. remains extremely unpopular in the Arab world, despite millions spent on efforts at public diplomacy during the G W Bush and Obama administrations. A 2016 survey on Arab public opinion of the United States’ policy in 12 Arab countries, that included face to face interviews with 18,310 respondents, finds that that sixty-three percent of respondents believed the United States to be the greatest threat to stability in the Arab region, beating out Iran, Russia, and China, while falling short behind Israel. Over a quarter of respondents believed the United States’ policy towards Palestine, Syria, and Iraq to be either negative or very negative while almost a quarter believed the same of the U.S.’s policy towards Yemen and Libya.
The resolution of the Arab (Palestinian)—Israeli conflict is intimately related to the political and socioeconomic realities in Arab countries, Israel, and the U.S. view and policy practices in the region. Arab politics and international politics matter. The optimism expressed by President Trump and Armin Rosen is thus unwarranted. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is not primed for a newcomer’s fresh thinking, and U.S. involvement in the conflict has not been spearheaded by a quarter century of careful, deliberative, and well-intentioned professional U.S. diplomacy.
In the absence of a viable two-state solution to the conflict, while also resolving the Syrian and Lebanese concerns over their territorial disputes, a one-state solution may be, by default, emerging. Palestinians, like others in Arab countries, yearn for political expression and the right to have a say in determining their lives. The millennial Arab generation deserves a better future. Despite their differences and grievances, many Israeli Arab citizens still view the Israeli state with a high degree of legitimacy to rule. A surprisingly two-thirds of
Ali R. Abootalebi is Professor of Middle Eastern and Global Politics in the Department of Political Science, UWEC. He is the author of Islam and democracy: State-Society Relations in Developing Countries, 1980-1994 (Garland, 2000), and, coauthored with Stephen Hill, Introduction to World Politics: Prospects and Challenges for the United States (Kendall Hunt, 2013) and more than fifty articles on Iran, Arab Politics, Civil Society and Democracy and U.S. foreign policy.
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