Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s governing coalition is currently considering legislation that would effectively annex settlements in the occupied West Bank. That follows a similar platform passed by Netanyahu’s own Likud Party last December. The current status of the legislation is unclear, but the issue will not go away. There has been some public disagreement as to whether or not this is in consultation and understanding with the US, with Netanyahu claiming the former and official US spokespeople denying that. The details and potential minor disagreements matter less than the bigger picture, which is one of a powerful US-Israel alignment in further squeezing the Palestinians.
The Trump administration represents both continuity and change on the Israel-Palestine file. Previous US administrations have also treated Israel’s occupation policies and violations of international law with practical impunity, unwilling or unable to summon the political will to assert the undoubted US leverage that does exist, and the US-led peace process has long since become a convenient fig leaf in the shadow of which Israel has extended its disenfranchisement of the Palestinians and entrenched its own settlements and matrix of control in the occupied territories. Nevertheless, it was often made clear that the Israeli occupation and settlement policies diverged from the US national security interest, the US was occasionally able to impose some restraint and make public certain disagreements.
The Trump administration is actively allying itself with a maximalist pro-settler Israeli policy, further empowering the more extreme governing forces on the Israeli side. Some in the Trump administration, notably the Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, have a history supporting and even funding settlements, for others this is about the Republican base which includes the dispensationalist Christian Evangelical community and its version of pro-settler Zionism as well as the anti-Palestinian and Islamophobic alt-right. Added to this, are senior members of the administration who, based it seems on a combination of a transactional mindset and naivety and in consort with certain regional leaders, seem to believe they can bludgeon the Palestinians into accepting permanent second-class status.
What this all represents is a win-win for Israeli hardliners – either the Palestinians are forced to embrace their own dispossession (very unlikely to happen) or the Palestinians are blamed and Israel has carte blanche – all of which encourages the annexation that is under discussion and that is unlikely to have advanced were it not for the positioning of the Trump administration.
There was already an established trend within the Israeli political and policy debate, reflected in public opinion, which was ever more hostile to the basic tenants of a potential agreed two-state solution and to acknowledging any Palestinian rights.
The Trump administration has intensified that trend. This shifting Israeli debate now often revolves around the question of whether to continue to control the territories and the Palestinians under the cover of a peace process and via a stealth apartheid Bantustan system or whether to formalize what is perceived to be Israel’s victory and the crushing of the Palestinians by formally annexing territory and formalizing the apartheid regime.
Those who argue that over 50 years of entrenching presence in the territories since 1967 should continue to be pursued incrementally and that that is the key to its success prefer not to take the risk of formally extending sovereignty now. That includes part of Netanyahu’s own party and coalition and perhaps the prime minister himself. But they are under pressure by others on the right, within the governing Likud and coalition for whom the Trump era is a moment not to be wasted. Those promoting the extension of sovereignty are in a hurry to make irreversible as much as possible of Greater Israel while Trump is still in power – that includes not only annexation but also moves in Jerusalem and against UNRWA vis-à-vis the refugee file.
It is a position which ultimately has an expulsionist logic and that could threaten destabilizing Jordan by reintroducing the idea of Palestinians being politically pushed onto Jordan, or even physically. In the face of these trends, the Israeli parliamentary opposition has been weak in setting out an alternative cause.
Reaction in the region
The Palestinian issue has always been instrumentalized within regional geopolitics. The current degree of division and polarization within the region is perhaps unprecedented and certainly places extra challenges on the Palestinians making a current unified mobilization of support extremely difficult and creating some new regional opportunities for Israel.
Nevertheless, the US undermined its own strategy of regional division and of creating a new/old Pax-Americana by placing the Jerusalem issue front and center. That was a counterproductive and ill-conceived move. Even in an era where some Arab states are actively pushing to marginalize the Palestinian issue, Al Quds and Al Aqsa, the third holiest site in Islam, still resonates with public opinion.
The extent of the Arab and regional pushback will partially depend on the effectiveness of the Palestinian counter mobilization and the ability to embarrass certain Arab governments. However, it was already clear during the response to the American Jerusalem declaration that there is only so far an Arab coalition (even with US support) can go in openly taking sides with Israel against the Palestinians. Any further Israeli extension of sovereignty would exacerbate that trend and probably further demonstrate the limitations of the more open and public axis the US is trying to build between Israel, certainly Gulf states and Egypt (that is mostly targeting Iran). And the Arab states will ultimately not be able to impose a plan on the Palestinians that offers permanent second-class status or worst and falls short of international benchmarks and legality.
If Israel pursues further annexation, then a greater space will also be opened up for the strengthening of the counter coalitions to the American plan which started to emerge during the Jerusalem declaration. Those will remain loose but include, in addition to the Palestinians and to a significant extent the Jordanians, other states in the Gulf, North Africa, the Levant and the Muslim world extending beyond West Asia.
There is also a question that should be asked in Israel but that is rarely mentioned regarding how successful its regional strategy is likely to be when it is siding with those in the region who have shown little prospect of gaining the upper hand.
The power dynamics and asymmetries of this conflict are clearly stacked against the Palestinians. Israel is a state, with military power, an occupying force, the Palestinians are in many respects cut off from each other as well as divided politically from within, under an unparalleled surveillance regime, surrounded by a polarized region and with the US now even more in Israel’s corner. However, part of the Palestinian weakness is of their own making and there are moves that could be taken with an assertion of Palestinian agency that can begin to challenge the relationship of power.
Part of the strategic debate on the Palestinian side centers around whether, given current weakness, division and regional polarization, to focus within the status quo to maintain sumud, or steadfastness, and to limit the damage that could be done to the Palestinian cause over this period versus a strategy that sees an opportunity in the Israeli overreach (accelerated by Trump and indicated by the sovereignty extension legislation) and in the (negative) clarity of the Trump administration in order to break from the failed policies of the Oslo years and to more directly challenge and disrupt the status quo.
It is fair to acknowledge that both options are risky. It is abundantly clear that over time the peace process became a tool for managing and extending perpetual Israeli control and for permanently dispossessing and disenfranchising the Palestinians. So, at some stage, a new path is clearly needed – no people have ever achieved their freedom by simply relying on the benevolence of an occupying power or a global superpower and without challenging and disrupting the status quo.
In a way, the Trump administration is acting as an accelerant in bringing to a close the quarter of a century of a failed Oslo process that has ill-served the Palestinians. Therein lies the opportunity. A more coherent and assertive Palestinian strategy, building internal unity, could maximize support within and beyond the region and squeeze and embarrass those who have sided with Israel and Trump.
Israel would appear to be particularly vulnerable to a non-violent, popular civil resistance and possibly to an equal rights/civil rights struggle within the one political space which Israel has created, a struggle that could engender far more meaningful international solidarity. Whether the Palestinian strategic shift is a short or long-term project, as long as the Palestinians physically remain on the ground, Israel has a problem.
Reaction of Russia and the UN Security Council
Action by Russia or others at the UN Security Council on Israel-Palestine is always circumscribed by the threat and actual use of an American veto which has been wielded on 43 occasions, more than 53% of all times America has used its veto power. That does not totally negate either the Security Council or other UN agencies and global institutions, including the Human Right’s Council.
A reassertion of international law regarding the occupied territories and of existing parameters by Russia and by other coalitions that can include Russia is a worthwhile exercise, even if the Middle East Peace Quartet itself has effectively been neutralized for many years. It should also be acknowledged that there are limits to what Russia or others will do if the Palestinian leadership continues to work within the status quo rather than to adopt a new and more disruptive strategy as discussed above.
If a Palestinian strategic shift does come into play, then that would challenge Russia and others to realign policies and positions and very possibly be challenged to go beyond the rhetorical and the symbolic. In the meantime, there is still much work to be done. No international recognition should be accorded to any illegal Israeli extension of sovereignty and a clear distinction should be drawn between Israel within the 1967 lines and the illegal practices and policies of the occupation. Israel should be held to account for unlawful practices.
There also needs to be a focus on Gaza, both in terms of improving the appalling conditions for the Palestinian civilian population and in terms of preventing any possible escalation of violence between Israel and Gaza.
Finally, internal Palestinian political talks should receive maximum encouragement to end the debilitating internal division and facilitate the emergence of new structures and platforms for the national movement.