Significant shifts in Israel-Palestine realities make peace harder to reach

Jerusalem Cityscape

There is a world of difference between peacemaking and pacification. The former is a participatory process and the latter is an act of imposition.

To facilitate peace, Jared Kushner, President Trump’s advisor and son-in-law, wants to make a financial deal with the Palestinians, envisioning 50 billion dollars of foreign investment over ten years in the occupied territories and the neighboring countries. Kushner asserts that the main problem of the Palestinians is their self-inflicted “attitude”. In his opening speech to a recent Peace to Prosperity Summit in Bahrain, he said: “Imagine a new reality in the Middle East. Imagine a bustling commercial and tourist center in Gaza and the West Bank where international businesses come together and thrive. Imagine the West Bank as a blossoming economy, full of entrepreneurs, engineers, scientists and business leaders”.

Kushner’s dream is just that, a dream. Kushner launched the first phase of his peace proposal in the capital of Bahrain, Manama, on June 25. This event was a failure as it did not address the political dimensions of the conflict and ignored the real aspirations of the Palestinian people. The Palestinians rejected the approach and the proposal. In her message to the conference guest speaker Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monitory Fund, pointed out that “peace is the missing piece of the proposal”.

Now Kushner is trying to persuade “friendly” Arab heads of states to come to the peace table, in a prospective follow-up event. Last week he met with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to coordinate a strategy to mobilize the interest of Arab leaders in a summit peace conference envisioned for September, preferably before the coming Israeli elections.

Reports indicate that Egypt’s President Abdul Fattah el Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdallah II are being pressured to attend this second peace conference, which has been tagged as the “Deal of the Century”. If this White House Summit does take place, whoever attends from the leadership of the Arab world is likely to voice the standard Arab League position: “yes” for foreign investment, but “normalization” with Israel requires a two-state solution along the 1967 borders.

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has hardened over the past seventy years. Yet Kushner and Trump are oblivious to the history of the peace process and insensitive to the sentiments of the Palestinian people. They seem to be unaware of their personal limitations, their bias, condescendence; they underestimate the challenges they face in dealing with a complicated and rapidly changing Arab world.

Over the past few years, the realities of the Arab-Israeli conflict have shifted in many significant ways.

First, the “two-state” option, which had been the basis of peace talks for over three decades, is no longer “politically possible”.  For one thing, the advanced stage of the occupation makes it irreversible. Furthermore, Israel’s leaders are now considering partial annexation of the West Bank. It is more realistic to consider the alternative option of a “one-state”.  But this substantially transformative scenario is not for the near future. A single-state option provokes fears of [identity] survival on the Jewish side.  And for the Palestinians, the single- state plan [under existing discriminatory laws] means formalizing apartheid, the status-quo.  However, in principle, an equitable one-state scenario provides equality for all citizens. So far, no inspired thinker or brave leader, from either side, has come up with a workable peace plan that would ensure durable security, prosperity, freedom and equality for all.

The debate has moved from the legality of Israel’s occupation to the legality of Palestinian resistance to the occupation.  Today, there is more debate about the popular BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement than about the rights of refugees, the reconfiguration of political borders or the status of Jerusalem.

The US role in peace-making has radically changed. The series of punitive diplomatic measures by President Trump against Palestinians and the expanding US legislation to ban and criminalize BDS activities show that the US is no longer a neutral mediator. The US government has recently emerged as an adversary to the Palestinians.

America is increasingly becoming isolated from the rest of the world on the question of Palestine, and more recently in Iran. Even if Trump does not get a second term, the damage done to the Palestine question may be permanent.

The strategy of peace-making has been substantially altered. Israel is now trying to artificially forge peace with the Arab states in order to pacify Palestinians with dollars.  Both Israel and the current US administration conduct their diplomacy on the question of Palestine through Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates rather with the Palestinians. The objective to Mideast peace is no longer improved relations between Israelis and Palestinians; it is to appease Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, UAE’s Mohammad bin Zayed [defacto ruler]and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el Sisi.

The current rationale for peace-making is hard to fathom. Peace is no longer about redressing injustice; it is about the pacification of Palestinians, on one level, and the “fulfillment of God’s plans for Israel”, on the other. “God has designated the Holy Land to Israel” is no longer a minority position in Israel, or even in the US Republican Party, where the extreme evangelical movement dominates Mideast policy.  Washington and Jerusalem are in the process of normalizing injustice through denial of the occupation, refugees, and the international legal status of Jerusalem.

The next element of change is an indirect factor: the rising voice of the Arab street. The expanding reach of Arab uprisings is a clear sign that rulers no longer enjoy the impunity they had before 2011. The people no longer trusted their rulers in making historical decisions. No one is more conscious of this fact than the King of Jordan, whose nation has the largest population of Palestinians displaced from Palestine in 1948 and 1967.

The focus of the Mideast crisis has shifted from Palestine to Iran. Prime Minister Netanyahu is trying to showcase Iran as a predator to Israel and the Arab Gulf. Tehran is portrayed as the common enemy of Arabs and Jews. Exploiting the Arab Gulf phobia of Iran, Netanyahu tries to forge a sectarian alliance of Sunni Arabs and Jews against Iran thus marginalizing Palestine.

Israel’s treatment of Gaza strip as a separate state is a new development. In recent years, there have been ceasefires, short-lived agreements and imaginary talk between Hamas (which governs the strip) and Jerusalem about the possibility of turning Gaza into a prosperous city-state, perhaps a “Singapore of the Middle East”. In reality, this encircled, impoverished, overpopulated strip of land is more like the largest prison on earth.

The last element of change is the transition of Israel’s attitude from being indebted to the Arabs for its occupation of their land to being a benefactor, as a conduit to Uncle Sam.  Utilizing its exceptional status in Washington, Israel facilitates US sales of heavy arms to the Saudis and Emiratis, lobbies for better Arab access to the White House and engages in international public relations for compliant Arab rulers.

In summary, the peace process is near death and the debate has shifted away from the occupation. The only peaceful resistance left [BDS] for Palestinians has been criminalized; the peace mediator [US] has become the prosecutor. Washington has lost its credibility in peace-making. The Saudi and Emirati leaders have replaced the Palestinians in a peace negotiation with Israel. Iran, not Palestine, is the crisis for the near future. Israel and Washington have assumed the role of the protector of the Arab Gulf.

It is hard to tell how long these realities will last. Political change is accelerating. This year political circumstances changed dramatically in Algeria and Sudan. The Holy Land is not immune to the Arab spring. The worsening occupation makes Israel a strong candidate for a future popular uprising of a special character, or worse: a regional war precipitated by a significant miscalculation. The Trump tenure is fertile grounds for such miscalculation.