By Richard Falk
The word hubris is far too kind in describing Donald Trump’s approach to the Middle East cauldron of conflict, with his response to the Palestinian struggle being more revealing of his absurd braggadocio brand than of malice, although its impact is malicious. Insisting that he has the will and capacity to strike an Israel/Palestine deal while simultaneously intimating that he plans to fulfill his inflammatory campaign promise to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Worse, he appoints David Friedman as ambassador, an ardent American supporter of settler extremists whose politics is to the right of Netanyahu on the Israeli spectrum. This bankruptcy lawyer turned diplomat has compared the liberal Zionists of J Street to the Nazi kapos (Jews who collaborated with Nazis in death camps). Here as elsewhere Trump’s errant behavior would prompt the darkest laughter if the blood of many innocents were not daily being spilled on the streets of Jerusalem, West Bank, and Gaza.
It seems likely that Trump, assuming against all reason and evidence that his presidency survives and settles down, will likely do what Netanyahu and his son in law tell him to do: leave Israel free to maintain, and as necessary, intensify its policies of oppression toward the Palestinian people as a whole that are cruelly subjugated beneath an overarching structure of apartheid. At the same time the U.S. Government will continue to give credence to the big lie that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. Israeli apartheid as an operative system of control, subjugates not only those Palestinians living under occupation but also extends its reach to refugees in neighboring countries, involuntary exiles around the world, and the discriminated minority living in Israel.
The main Trump assignment within the United States will likely be to lend full support to the Congressional and state-by-state pushback against the BDS campaign, slandering this nonviolent civil society movement of militant solidarity and human rights by castigating it as ‘the anti-Semitism of our time.’
On an international level Trump will be expected by Zionist forces to translate the UN-bashing of Nikki Haley into concrete reality by defunding any organ of the UN (e.g. Human Rights Council, UNESCO) that dares document and censure Israeli wrongdoing under international law. And regionally, Trump seems determined to champion the dangerous Saudi/Israel agenda of anti-Iran war mongering, a posture that threatens to convert the entire region into a war zone.
Trump’s clumsy touch was also evident during his much heralded May visit to Riyadh where he gave his blessings to the anti-Qatar, anti-Iran Gulf + Egypt coalitions headed by Saudi Arabia. The occasion offered the Saudis an opportunity to exert collective pressure on their tiny neighbor, insisting that Qatar curtain its sovereignty and endured a misguided hit for supposedly being the country most supportive of terrorism and extremism in the region. To lend American backing to such a hypocritical initiative is perverse and strange for several reasons obvious to almost anyone not totally oblivious to the rather blatant realities of the Middle East: Qatar is the site of the largest American military facility in the entire region, the Al Udeid Air Base, staffed by 11,000 U.S. military personnel, and serving as the counter-terrorist hub for regional military operations. Secondly, the obvious fact that Qatar’s slightly more open domestic political scene, including its sponsorship of Al Jazeera, was far closer to the supposed American political ideal than are the overtly anti-democratic governments ganging up against Qatar. And thirdly, as almost anyone following the rise of Islamic extremism knows, it is Saudi Arabia that has a long record of being the primary funding source, as well as providing much of the ideological inspiration and engaging in anti-democratic and sectarian interventions throughout the region. The Saudi government extends its baneful influence far afield by heavily subsidizing the madrassas in the Muslim countries of Asia, and doing its best to promote fundamentalist versions of Islam everywhere in the world.
Extreme as are these geopolitical missteps taken during Trump’s first few months in the White House, they are less calculated and more expressive of dysfunctional spontaneity than anything more malevolent, more bumbling than rumbling (with the notable exception of Iran). There is another more sinister civil society initiative underway that rests its claim to attention on a geopolitical fantasy that deserves notice and commentary. It is the brainchild of Daniel Pipes, the notorious founder of Campus Watch, an NGO doing its very best for many years to intimidate and, if possible, punish faculty members who are critical of Israel or appear friendly to Islam. Pipes is also the dominant figure in a strongly pro-Zionist, Islamophobic think tank in Washington misleadingly named the Middle East Forum (MEF). Much more an organ of hasbara musings on Israel/Palestine and promoter of hostility toward Islam than informed analysis and discussion, MEF is now fully behind an idea so absurd that it may gain political traction in today’s Washington. This MEF initiative is called Israel Victory Caucus in the U.S. Congress and Israeli Knesset.
In explaining the Victory Caucus Pipes at the opening of a recent hearing in the U.S. Congress to launch the project, now backed by 20 members of the House of Representatives, made an almost plausible introductory statement. Pipes told the assembled members of Congress that he had been for months racking his brain for what he called an “alternative to endless negotiations which nobody believes in.” Pipes is right to pronounce the Oslo diplomatic track a dead end with no future and a sorry past. His ‘Eureka Moment’ consisted of abandoning this failed diplomacy and replacing it by bringing Israel’s military superiority “to convince the Palestinian they have lost,” thereby awakening them to the true realities of the situation. In effect, this awareness of Israeli victory causing Palestinian defeat was the way to move forward, arguing that long wars can end only when one side wins, the other loses. Pipes personally made a parallel effort in Israel, including at the Knesset, being the lead performer in a conference in Tel Aviv dedicated to the ‘victory’ theme, and holding a highly publicized meeting with Netanyahu intending to promote the Victory Caucus. In effect, since the diplomatic track leads no where, and Israel possesses the capacity to increase Palestinian suffering at any stage, it should use this leverage to compel those representing Palestinian interests to face up to reality as Israel sees it. Part of the background is the self-serving insistence that the reason that diplomacy doesn’t work is because the Palestinians are unwilling to accept the permanent presence of a Jewish state in their midst, and until they do so, the war will go on. From this perspective, the diplomatic track could not get the Palestinians to yield in this manner, and so Israel should shift its efforts from persuasion to coercion, with the implicit false assumption that Israel was too nice in the past.
What Israel wants from the official representatives of the Palestinian people is a formal acknowledgement that their effort to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine has failed, and that they should formally express their acceptance of this outcome, not only in international languages, but also in Arabic. Victory Caucus also expects the Palestinians to affirm officially a right of self-determination in Palestine that belongs to the Jewish people. Also, the Palestinians are advised to be ‘realistic,’ and drop their dreams of a right of return to be exercised by Palestinian refugees. [for explication of the Victory Caucus approach consult the website of Middle East Forum, especially the many articles and presentations by Daniel Pipes; also helpful is Efraim Inbar, “Victory Requires Patience,” July 19, 2017] Again, there is an implicit assumption that Israel has been realistic over the years despite ignoring the guidelines of international law relevant to ‘belligerent occupation,’ including prohibitions on collective punishment and population transfer/settlements.
Pipes is very clear that the implications of victory, what he terms the details, should be left to the Israelis to decide upon. With a turn of phrase that seems an extreme version of wishful thinking to make himself sound reasonable and less partisan, Pipes insists that once this central fact of an Israeli victory is accepted, it will “be more beneficial to the Palestinians” than the present road to nowhere. The fine print may be the most disturbing and consequential aspect of the Victory Caucus arising from its realization that whatever Zionists and their most ardent supporters know to be true is not what most Palestinians believe to be the case.
Thus, for the Pipes’ logic what needs to happen, is to make the Palestinians see this particular light, and given the MEF convenient (yet deeply misleading) view of Arab mentality, this awareness can only be brought about by raising the costs to the Palestinians of continuing their struggle. Efraim Inbar frames the present situation as follows: “The Palestinian reluctance to adopt realistic foreign policy goals and the Israeli hesitation to use its military superiority to exact a much higher cost from the Palestinians are the defining features of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Although what would be realistic for the Palestinians is not specified, but from the context of the argument and overall Pipes’s outlook, it would be pretty much an acceptance of the entire Israeli agenda: the settlements, including their infrastructure of roads and the wall, retention of Galilee and Jordan Valley for security, and a unified Jerusalem under Israeli control that serves as its capital.
When Inbar premises his policy proposals on overcoming “Israeli hesitation to use its military superiority” to get the Palestinians to accept reality, one can only shudder at what this writer has in mind. Pipes assures his audience that whatever is done along these lines to convince the Palestinians should respect “legal, moral, and political limits” but by explicitly leaving it up to Israel to determine what this might mean, these limits lack all credibility, especially given Israel’s past behavior, which flagrantly and repeatedly ignores these limits in enacting policies that produced massive and acute suffering for the Palestinians over a period of decades. Against such a background I find these lines of MEF advocacy to be irresponsibly provocative in their formulation, and frightening if ever relied upon as the basis of action.
What is left out of this Pipes’ proposal seems far more significant than what is included. The justification for the Victory Caucus is based on a supposed posture of Palestinian rejectionism explains far less about the unfolding of the conflict over the course of the last hundred years than would referencing Zionist expansionism, combined with the salami tactics of always disguising more ambitious goals during the process of achieving their proximate objectives. In recent years, particularly, the Palestinian side has badly wanted a deal, signaling even their willingness to accept a bad deal, so as to end the occupation, and establish a state of their own. Any objective approach to this question of why the Oslo diplomacy reached a dead end would attribute the lion’s share of responsibility to the Israeli side with its practice of putting forward ever escalating demands that it knows in advance that the Palestinians must reject, not because they are unrealistic, but because Israel’s demands for ‘peace’ are the permanent subjugation of the Palestinian people.
Most disturbing of all is without doubt this image of Israeli hesitation to use the force at its disposal as if implying that Israel have been gentle occupiers and benign oppressors for these past 70 years since the UN proposed partition of Palestine. The evidence is overwhelming that Israel consistently relies on disproportionate excessive force, as well as collective punishment, in response any violent act of Palestinian resistance, and even to nonviolent Palestinian initiatives, for instance, the first intifada (1987), demonstrations against the unlawful wall, and the reaction to the recent restrictions on entry to Al Aqsa were met with violence. One of the most striking conclusions of the Goldstone Report on the Israeli attack on Gaza at the end of 2008 was its referencing of the Dahiya Doctrine, referring to the Israeli rationalization for destroying civilian neighborhoods in south Beirut assumed to be pro-Hezbollah as part of a strategy of disproportionate response to Hezbollah’s acts of violence in the course of the 2006 Lebanon War. Israeli military commanders gave two complementary explanations: the civilian population is part of the enemy infrastructure, thereby abolishing the distinction between civilians and military personnel; it is helpful for actual and potential enemies to perceive Israel as madly overreacting in response to even a minor provocation.
With more than a touch of irony, as of this writing, it is the Palestinians who are with greater credibility claiming ‘victory’ given the apparent resolution of the Al Aqsa crisis, which induced Israel to back down by agreeing to remove metal detectors and surveillance camera from two of the entrances to the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount esplanade leading to the mosque, and what is equally relevant, Israel appears for now to accept the continuing Wafq role as the only legitimate administrative authority in relation to this sacred Muslim religious site. Whether this is indeed more than a tactical retreat by Israel remains to be seen, and will be determined by how the recurrent battle for the governance of Al Aqsa proceeds in the future.
Similarly, whether the Victory Caucus is viewed in the future as a sinister display of Zionist arrogance or a step toward closure in the Israeli end game in Palestine will depend, not on the positing of grandiose claims, but what happens in the future with respect to Palestinian resistance and the global solidarity movement. Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, recently warned Israelis that the BDS campaign poses “a strategic threat’ to Israel. Such a sentiment makes more than a little odd, and absurdly premature, for American and Israeli legislators to step forward to call upon Israel to up the ante by increasing their pressure on the Palestinians so that they are forced to admit in public what they now refuse to say even in private, what MEF wants us all to believe, that Israel has won, Palestine lost.
– Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies. He was also the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights. Visit his blog.