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Dark days for the Palestinian cause

Updated June 11, 2018


LAST week, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, was in London as part of his campaign to persuade Germany, France and the UK to ditch the nuclear agreement with Iran, just as the United States has done. While no public commitments were given, it is clear that despite their brave words, the European signatories to the deal have few options but to fall into line with Washington.

The problem for them is that Trump has threatened to apply tough secondary sanctions on banks and companies doing business with Iran. Few corporate chiefs would risk losing the right to operate in America, the world’s biggest market. So even if the French, German and British governments would like to keep their side of the nuclear bargain, most companies would be reluctant to enter into contracts with Iran, or continue with existing ones.

This is a point Netanyahu made with some relish during an interview with Evan Davis, the lead presenter on Newsnight, the BBC’s flagship news programme. According to him, the deal was already dead: which company would forsake doing business in a one trillion dollar economy for trading with Iran, a country with an economy just 3-4 per cent of America’s?

When asked how he would prevent Iran from returning to its nuclear enrichment programme, Netanyahu replied “All options are open”, a clear warning that he was still itching to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. And while Obama had pre-empted him by signing a historic deal with Iran, there are no such restraints in place with Donald Trump in the White House. If anything, his approach towards Iran is even more aggressive than his Israeli friend’s.

Davis went on to ask how the conflict with the Palestinians would end if the Israelis were not prepared to make any concessions over Jerusalem, statehood and the return of land illegally usurped to create new settlements. Netanyahu made it clear that sovereignty for Palestinians wasn’t on the cards. “Call it what you like, autonomy or self-rule, but we will retain control over borders and security.”

Citing the ineffectual, home-made rockets fired from Gaza, he declared that Israeli borders had to be protected, making light of the scores of Palestinians shot dead by Israeli army snipers in recent weeks. Insisting that most of them were Hamas “terrorists”, he went on to claim that the civilians killed were being used as human shields.

Netanyahu’s trump card was saved for the end of the interview when he gloated over the fact that many Arab states now had good relations with Israel, and this shift in attitudes was a huge regional game-changer. It is true that Iran is more isolated than ever, and countries like Qatar that partly funded Hamas, have withdrawn their support. Even the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas has stopped paying Israel for supplying Gaza with electricity, thereby causing further hardship to the beleaguered people forced to survive under siege in wretched conditions.

Recent images from Gaza show kites carrying small fire bombs that fly over neighbouring Israeli farms being shot down by drones. This imbalance in force is a perfect metaphor for Palestinian impotence in the face of Israeli might. Abandoned by most Arab states, the principle political support for Palestinian rights now comes from Europe. However, this is nullified by the open-ended backing of the United States: never has there been a more pro-Israel supporter than Trump in the White House. Even presidents like George W Bush were reluctant to move the US embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, something Trump has not wasted any time in doing, despite advice to the contrary from the State Department.

In the Newsnight interview, Netanyahu came across as confident and in total control of the situation. Fluent in his American-accented English, he seemed amused and tolerant at Davis’s attempts to rattle him. His education in America has given him not just useful insights, but has helped create a network of well-connected friends. He is by far his country’s most articulate spokesman: coming across as “one of us”, his passionate defence of Israel’s indefensible policies and actions over the years has convinced many, especially in America.

And this is the key difference between Israeli and Arab lobbying in America: whereas Jews are generally accepted as valuable members of the community, Arabs are seen as lazy, rich and completely alien. Above all, Israel is viewed as an island of democracy in a sea of dictatorship. Military planners in the Pentagon view the country as a forward base for any possible conflict in the Middle East, and have pre-positioned an arsenal there for emergencies if American interests are threatened.

In such an environment, it is easy to see why American politicians are reluctant to step out of line where Israel is concerned. Those who did so have paid a heavy price: the Israeli lobbying machine is a well-honed organization whose members keep a close eye on their representatives and how they vote on issues relating to Israel. The senior George Bush lost his re-election bid, partly because he opposed Israel’s illegal construction of settlements. Since then, even Barack Obama had to toe the line, despite his clear dislike of Israel’s repressive policies, and his obvious antagonism towards Netanyahu.

These are dark days for the Palestinian cause: friendless and isolated, their dream of statehood is further away than ever. Many of them must be regretting their failure to grasp the opportunities offered in the Oslo and Camp David talks. True, what was on offer was unjust, but the world is unfair, and sometime, the weaker party has to take what it can get, rather than nothing at all.

Published in Dawn, June 11th, 2018