Prime Minister Netanyahu considers President Trump’s time in office a golden opportunity. He figures that Israel has done very well in the current administration’s first two-and-a-half years. Washington has unilaterally legitimized Israel’s occupation of the West Bank with a series of diplomatic moves related to Jerusalem and the settlements. Second, Israel has pressured many U.S. legislators to treat Palestinian’s struggle as unlawful. Third, over the past few years, Israel has managed to divert international attention from Palestine to Iran with a global campaign demonizing Tehran’s regime.
But are such gains lasting? It is not certain that Trump has made Israel more secure. Americans will sooner or later realize that they are supporting a non-sustainable occupation: a Jewish State controlling a population that will soon be majority Palestinian. No matter where the capital of Israel is or where the U.S. embassy is located, no matter how legal the West Bank settlements are for Washington, no matter how far the annexation of contested land reaches, the fact remains that Palestinians are not leaving the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Israel is heading to a one-state solution or apartheid. In commenting on the recent Peace for Prosperity conference in Bahrain, which didn’t discuss Palestinian statehood, even Trump’s close friend, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) cautioned the White House that only a two-state solution would save Israel from the burden of the occupation.
The second gain Netanyahu gloats about is control of U.S. public opinion. Trump closed the PLO office in Washington, stopped most of U.S. funding to Palestinians, and challenged the view that descendants of the 1948 and 1967 wars are refugees and deserve to be treated as such. It is getting harder for Palestinians and Jewish peace activists in America to lobby against Israeli settlements. In some states, individuals and companies supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement are punished by law. But Americans are not naïve to confuse advocacy with violence or civic resistance with unlawful conduct. Many Americans see a Netanyahu-Trump alliance fitting within an emerging global trend of hyper-nationalism and ethnocentrism. The majority of the Democrat presidential candidates favor the two-state solution.
The Trumpian era of discrimination against Palestinians (and other vulnerable groups) will not last long; it is self-destructive. The rush to silence peace activists and to deny services to Palestinians has, in fact, perturbed many Jewish American thinkers who genuinely worry about Israel.
The third perceived Israeli gain is the marginalization of the Palestine question by raising regional existential fears of Iran. It is remarkable how quickly world concern has shifted from Palestine to Iran. Nine short years ago, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry raised the hopes of Palestinians to have a state of their own, side by side with Israel. Hopes were dashed in two years as the “peace process” failed.
Iran’s relevance to the Palestine question should not be used to distract from genuine Mideast peace efforts. Iran’s issues essentially relate to regional power politics. Aware that the suffering inflicted on the Palestinian people will not be forgotten or forgiven easily, Israel was the first and only state in the region to acquire an atomic arsenal for ultimate self-protection. As Iran has become the strongest rival to Israel, Tel Aviv wants to make sure that Tehran is tamed militarily and prevented from building any nuclear weapons capability. The taming of rivals to Israel with U.S. complicity is not a new phenomenon, but the cost to all stakeholders has become prohibitive.
As the peace process fades, the war between Iran and Israel becomes a very real threat. Before the nuclear deal was signed, Israel launched a scare campaign, arguing that Iran was ready to acquire an atomic bomb to wipe the Jewish state off the map.
Led by the United States, six major powers negotiated over three years a nuclear agreement that would slow Iran’s work with nuclear energy to assure Israel and the rest of the world that weapons-grade uranium production is under control and open to full surveillance. In 2015, the international nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) with Iran was signed. The world relaxed momentarily, except for Israel, which protested the agreement. Israel’s argument against Iran has always been the same: the Islamic Republic is a theocracy bent on eliminating the Jewish state and thus not to be trusted.
Israel did not have to wait long to reignite the Iran scare. President Trump came to office pledging to withdraw from the nuclear deal and to reinstate severe economic sanctions on Tehran. He reinstated sanctions and withdrew from the nuclear deal unilaterally on May 8, 2018.
The exhaustive multilateral negotiations with Iran distracted attention from Palestine. Additional factors contributed to that distraction. Iran’s aggressive role in the region tarnished its image globally. The Gulf Arab states’ fear of Iran played a major factor in the demonization of the Islamic Republic. Conservative groups in the United States rallied to support Israel’s claims. Israel’s campaign against Iran was intense, global, and loaded with “convenient” scientific data to prove that Iran is dangerous. It was a psychologically effective campaign. Israel managed to shift the international debate from “the Occupation” to “Jewish survival.”
Isolated and ostracized, Iran has taken its own measures to retaliate: testing ballistic missiles, expanding support to its allies in the Yemen War, and possibly (directly or indirectly) attacking oil tankers in strategic waterways in the Gulf. The latest action from Tehran was the downing of an unmanned U.S. drone and breaching its commitment on uranium enrichment.
More than a year after Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, the world is at a loss to resolve Iran’s crisis of economic isolation, to respond to Israel’s military threats to “stop Iran,” and to persuade Trump to rethink his “maximum pressure” policy on Iran. War looms on the horizon. Meanwhile, Palestine remains on the margins of debate.
Experts say that Iran does not intend to build an atomic bomb, but it has the capacity to do so. Isolating Iran economically will bring the region to a new war of unknown consequences. Regime change in Iran is unlikely to take place by pressure from the outside. However, should such drastic change happen through Tehran’s full defeat, any new regime might opt to acquire the bomb.
The real key to resolving the conflict between Iran and Washington is to rethink relations among Washington, Tel Aviv, Tehran, and Riyadh. In helping resolve this multi-sided regional crisis, the United States must realize that the Iran scare tactic must not be used to marginalize the Palestine question but to respond with fairness to all states of the region.