ODVV Interview: Trump’s Deal an Attempt to...
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict: from time to time, the twists and turns of what is being known as one of the most polarizing and divisive confrontations of the world come to surface in the public sphere to be heatedly debated by governments, international organizations, media, think tanks and academia, and after a while, the conversation recedes in importance and fades into oblivion. The last time the seven-decade-old imbroglio dominated the headlines was earlier in May, when a two-week showdown involving the Israeli forces and the Hamas group in Gaza Strip plunged the Middle East into rekindled chaos, reignited the religious and ethnic grievances of the Israelis and Palestinians, and in addition to unleashing an avalanche of destruction, claimed tens of lives, including at least 256 Palestinians and 12 Israelis.
In a UN Security Council meeting on October 19 dedicated to the status quo in the region, Tor Wennesland, the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, said the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories continues to deteriorate and no progress has been seen towards realizing a two‑state solution. He also lamented that Israel’s ongoing settlement activities, evictions, demolitions and seizures of Palestinian property and military operations “feed the cycle of violence.” Yet, while the evidence at hand points to the direness of the impasse, and the need for sustained and meaningful dialogue to pull off positive change is clearly understood, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is nowhere near a resolution, which signals a state of perennial suspense presaging prospective episodes of aggression and bloodshed.
Eric Cheyfitz is the Ernest I. White Professor of American Studies and Humane Letters at Cornell University and a faculty member of the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program. His most recent book is “The Disinformation Age: The Collapse of Liberal Democracy in the United States.” He has published several articles on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and called for an equitable solution that brings about peace in the region and regains the rights of the Palestinians.
Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has talked to Prof. Cheyfitz to discuss the most pressing fault lines in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, human rights violations occurring in the Palestinian territories and the Gaza Strip, the breakdown of President Donald Trump’s vaunted “Deal of the Century,” and the ramifications of the Abraham Accords.
Q: The United States usually tends to project itself as the most effective and potent intermediary in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has come up with a litany of initiatives over the past seven decades to mediate the crisis and institute peace. Did Donald Trump’s much-hyped “Deal of the Century,” which he tried to foist on Palestinians as a one-sided solution, ever yield meaningful outcomes? Do you see indications that the Biden administration is pivoting away from Trump’s policies on the Middle East peace process?
A: Before I begin, there is a terminological issue I would like to resolve, which is the use of the term conflict to characterize the relationship between Israel and Palestine. That term implies a symmetry of power when the facts on the ground are vastly asymmetrical. These facts are most brutally represented by the gross discrepancy in the number of Palestinians and Israelis killed in the course of armed engagement since 2000, the beginning of the Second Intifada.
As reported by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, from 2000-2007 “at least 5,848 people have been killed either directly or as an indirect consequence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This figure includes all persons regardless of their ethnic origin, nationality, gender, age, status as civilian or combatant and regardless of the circumstances or cause… Of those killed in the conflict, 4,228 have been Palestinians, 1,024 Israelis, and 63 foreign citizens. For every person killed, approximately seven were also injured.” Moreover, “the total number of Israelis, both civilians and Israeli Defense Force combatants, killed by Palestinian armed groups and individuals, is declining.” However, “In contrast the total number of Palestinians, both civilians and combatants killed by the Israeli security forces or Israeli individuals, remains relatively high. In 2007, for example, for every one Israeli death, there were 25 Palestinian deaths compared to 2002 when the ratio was 1:2.5.” Confirming this comparison, OCHA, as reported in Forbes, calculated that from 2008-2020, “some 5,600 Palestinians died… while nearly 115,000 were injured. During the same period, around 250 Israelis have died while approximately 5,600 were injured.”
As much of world opinion has noted, including Human Rights Watch and the Israeli human rights institution, B’Tselem, Israel is an apartheid state and has been one since the Six-Day War of 1967. Along these lines Zionism, when Theodor Herzl published its bible The Jewish State in 1896, viewed Palestine as “a land without a people for a people without a land”; and since Israel carved itself out of Palestine in 1948, that view has not substantially changed with its latest manifestation being the Jewish National Law within Israel proper, the continuation of martial law on the West Bank, and the ongoing siege of Gaza. Zionism is from its outset and into the present, then, racist. Simply put, it views the Palestinians as fundamentally non-existent and if minimally existent expendable in the interests of a superior race, the Jews. Importantly, however, a significant and increasing part of the Jewish population, including myself, and its institutions, oppose this racism in the name of traditional Jewish ethics and morality.
The United States has been an ineffective because dishonest broker in past negotiations. It has been, that is, at least since 1967, an outspoken partisan of Israel both in words and deeds – its ongoing support in terms of billions of dollars for the Israeli military, which uses its weapons against the Palestinians: witness in particular the ongoing massacres of civilians in Gaza.
There have been no meaningful outcomes to the Trump deal, which was simply a crude attempt to unsuccessfully bribe the Palestinians to accept the status quo of apartheid in Israel-Palestine. And I see no change, except minimally in rhetoric, in the Biden administration, which has continued the USD3.8 billion yearly subsidies for Israeli militarization. Will, for example, the Biden administration even shift the US embassy back to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem, which would at least be a significant symbolic gesture?
Q: The new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has intoned recently that he is opposed to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, saying it’s “a terrible mistake.” Sources close to Bennett have also said “there is no diplomatic process with the Palestinians, nor will there be one.” Is Bennett doubling down on the hardline policies of his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu to disrupt the peaceful settlement of the crisis? Should Palestinians still be hopeful that with a radical right-wing leader at the helm of power hierarchy in Israel, their ideal of statehood and sovereignty can be ever realized?
A: Bennett is simply continuing the status quo of apartheid, which as Palestinian scholar and activist Edward Said noted in 1979, was always the status quo in Israel-Palestine. There is nothing on the visible political horizon that suggests this situation will change. But there is continuing Palestinian resistance to the status quo and growing international awareness, including in the United States, of Israeli apartheid.
Q: What is the long-term strategy of the new government in Israel for future relations with the Palestinians? Will The New Right party frame its agenda on the question of Palestine around the continuation of settlement constructions, periodic violations of ceasefire to deliver infrastructural blows to the Gaza Strip and refusal to engage in diplomacy until the prospects of an independent Palestinian state are completely aborted? Will the Israeli electorate throw its weight behind this sort of approach?
A: As noted, the strategy of the new government is to continue to buttress the apartheid state, for which it has the support of the majority of Israelis. This buttressing includes settlement expansion, illegal under international law; a regime of repression of Palestinian resistance, including the suspension of habeas corpus for Palestinian arrests – so-called “administrative detention”; collective punishment, and the massacres in Gaza. Under the auspices of the current regime, the possibility of an independent Palestinian state is a fantasy. And continued talk of a two-state solution is rhetoric without a tie to reality.
Q: One of the issues that has come under increasing scrutiny in the recent years is the violation of human rights of Palestinians living under occupation. Only in 2020, the UN Human Rights Council issued 70 resolutions and convened seven Special Sessions to address the breaches of Palestinians’ rights, investigating this theme more than any other country or thematic issue. Have the council and other human rights, advocacy organizations that have documented the tribulations of the Palestinian people been able to persuade Israel to change its policies and secure an improvement in the rights of Palestinians?
A: Let’s first change “tribulations of” to “crimes against.” The simple answer here is clearly no; the Israeli government is committed to a regime of apartheid and to denying that it is implementing such a regime. The problem with international law is that it has no effective enforcement mechanisms in a world dominated by powerful, former colonial nation-states that do not want that law focused on themselves or their allies. In fact, the very notion of “former” is problematic given the status of Indigenous peoples around the world, which includes the Palestinians. For example, the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which aims at the decolonization of Indigenous communities, in Article 46 (1) subordinates Indigenous rights to the hegemony of the nation-states within which these communities are situated, and in that sense contradicts or vitiates its decolonial agenda. And buttressed by the Jewish mythology that the Jews are God’s chosen people, the Israeli government denies the indigeneity of the Palestinians for its own claim on that status.
Q: The Israeli lobby in the United States plays a leading role in demarcating the public discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate. The majority of Americans have favorable views of Israel. According to Gallup, since 2001, on average 58 percent of the American public has viewed Israel favorably, and in 2021, pro-Israeli sentiments in the US peaked to a two-decade high at 75 percent. Similar levels of sympathy with Israel can be noticed in other Western countries. Why is it that the voices of Palestinians are usually underrepresented in the media and public sphere? Doesn’t this imbalance lead to the contortion of the realities of the Middle East conflict?
A: Major media in the US and other Western democracies are corporate-controlled and so typically represent the opinion of the powers-that-be, though not univocally, with little or no room for the representation of marginalized peoples, including, of course, the Palestinians. Clearly this coverage distorts or erases the history of Palestine and Israel and so gives the public the idea of a “conflict” between equal powers rather than what the case is: the ultimate Israeli incorporation of Palestine in an apartheid state beginning in 1967, generated by the Balfour Declaration of 1917. It is perhaps worth noting that in Israel one major newspaper, Haaretz, gives much better coverage to the Palestinian point of view both in its reporting and in the editorial columns, for example, of Gideon Levy and Amira Hass than the New York Times, which has, putting it mildly, a distinctly pro-Israel bias both in its reporting and editorials. Of importance here in making the actual situation in Israel-Palestine visible is the struggle within US and British universities of faculty and students to mount courses on the actual history of Palestine-Israel and the pushback by administrations, influenced by the Israeli lobby and certain Jewish donors, on those faculty and students, including the attempts to ban certain chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine in the US and the firing of faculty in the US and UK for their support of Palestinian rights.
Q: How have the regional countries, particularly the Arab partners of Palestine, contributed to the evolution of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis? Do you believe the normalization accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, expected to be replicated with other Arab states in the Persian Gulf, have undermined the aspirations of the Palestinians? Do you agree with this reading that the normalization accords constituted an abandonment of the Palestinians and a betrayal of their struggle?
A: “Partners” is not the word I would use to describe the historical geopolitical relationships of the Arab countries in the Middle East with Palestine, though it would take a book to detail these shifting relationships, which range, to take some broad examples, from armed opposition to Israel expansion – namely the 1948, ’56, ’67, and ’73 wars – to signing peace treaties with Israel in the case of Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994, both former combatants. Both these treaties necessarily blunted the advocacy of Egypt and Jordan for the Palestine Liberation Organization agenda.
The housing of the PL0 in the earliest years of its formation in 1964 was first in Jordan, until Jordan expelled it in 1971, when it relocated in Lebanon until 1982, when it was expelled by the Israeli army to Tunis, Tunisia in 1982 before coming home to Palestine in 1994. The Arab countries have been instrumental in taking in refugees from Israel’s violence beginning with Israel’s ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians in the 1948 war.
United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees reports, “nearly one-third of the registered Palestine refugees, more than 1.5 million individuals, live in 58 recognized Palestine refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem” and “Today, some 5 million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA services.” Unsurprisingly, UNRWA reports, “socioeconomic conditions in the camps are generally poor, with high population density, cramped living conditions and inadequate basic infrastructure such as roads and sewers” so that the contributions of governments supporting UNRWA across the globe are clearly inadequate. Among the top governments financially contributing to UNRWA, including the European Union, as of 2019 were the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. In thinking about Palestinian and Arab partnerships, we must note that Palestine is a member of the Arab League, founded in 1945, which now has 22 members. The League opposed the 1947 UN partition plan for Palestine and in 1948 after Israel declared its independence, five of its then six members, namely Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, joined the Palestinian armed resistance.
My assessment is that the Abraham Accords, which were applauded by the Biden administration, will not in any way change Israeli apartheid in Palestine. In addition, we should not let Arab states’ maneuvering on the question of Palestine distract us from the maneuverings of the principal nation-state powers, the US and Israel, particularly because the politics of all the players in the history of Israel-Palestine are interconnected.
Q: The Israeli-Palestinian dilemma is a complex issue made worse by an amalgamation of national, religious, ethnic, territorial and political factors. Some observers opine the persistence of the status quo is the only eventuality that can be expected, because Israel doesn’t have any plans to retract from its ambitions, and the Palestinians lack the wherewithal and sufficient support to fulfil their goal of statehood. Has the conflict reached a point where even such stakeholders as the United Nations, Security Council and the European Union are not willing to intervene to resolve it due to the intricacy of the conflict of interests among their member states?
A: I don’t think the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma is a complex issue. Indeed, to say so is a distraction that invites passivity on the issue. It is fundamentally a very simple issue of the historical oppression of Palestinians by the apartheid state of Israel. Apartheid is recognized in international law as a crime against humanity, and just as the international community organized boycotts against apartheid in South Africa, so it should do so in the first place by supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement of Palestinian civil society.
Q: Is international law being neglected in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whereby one party to the crisis is finding it convenient and cost-free to enjoy impunity and disregard UN General Assembly, Security Council and Human Rights Council resolutions on its conduct and policies?
A: International law is not being neglected in relation to Israeli crimes against humanity and war crimes in Palestine, it is being ignored, by Israel of course but with the support of the Western democracies led by the United States. If one is interested in the ways international law has functioned and malfunctioned historically in Palestine-Israel, I recommend Noura Erakat’s book “Justice For Some: Law And The Question of Palestine”.
By: Kourosh Ziabari