In the run-up to this year’s general election, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged that he would annex large areas of the West Bank if he secured victory. The fulfillment of his promise — assuming Netanyahu wins the re-run scheduled for September after failing to form a government earlier this year — is considered by many to be yet another nail in the coffin of the elusive two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The United States has played a mediating role between the two warring parties, but its strong alignment with Israel has stripped it of credibility in the eyes of the Palestinians. According to the Department of Homeland Security, the US government has provided Israel with $134.7 billion in military aid to date, with a further $38 billion pledged over the next decade. Last year, President Donald Trump decided to cut off US funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA). Washington’s most recent peace plan, Jared Kushner’s so-called “deal of the century,” is widely seen as favoring Israel and being unacceptable to Palestinians.
In 2018, a University of Maryland poll found that the American public is increasingly critical of Israel. Some 40% of Americans — and 56% of Democrats — expressed support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as a measure to counter the growth of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Anthony Tirado Chase, professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California, about America’s intermediary role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the viability of a two-state solution and the global fight against ethno-nationalism.
The text has been lightly edited for clarity.
Kourosh Ziabari: In the run-up to this year’s election, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that he would annex large areas of the West Bank if reelected. US President Donald Trump is unconditionally supporting Israel and has recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Considering these developments, do you think there’s still a chance for a viable peace between Israel and Palestine? Is the realization of the two-state solution still feasible?
Anthony Tirado Chase: In short, perfectly feasible in theory but very unlikely in practice, unless there is a radical shift in how Israel perceives its own self-interest. I’ve long been an optimist about a comprehensive peace pact for two simple reasons. One: Such a peace is in the interest of all parties to the conflict. Perhaps that is self-evident in the case of Palestinians, but it is just as true for Israelis. Any rational calculation of Israeli self-interest recognizes the tremendous political and economic benefits that it would gain on consolidation of peace with Palestinians. Two: The compromises needed for an agreement that meets the fears and needs of both parties in regarding borders, Jerusalem, refugees, shared resources and security have long been obvious. No magic bullet is needed.
So why is such a pact increasingly unlikely despite being of mutual self-interest? Because politics is more about ideologies based in emotion and fear than rational self-interest. We have seen narrow interests manipulate such fear to torpedo chances of peace both in Israel and among Palestinians. Given that Israel is by far the stronger party, it is particularly dispiriting to see Israel’s increasing relative strength accompanied, ironically, by its moving away from a policy of recognition of legitimate Palestinian claims toward exclusionism in ideology and annexation in policy.
In practice, Israel is now pursuing a one-state solution. While not in Israel’s long-term interests — if one assumes, as I do, that Israel would benefit from the fruits of a stable peace — it does advance the radical ideological vision of what was once a fringe Israeli minority. This minority has instrumentalized the politics of fear to gain electoral support for its policies of Israeli expansion, Palestinian expulsion and the illusion that there can be such a thing as an ethno-nationalist democracy.
Such an exclusivist democracy is a contradiction in terms. Until Israel resolves that internal contradiction — i.e., recognizes that denying Palestinians their fundamental rights makes Israeli democracy as a whole incoherent and unsustainable — there is no reason to expect a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Ziabari: How have the radical decisions of President Donald Trump on Palestine, including cutting off the UNRWA’s funding, closing down the Palestinian Liberation Organization office in Washington and moving the US embassy to Jerusalem complicated the situation? Do you think a Democratic successor to Trump can change the status quo in favor of negotiations and the settlement of disputes?
Chase: The three Trump administration policies you note disempower stateless refugees, attempt to undermine how Palestinian statehood is increasingly being recognized around the globe and advance an Israeli annexationist agenda. This is a clear indication that, in lock-step with the most radical elements in Israeli domestic politics, US foreign policy is actively working against a two-state solution and self-determination and human rights — as defined in Security Council resolutions — as the basis of a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I do not believe, however, that these Trump policies have changed the fundamental dynamic at play in Israel and Palestine; in fact, US policies have long been destructive toward the goal of resolving this conflict. If a Democratic successor to Trump wants to advance peace in the region, he or she will have to repudiate not just Trump’s policies but those of both Trump’s Republican and Democratic predecessors. These Trump policies are certainly more radical and hence more damaging than those of his predecessors, but prior to Trump’s arrival to power, the US had long since ceased to play a constructive role in Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Change in such US policies can only come from the bottom-up, i.e., from the sort of social mobilization in support of Palestinian rights that has traditionally lagged in the US. The glimmer of hope in this regard is the emerging shifts in public opinion among Democratic Party voters toward greater support of Palestinian rights. Some future president reversing support for Israeli human rights violations is dependent on these shifts maturing into an impactful social movement.
Ziabari: Yes, as you mentioned, attempts by the United States to play the role of an intermediary between Israelis and Palestinians have failed in the recent decades, most notably after the Camp David summit in July 2000, because American leaders ostensibly favored Israel and prioritized their concerns over the security and sovereignty demands of Palestinians. Let’s ask a fundamental question: Is the US a reliable mediator at all? Shouldn’t this role be given to another government or an international organization?
Chase: I certainly agree that the US has not acted as a reliable mediator. I am not certain, however, that there are other governments or international organizations that can fill that role. That is not to say there is no role for other states or for international organizations. What is interesting regarding international organizations, in particular, is the way in which Palestinians are increasingly advancing their claims in the language of international law. For example, 137 states have recognized Palestine as a state under international law, and this has empowered Palestinians to work through international organizations to recognize their claims in the language of international law and grounded in the work of international organizations.
Palestine now has observer state status at the UN and, as of January 2019, has been chairing the UN’s largest bloc, the G-77. Attempting to de jure embed Palestinian rights in international law as a way to create de facto realities that give permanency to Palestinian claims is an important pivot in Palestinian politics with intriguing potential.
As Israel continues to escalate its violations of international law, the question is if those violations will lead to further Israeli ostracization from global institutions and norms. This is what has faced other countries that came to be seen as fundamentally at odds with international legal norms, such as Rhodesia or apartheid South Africa. Those examples should lead supporters of Israel’s right to exist to be wary of supporting Israel’s increasingly maximalist positions, as the isolation to which these lead have potentially dangerous consequences.
Ziabari: How credible is this narrative that Israel has “no partner” for peace, and that Palestinians don’t want to achieve a viable deal? Is it fair to say that Palestinians prefer to sustain violence and are not serious about a peace accord?
Chase: Palestinians are not a monolith and have always had currents pursuing contradictory strategies, some violent and some non-violent. Terrorist tactics that at times have been pursued have been simultaneously ethically objectionable and counterproductive in terms of accomplishing Palestinian goals. Non-violent tactics are increasingly at the forefront of Palestinian strategies, from the use of international law and international organizations noted previously to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
This pivot toward non-violent resistance should be welcomed. Attacks on the BDS movement — including anti-BDS laws in 27 US states — are particularly unfortunate. Whatever one’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the embrace of non-violent tactics should be something that is encouraged by all parties. To demonize BDS, including the absurd characterization of non-violent opposition to dispossession as anti-Semitic, is to demonize the shift from violent to non-violent strategies by Palestinians.
Ziabari: There are reports that Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt are mounting pressure on the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, to accept President Trump’s “deal of the century.” Leaks of the plan suggest that the Palestinians have to abandon East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, the proposed Palestinian state will be demilitarized, the Israeli settlements on occupied territories would remain in place, Israel will take full control of the Jordan Valley and Palestinians will have to abandon their right of return. Do you think it’s a fair deal that the Palestinians will accede to?
Chase: There is little possibility of this deal being acceptable. In essence the novelty of Kushner’s deal is a transactional arrangement in which financial compensation is given both to Palestinians in exchange for giving up their claims and to Arab states in exchange for their giving citizenship to Palestinian refugees. The initiative is ignorant of the obvious issues that will block its acceptability by these parties, even if supported by the US’ Gulf allies. In essence, it ignores the core issue: Palestinian economic, political and social rights within the context of either a one or two-state solution.
Ziabari: The Palestinian cause has always been a high priority for Muslim nations and a major Arab world issue. Why have countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE shifted their position in the recent years and are harboring plans to better their relations with Israel at the expense of security and well-being of their fellow Arabs in Palestine? Why is the Arab world divided over championing the cause of Palestine, with countries such as Jordan saying that they won’t abandon their support for Palestine?
Chase: I wouldn’t agree with the assumption in this question that the Palestinian cause has been a high priority for either Arab or Muslim states. With specific reference to Arab states, it has been decades since such support has been anything but rhetorical. To the contrary, authoritarian Arab states have long had an interest in maintaining the regional status quo, including in regard to Israel-Palestine. At one level, this has been about a recognition that, domestically, anger over the Palestinian issue has been a useful release valve for oppositional political energy, diverting attention toward an external enemy.
At a second level, Arab states have become proactive about combatting demands for democracy and rights outside their borders, specifically in other states across the region. This is particularly true in the wake of the Arab Spring and the fear that popular demands for democracy and rights would have a contagion effect, threatening authoritarianism across the region.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been key players in aggressively supporting the repression of both the Arab Spring revolutions and any subsequent moves across the region toward democracy. They have no interest in advancing movements for human rights, particularly from other Arabs. In this, they see common cause with Israel in seeking to limit Palestinian self-determination, particularly to the degree that Palestinians have located their claims for self-determination in the language of international law and human rights.
There is a broader point to be made here, as well. It may seem odd that Saudi Arabia or the UAE are making common cause with Israel, just as it is odd to see Israel making common cause with right-wing entities with anti-Semitic roots, from Trumpism in the US to [Viktor] Orbán in Hungary. While counterintuitive, in fact this is based in a simple reality: However disparate these nationalisms are, they recognize that they share a vision of political power based in instrumentalizing from the top down singular ethnic identity.
States that are part of this global wave of xenophobic ethnic nationalism are increasingly clear that they have an interest in combatting movements for pluralistic democratic representation and human rights in any part of the globe. Thus we see Israel’s most radically exclusionist impulses being empowered by a mutually supportive embrace with nationalist currents in countries around the globe.
The flip [side] of this is that it is clear that battles for pluralist conceptions of citizenship against ethno-nationalism are also globally interconnected. Too often the progressive left, particularly in the US, clings to a false distinction between domestic and foreign policy. To the contrary, however, issues as varied as climate change, trade, human rights and migration are inherently transnational. To look at such issues through a wholly domestic prism is to distort any possibility of a coherent response.
Resisting Trumpism in the US needs to be seen in a context which sees how this connects to support for struggles around the globe, including in the Middle East, be that regarding Palestinian rights in Israel and the Occupied Territories as well as the rights of minorities of different sorts — ethnic, gender, sexual and ideological – in the Arab states to which your question refers. In short, the battle against nationalist xenophobia is a global battle that takes place in many interconnected locales.
Regarding this last point, too many Palestinian advocates have rejected this sort of interconnection, criticizing Israeli violations of Palestinian rights while downplaying systematic rights violations in Arab states or, even worse, looking to those states as allies due to their vacuous pro-Palestinian rhetoric. It is not just that rights violations committed by Arab states — or quasi-states in the case of the Palestinian Authority — are every bit as systematic and egregious as those committed by Israel. It is that their political systems and structures of power are what produce rights violations. Such systems of power must be seen as a common obstacle to movements for rights and freedoms within and across borders.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.