The Israeli–Palestinian conflict is now in its 72nd year. Israel has been given renewed impetus after agreeing to the Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates on August 13, when the two states announced the normalization of diplomatic relations. Bahrain soon followed in Abu Dhabi’s footsteps.
Now, along with Sudan, there are five Arab countries that recognize Israel, and there are rumors that others like Oman will join the bandwagon. This recent development could have implications for the Palestinians, including the bitter realization that Arab and Muslim countries are betraying them. A 2019 poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that nearly 80% of Palestinians feel they are abandoned by Arab states.
The task of bringing Israel into compliance with its obligations as the occupying power vis-à-vis the Palestinians has become ever more convoluted. UN Security Council resolutions addressing the Israeli–Palestinian conflict are routinely disregarded by the Israelis. A case in point is the Security Council Resolution 2334, adopted in 2016, which terms Israel’s settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories as “a flagrant violation under international law.”
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Richard Seaford is a professor emeritus of classics and ancient history at the University of Exeter, United Kingdom. A distinguished scholar, he has been a fellow of the National Humanities Center in North Carolina and a member of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Seaford about the Israeli public’s perception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Donald Trump’s “deal of the century,” and the global reception of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
The transcript has been edited for clarity. This interview took place in summer 2020.
Kourosh Ziabari: How do Israel’s political, intelligence and military elites, particularly those on the right, perceive the status quo in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? The Israeli author Micah Goodman believes the dominant narrative is no longer about the “sanctity of the settlements, the fulfillment of biblical prophecies, and imminent redemption.” Rather, for him, the main concern is guaranteed security. Do you agree with this assumption? Can it be inferred that Israeli leaders are prepared for a compromise with the Palestinians, and possibly making territorial concessions, provided that their security concerns are addressed?
Richard Seaford: The answer to both questions is no. The Israeli elite is no doubt concerned about security, and I recognize the problems that they face. But if security was their main motive, they would have established, and could still establish, an impregnable state on their own in pre-1967 borders, if necessary with a massive wall and all the sophisticated technology available to them.
Instead, they have illegally filled with settlements conquered land that belongs not to Israel but to more than 2 million Palestinian Arabs. In doing so, they have made a two-state solution impossible and created a further massive security problem that is used to justify unbearable suffering for the Palestinians and the further expansion of settlements. No doubt some of the elite are aware of the present and future nightmare created by this expansionism, but there is no sign of any political will to do anything substantial about it.
The basic problem is that Israel is a military superpower up against a defenseless people — the Palestinians — with no genuine international pressure to prevent Israel from stealing as much land as it wants.
Ziabari: In late June, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told a meeting of the Security Council that Israel’s plans to annex swaths of the West Bank would threaten the vision of a two-state solution and represent a most serious violation of international law. Since the Trump administration has reversed the US position on the settlements and no longer considers them a breach of international law, do you expect the Security Council to take action to block further annexations? Is there any legal barrier dissuading Israel from annexing more West Bank lands?
Seaford: No! Firstly, the past record of the Security Council does not encourage the belief that it will take action to require Israel to conform to international law and UN resolutions.
Secondly, there is no reason to believe that Israel will reverse its decades-long disregard of international law, especially given the encouragement now given to its lawbreaking by Trump. A Biden government may not continue the policy of encouraging illegality, but it will probably do nothing substantial to prevent it.
Western countries adopted sanctions against the Russian Federation after rightly regarding its annexation of Crimea in 2014 — after a referendum there — as a violation of international law. But when Israel illegally annexed East Jerusalem in 1980 and the Golan Heights in 1981, where were the sanctions? The double standards are so obvious as to be embarrassing, and they encourage Israel to further acts of illegal annexation.
According to Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, “the occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own population into the territories it occupies.” The United Nations Security Council, the United Nations General Assembly, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Court of Justice and the High Contracting Parties to the Convention, among others, have, unsurprisingly, all affirmed that the Fourth Geneva Convention applies to the territories occupied by Israel. Trump has, in order to please his base, de facto withdrawn from the Geneva conventions.
Ziabari: In August 2018, the Trump administration suspended all US funding for UNRWA, the UN program supporting Palestinian refugees. UNRWA is now believed to face a major financial challenge, hindering its ability to provide education for 520,000 students, health care for 3 million patients and food assistance for 1.7 million refugees. On other occasions, the Netherlands, Australia, Switzerland and other countries have also cut or reduced their contributions. In what ways will these cuts affect the prosperity and wellbeing of the Palestinian people?
Seaford: To cut off funding for those who live in some of the worst conditions in the world, while maintaining much more funding for the state that has dispossessed them, speaks for itself. A [recent] letter appeared in The Guardian signed by numerous European senior politicians stating that UNRWA needs funding desperately, not least to use its proven expertise in preventing the coronavirus from spreading through densely populated Palestinian refugee camps in the region.
Apart from the further intensification of the misery of the Palestinians, there are two less obvious consequences of the defunding. One is the potential for an increase in regional instability caused by the despair. The other is to diminish yet further the standing of the US in the region and in the world generally. One effect that the defunding will not have is the one desired by Trump: to force the Palestinians to give up their claim to their homeland.
Ziabari: The United States has long worked to position itself as an intermediary in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. President Trump has renewed efforts to play this role by tabling his long-awaited “deal of the century.” Does this deal make any positive contribution to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Given the Palestinians’ lukewarm and uninterested response, does it have any chance of being successfully implemented?
Seaford: No. The idea that the US is a neutral intermediary in the conflict is now absurd. The discussions that produced the “deal of the century” entirely excluded the Palestinians. It gives Israel virtually everything that it wants, and the Palestinians virtually nothing of what they want. It confirms the illegal expansionism of Israel, gives the Palestinians limited control of the fragments of a very small part of their historic homeland, and leaves by far the largest part of it to a state formed and controlled by 20th-century Jewish emigrants to Palestine and their descendants.
I could go on and on detailing the one-sidedness of the plan. But people may be thinking: Why propose a plan that is so absurdly one-sided that it has no chance of being agreed by both sides?
One answer might be the sheer ignorance of the people responsible for it — for example, Jared Kushner. But the more substantial reason is a kind of propaganda that has been used in the past. The plan helps to instill in the millions who do not bother to ascertain the details of the idea that Trump is trying to create peace, and that the Palestinians are being unreasonable in rejecting it.
Ziabari: The UAE recently announced normalized relations with Israel. Negotiations are also underway between Israel and Oman. Why do you think a growing number of Muslim, Arab states are leaning toward forging closer relations with Israel? What are the implications for the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people?
Seaford: The causes of the Gulf states’ rapprochement with Israel include their fear of Iran, the various consequences of the Arab Spring, and perhaps also the steep decline in the price of oil over the last few years, which will endanger states that are almost entirely dependent on it.
However, the rapprochement should not be exaggerated on the basis of a few highly publicized statements or events. For the elites of the Gulf states, whose only concern is to remain in power, it retains its dangers. Surveys show that concern for the Palestinians amongst Arabs has generally risen, rather than fallen, over the past few years.
The UAE has long had commercial and security links with Israel, and its claim to have averted annexation of parts of the West Bank in exchange for normalizing relations is bogus. The annexation was postponed earlier, for other reasons. Anyway, the fact is that the Arab states over the last decades have not succeeded in improving the political position of the Palestinians. What they have provided is financial support, which continues.
Ziabari: Efforts are underway by independent scholars, public figures, artists and athletes as well as some businesses in Europe to boycott the Israeli government, institutions and universities in the framework of the BDS movement. What are the costs for Israel? Will it be induced into changing its policies?
Seaford: The costs to Israel are so far not great in material terms, but there are some cultural and academic consequences. The reason why Israel and its apologists do so much to combat BDS by the anti-Semitism slur is what it calls its delegitimating effect. BDS does not, of course, seek to destroy the state of Israel. What it seeks to delegitimate is its defiance of international law and of UN resolutions.
Citizens, when their governments have abdicated all concern with international law, feel that they must act to enforce it. And the most immediate way of acting is to adopt the boycott personally, as well as urging companies to divest and governments to apply sanctions. Anybody can do it.
Moreover, the call for BDS becomes a way of creating publicity and raising consciousness of the crimes of Israel. It is this change of opinion, especially among US students, that Israel fears, because it may eventually, though not any time soon, limit their expansionism. Israel will be induced to change its policies only by external pressure, a combination of the reduction in the massive amount of US aid, with diplomatic pressure, sanctions, boycott and divestment — the kind of combination that helped to end apartheid in South Africa.
One imagined objection to BDS says: But what about the horrible things going on elsewhere? What is unique about Israel is the combination of illegal colonization, the inaction of governments and that the victims by a large majority are asking us to boycott. When someone who is being beaten up and robbed asks me to do something simple, safe and legal to help, I do it. Wouldn’t you? I boycotted apartheid South Africa, and so consistency requires me to boycott Israel, or anywhere else with the same combination of circumstances.
Ziabari: Have international organizations and blocs, including the United Nations and European Union, lost their competence in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Israel is the subject of several dozen Security Council and UN General Assembly resolutions, but it continues to defy them. How is it possible to be brought into compliance?
Seaford: The answer to the first question is yes, and the answer to the second is that Israel will be brought into compliance only by external pressure. There are many good and brave Israelis who deserve our support, but any idea that the Israelis may elect a government that wants to dismantle the settlements, comply with international law and so on has been shown by the last few decades, especially recently, to be fantasy. A just peace will come only from citizens in other states, especially the US, raising consciousness and electing governments that will exercise the required pressure on Israel. It is our historic responsibility.
In the UK, in the 1980s, there were only a few thousand of us in the anti-apartheid movement. But Western politicians who had done nothing to help the imprisoned Nelson Mandela or isolate apartheid attended his funeral [in 2013]. When we succeed in dissolving Israeli apartheid, there will be numerous Western politicians who will falsely take the credit. But it feels better to have changed history than to pretend to have done so.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.