Can Palestinians play off Europe against the US as peace plan looms?
Against the gloomy backdrop of repeated diplomatic setbacks under the Trump administration, talks on Israeli settlements at the UN this month offered a brief ray of sunshine for the embattled Palestinian officials who showed up in New York.
Despite the hotly-anticipated release of a United States plan for Middle East peace that is widely tipped to favor Israelis over Palestinians, many diplomats at the UN meeting on May 9 rallied behind the goal that, one day, Palestinians should run their own country.
That aspiration — a bedrock of negotiations for decades — is being put on the back-burner by US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a senior White House adviser who says he does not want to get bogged down in such contentious terms as “two-state solution”.
Jonathan Allen, the deputy UN ambassador for Britain, one of Washington’s stalwart global allies, called Israeli settlement-building in the West bank “illegal” and an “obstacle to peace” that threatened the “viability of a two-state solution”.
Envoys from Belgium, Kuwait, Germany, France and elsewhere echoed these concerns at the meeting, which was organised by Indonesia to coincide with Israel’s national day and featured such prominent critics of Israel as James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute.
Palestinian officials needed a fillip. For months, they have faced colossal setbacks under a Trump administration that has shifted the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel, and cut funding for Palestinian refugees.
Palestinian officials view Kushner’s plan, dubbed the “deal of the century”, as a sop to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that will nix their plans to create their own state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip — all territory Israel captured in 1967.
The Palestinian UN ambassador, Riyad Mansour, said Washington was trying to bully the Palestinians into accepting an unfavorable deal that was little more than a “pretext” for Israel to extend its borders by annexing swathes of the West Bank.
The specter of annexation was raised by Netanyahu, who vowed in the final days of a re-election campaign he won on April 9 to annex Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank — a move that would kill off prospects for a viable Palestinian state.
That danger persisted, said Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki. US foreign policy had been “hijacked” by a cabal of Israel apologists and the as-yet unpublished peace plan amounted to a Palestinian “surrender”, he said.
But, Maliki added, the crisis required more than supportive words from Allen and other European envoys. The European Union should ready to use “sanctions” and “boycotting” to deter any Israeli grabs of Palestinian land, Maliki told Mondoweiss.
Meanwhile, Palestinian officials are urging the EU to host a major conference on Middle East peace that would undercut the preeminent US role in the peace process. They are also calling for more European countries to recognize Palestine as a state.
Richard Gowan, UN director for the International Crisis Group, a think tank, said the Palestinians have been “relatively successful” in face-offs with Washington at UN-style confabs and that the approach is likely to gain some traction.
“The main European powers, including the UK, still back a two-state solution, and the US has found itself either in a minority or isolated on a series of votes on Jerusalem and Gaza,” Gowan told Mondoweiss.
“Whatever is in the [US peace] plan, the Palestinians can feel relatively confident that the Europeans and other US allies will not move away from the basic concept of a two-state solution.”
But there are limits to how far they will advance a Palestinian agenda, added Gowan.
“The Europeans will want to avoid any unnecessary conflict with Washington, particularly on an issue of such personal importance to President Trump and his family, and may rather delay or dodge this question than have an all-out showdown,” Gowan said.
Yara Hawari, a Palestinian academic and fellow at Al Shabaka, a pro-Palestinian think tank, was less optimistic about prospects of Western Europe acting as a counterbalance to a one-sided US peace proposal.
“Unfortunately there isn’t the political will to hold Israel accountable,” Hawari told Mondoweiss.
“This is all taking place against a shifting geopolitical backdrop in which the European Union is breaking apart, and some Eastern European countries are creating alliances with right-wing governments in Israel, Brazil and the US.”
Hawari pointed to the recent US decision to recognize Israel’s claim to sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau Israel captured from Syria in a 1967 war and annexed, in a move not recognized internationally.
The US broke with other world powers in March when Trump signed a decree recognizing Israeli sovereignty there — a move that infuriated Palestinians and many Arab political and religious leaders.
According to Hawari, appealing to the Europeans and the UN for fair play is pointless at a time when the rule books are being torn up.
“The US and Israel are undermining the concept of international legitimacy and international law,” Hawari told Mondoweiss. “What does it matter if, in reality, Israel is the governing power and life is under the Israeli regime?”
Kushner and Middle East peace envoy Jason Greenblatt have spent two years developing a peace proposal that they say could provide a framework for fresh talks between Israelis and Palestinians.