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Trump Consecrates Decades of US Policy on Palestine and Israel: Now What?

By Noura Erakat

Jan 23 2017

In late June 1967 and just before Israel’s unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem, British Foreign Minister Brown warned Israel that “if [Israel] purport[s] to annex the Old City or legislate for its annexation, they will be taking a step which will not only isolate them from world opinion, but will also lose them the sympathy that they have.” When Israel annexed East Jerusalem on 28 June 1967, in full daylight and during the course of diplomatic debates leading to UN Security Council Resolution 242, the General Assembly unanimously passed two resolutions (UNSC Res 2253 and 2254) condemning the annexation and demanded that Israel rescind all actions taken to alter the status of Jerusalem. The UK voted for both Resolutions and the United States abstained indicating opposition to territorial expansion. Both the United States and Britain refused to move their embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in protest. To deflect criticism, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations claimed that Israel’s actions did not amount to annexation, but were merely administrative. As to the biting warnings and criticism, Israel simply ignored them and has suffered little consequence in the intervening decades.

Today, fifty years since Israel occupied the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, Israel has formally annexed East Jerusalem and unabashedly claims an “undivided Jerusalem” as a matter of right. President-elect Donald Trump vows to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. His closest advisers financially support illegal Israeli colonial settlements and disavow Israel’s status as an Occupying Power. The incoming U.S. Administration aligns with the most right-wing elements of the Israeli Knesset, which celebrates the death knell of a Palestinian state and touts its plans for de jure annexation of Area C or sixty-two percent of the West Bank ushering an undeniable Apartheid reality. Looking at these prospects, lay observers are rightly horrified that the United States is about to lead the Middle East into a fiery crash course.

But for anyone paying close attention, that doomsday scenario is far-fetched. It rests on the assumption that Trump is about to revolutionize US Middle East policy when, at best, his Administration would only recklessly accelerate traditional US policy. Although the Obama Administration has used its last days in office, literally, to openly criticize Israel and refrain from derailing international efforts in the Security Council, it dedicated eight years of governance to laying the tracks upon which Trump now embarks. It used its first veto in the Security Council to shoot down an anti-settlement resolution in 2011; it derailed the Palestine statehood bid in 2011-12; it squashed the 2015 effort to lay a timetable for the end of Israel’s occupation; it undermined all international efforts aimed at accountability from the Goldstone Report to the International Criminal Court bid; and to top off its sad legacy, the Obama Administration increased military aid from 3.0 to 3.8 billion dollars over the next ten years. Trump’s policies will continue this legacy not be a rupture from them.

We should be very careful not to demonize Trump’s stance on Palestine, not because it is not horrifying but because it is consistent with a counterproductive US Middle East policy since 1967 that has led us into this present-day reality. This policy has opposed Israeli territorial aggrandizement in word but has facilitated that very expansion in deed. Properly treating this condition demands that we look far beyond Trump as the source of the problem and to scrutinize the U.S.’s role as a dishonest peace broker and an active partner in entrenching Israeli Apartheid. Hillary Clinton and a Democratic Administration is certainly more polished but did not promise a much better alternative. In the course of developing its platform, the Democratic Party stayed in line with the AIPAC-inspired language of the 2012 Platform in expressing unequivocal support for Israel and recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, it also added language to oppose “any effort to delegitimize Israel, including at the United Nations or through the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Movement.”

Attributing responsibility for the next chapter in the Middle East, characterized by the formal abandonment of a Palestinian state and apology for Israeli apartheid, on Trump would be a revisionist attempt to blame one abnormal and unhinged Administration for a policy that has been upheld by “normal” Republican and Democratic Administrations for over five decades.

The question is what will be the short and long-term consequence of Trump’s disavowal of US diplomatic double-speak? It may mean that Congress can make good on its repeated threats to shut down the PLO office in the United States, and to cease aid to the Palestinian Authority. On the ground in Palestine, it will likely lead to an increase in settlement activity as this is par for the course. Israel announced more settlements in the wake of the admonishing Security Council vote, it will surely continue with settlement expansion now with less irony.

Whether the Knesset would make good on its vows to annex Area C, sixty-two percent of the West Bank, however, is not clear as even a supportive US administration cannot shield Israel from negative recriminations from other states, including members of the European Union. The most likely scenario is a creeping annexation policy as opposed to a wholesale one of the territory as indicated by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s push back on his cabinet to delay their legislative initiatives proposing annexation.

Whether Arab states will be mobilised into action depends on a series of unknown factors regarding their own national interest. The ideal response is to suspend ties with Israel and the United States but for several states, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, the primary concern is maintaining US patronage. The rescindment of the Security Council Resolution by Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi due to pledges of US support by President Trump is a case in point that Arab states will not act in an expected and uniform way.

Many predict an uptick in armed attacks by Palestinians- and perhaps that is true- but if so, it will most likely be a series of uncoordinated attacks launched by individuals who believe they have nothing to lose. But a mass civil uprising across the Palestinian population is unlikely for two reasons. One, since the al-Aqsa Intifada (2000-2005), Israel has expanded its use of force against Palestinians dramatically and in the case of a renewed uprising will likely to operate without restraint. This means that rather than arresting Palestinians or even imposing curfews or exorbitant financial penalties for protesting, Israeli armed forces will shoot to kill and injure. While this will also provoke a more militarized response, that response is exclusionary of the majority of Palestinian communities, men and women alike, who do not bear arms.

Two, sustaining a mass uprising and enabling it to endure these violent recriminations is unlikely without a revolutionary change in the Palestinian leadership. Since the Oslo Peace Process, the formal leadership has been part of a containment strategy and has worked to ease the burden of occupation and to make it more tolerable rather than to resist it. It has abandoned confrontation for niceties and seems to be acting like diplomats with an actual state, rather than representatives of a stateless, occupied people who have been denied their most basic of rights and freedoms for five decades and more, which they continue to be.

Well before Trump’s electoral victory, Israel and the Palestinians have been in a critical and volatile holding position. All the while, and in the seemingly “calmest” times, Palestinians have endured brutal structural violence. Palestinians should have long changed the rules of the game regulating the question of Palestinian freedom, and while it is unfortunate that Trump beat them to it, the point is that they must finally be moved into more forthright action.

The best thing that the Obama Administration did for Palestinians is abstain in the Security Council and, by doing so, kicked the issue out of the backwaters of bilateral negotiations and back onto the international stage. The Palestinian leadership must run with this and continue to internationalize the conflict, to delegitimize Israel’s settler-colonial project, to demand states impose economic and military sanctions upon Israel, and to support a robust and global grassroots BDS movement. Nothing will stave off devolution of conditions on the ground marked by violent confrontations, so the question must not be how to avoid violence, but how do we reach a viable and just solution. What should be unequivocally clear now is that the United States and Israel do not have that answer and are unfit to unilaterally steer this course. For that we can thank Trump.