Trump and the Israeli right: Hawks of a feather

The U.S. refusal to veto a UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements must be understood in terms of the growing debate about annexation, writes Wael Elasady.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) visits Donald Trump in Trump TowerIsraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) visits Donald Trump in Trump Tower

THE HARD-RIGHT regime of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is predictably giddy at the coming inauguration of President Donald Trump. After eight years of exchanging elbows with Barack Obama, the Israeli establishment is celebrating the takeover of the White House by its ideological co-thinkers in the new Trump administration.

The similarities between Trump and Netanyahu are straightforward enough. Both appeal to nationalism and racism to shore up support in the face of what they portray as "existential enemies" both at home and abroad. Both have displayed a willingness to run roughshod over civil liberties to carry out their repressive agendas. And both consider the Obama administration to be weak and ineffective at best--and a dangerous appeaser of "Islamic terror" at worst.

When the Obama administration refused to veto a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel's settlements in the West Bank on December 23, the Israeli establishment and the incoming Trump administration reacted with predictable hysteria. But in spite of the rancor that followed passage of the resolution, the truth is that Obama has been a stalwart supporter of Israel, both diplomatically and economically.

As Financial Times reporter David Gardner put it: "Mr. Obama's personal dealings with Mr. Netanyahu may often have been poisonous, but he has been the most pro-Israel of presidents: the most prodigal with military aid and reliable in wielding the U.S. veto at the Security Council."

This is crucial to grasp in order to understand the real nature of the disagreement running through the foreign policy establishments of both the U.S. and Israel--namely, should the U.S. and Israel continue to pursue the so-called "two-state solution" of Israel and a future Palestinian state existing side by side? Or should Israel abandon this and simply annex the West Bank and its inhabitants, scrapping more than two decades of negotiations toward that end?

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THE UN Security Council shocked the world when it passed its December 23 resolution against Israel's settlements in the West Bank. But the shock wasn't what the resolution contained, but the fact that the U.S. didn't exercise its veto power in the UN Security Council--as it has on 42 other occasions--to shield Israel from criticism by the international community for its flagrant and sustained violations of Palestinian human and civil rights.

The resolution itself was simply a restatement of international laws already on the books for 50 years. It reaffirms the principle of "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force," condemns "all measures aimed at altering the demographic composition, character and status of the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem," and demands a halt to "the construction and expansion of settlements, transfer of Israeli settlers, confiscation of land, demolition of homes and displacement of Palestinian civilians."

Like other resolutions of its kind, UN Security Council Resolution 2334 has no mechanism for enforcement--for example, placing economic sanctions on Israel for its decades of flouting such resolutions.

Furthermore, it appears that the U.S., as a precondition for its abstention, insisted on language which would demand that the Palestinian Authority continue to function as an indigenous enforcer of the occupation "through existing security coordination" and the "strengthening of ongoing efforts to combat terrorism"--language which has historically been used by Israel and its supporters to deny Palestinians the right to resist their oppressors.

The vote sent Israeli leaders into a frenzy. They lashed out at the Obama administration, which they painted as rabidly anti-Israel. They accused Obama officials of orchestrating passage of the resolution behind the scenes. One senior minister called Obama's failure to veto the resolution the equivalent of support for "Palestinian intransigence, incitement, violence and terror."

This unhinged response further highlights the fact that Israel today is run by the most hard-right government in its history, a government which is no longer interested in even paying lip service to the idea of a two-state solution, and instead seeks to pass laws to annex large parts of occupied Palestinian land in the West Bank.

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IN RESPONSE, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gave an hour-long speech defending the U.S. decision to abstain. Kerry's speech included the expected proclamations of the Obama administration's commitment to Israel and its "security" and condemnation of "Palestinian violence."

But it also made a sharp case for how Israeli intransigence--specifically, its settlement expansion into the West Bank--was undermining the viability of the "two-state solution." As a result, according to Kerry, Israel is creating a "one-state" reality, with Palestinians living without political or civil rights under Israeli rule.

Kerry even invoked the language of the civil rights movement, stating that if Israel were to continue on this path, it would create a state that was "separate and unequal"--in other words, apartheid. Kerry went on to warn that if Israeli leaders chose the one-state path, "Israel can either be Jewish or democratic--it cannot be both."

Kerry's words--his attempt to place equal blame on Palestinians notwithstanding--are a vindication for Palestinians and solidarity activists who have argued for years that Israel is an apartheid state. But far from being a future possibility, apartheid and ongoing colonization is exactly the state of affairs that currently reigns.

What was missing from Kerry's speech was an admission of the Obama administration's own complicity in the current reality and the central role it has played in enabling the further advance of Israeli apartheid and colonization. As Kerry himself laid out in his speech, the Obama administration has been the most pro-Israel administration in U.S. history.

Just weeks after Obama won the 2008 election, he fell silent in the face of Israel's Operation Cast Lead. In the span of three weeks, Israel massacred more than 1,400 Palestinians in the open-air prison that is Gaza.

During his presidency, Obama became the first president to approve sales of bunker-buster bombs to Israel, which even the Bush administration had refused to deliver. Obama also deepened military cooperation with Israel to unprecedented levels, awarding the largest military aid package ever handed out by the U.S.--$38 billion over 10 years.

And until the December 23 resolution that was allowed to pass through the UN Security Council, the Obama administration had vetoed or voted against every resolution brought in front of the UN that was even mildly critical of Israel. It was the administration's own actions that have provided Israel with the material aid and political cover to carry out war crimes against Palestinians and accelerate its colonization of Palestinian lands.

After the resolution passed, Kerry's speech was a feeble, last-ditch effort by an outgoing administration to resurrect the "two-state" solution, which its own policies had helped bury as the reality of Israeli apartheid became harder and harder to conceal.

The basic outline of the two-state framework as outlined by Kerry amounts to: a) a "demilitarized" Palestinian state with no real sovereignty; b) existing on a fraction of the territory that makes up the West Bank, after "realities on the ground" (i.e., settlements built at a frenetic place under Netanyahu's rule) are taken into account' c) leaving behind Palestinian citizens of Israel as second-class citizens; d) and jettisoning the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes; e) all in the name of ensuring that Israel can maintain its status as an ethno-religious "Jewish state"--that is, a state not of all its citizens, but of the Jewish people anywhere in the world, with second-class status for non-Jews.

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SO WHY did the Obama administration finally decide to abstain instead of vetoing this resolution? And why dispatch a high official like John Kerry to give an impassioned speech--insofar as this is possible for someone like Kerry--when the administration is on its way out?

The answer to this is twofold. First, as mentioned above, Israel itself is beginning a debate about openly embracing a policy of annexation and dropping the pretense of toeing Washington's line. In part, this is a consequence of the triumph of counterrevolution in the region--in Egypt, Libya and Syria--and the accompanying geopolitical changes have been a tremendous advantage for Israel.

The carnage in Syria and Yemen, the rise of ISIS, and the intensifying Iranian/Saudi rivalry have pushed the Palestine issue to the background, and Israeli leaders feel less constrained in how they deal with the Palestinian struggle for justice.

The second answer is Trump. As long as those running the U.S. state insisted on continuing with the charade of a "peace process" and the eventual implementation of a "two-state" solution, then this position carried the weight of officially agreed-upon international policy.

But a Trump administration appears ready to shift U.S. policy, giving a green light to the Israeli right's program of outright colonization and annexation of occupied Palestinian lands in the West Bank.

David Friedman, Trump's pick for U.S. ambassador to Israel, is not only a supporter of Israeli settlements, but is directly involved in financing their growth and continuation.

After the vote at the UN Security Council, Trump tweeted, "Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!" Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely added that her government is talking with the incoming Trump administration about the possibility of a future U.S.-sponsored Security Council Resolution that would attempt to legalize Israel's right to build in the West Bank.

As Yousef Munayyer put it in a Nation article analyzing the events surrounding passage of the UN Security Council resolution:

The next president of the United States isn't going to pretend anymore. Instead of doing what peace advocates have long called for--putting America's money where its mouth is by ending U.S. support for Israel as long as it contravenes U.S. policy and well-established international law--it looks like Trump is going to put America's mouth where its money has been by dropping the pretense of opposition to Israel's apartheid policies.

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THE OBAMA administration, like other administrations before it, started out eight years ago from the point of view that fealty to Israel's narrow settler-colonial needs would create real challenges for wider U.S. imperial strategy in the Middle East.

The Oslo Accords, which ushered in the "peace process" 24 years ago, were an important element of the re-ordering of the international system under U.S. leadership after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Under cover of the promise of the eventual creation of a Palestinian state, Oslo helped Israel end its isolation due to its treatment of Palestinians and integrate into the emerging international neoliberal order, as well as justify increased collaboration between Israel and the U.S.'s Arab allies in the region.

The creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) served to relieve Israel of its responsibility under international law as an occupying power and created an indigenous force to administer the occupation in return for funding from the U.S.'s European allies.

This framework was central for all the actors--from the U.S. to Europe, from the PA to the rest of the region's Arab regimes--who wanted closer ties with Israel, but needed to maintain the appearance of working toward Palestinian aspirations, even as Israel continued to tighten its chokehold over Palestinians.

If the Israelis and the incoming Trump administration do indeed stop pretending and instead embrace a policy of annexation, then the show would be over. It would make it more difficult for the U.S. to protect Israel--both in international bodies as well as from the burgeoning civil society movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) in defense of Palestinian rights.

The BDS movement in Europe would be strengthened and European funding of the PA threatened. The PA, having already lost legitimacy in the eyes of many Palestinians, would be entirely discredited as its defunct strategy of hoping for a U.S.-brokered two-state solution would come to an end--and with it the remaining justification for its existence.

This could lead to renewed popular resistance in Palestine--or if such resistance is unable to materialize, then an increase in desperate terrorist attacks against Israel, which until now have been checked by PA repression and lingering hopes of a settlement.

Finally, as Kerry alluded to in his speech, it would scuttle open and official security and economic integration between Israel and important U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia, which the U.S. hopes can provide a new security regime to confront the growing influence of Iran.

Even unofficial collaboration between these states and Israel--not to mention regimes with official peace accords with Israel, such as Egypt and Jordan--would come under pressure. This is why Kerry's speech received enthusiastic support from Washington's Arab allies.

The stagnant status quo that has been slowly swallowing up Palestinian hopes for the last two decades is coming to an end, as the world enters a period of increasing polarization and the U.S.-led order following the collapse of the USSR a quarter century ago begins to fray.

The strategies on offer from those in power all aim to deal a final blow to any possibility for Palestinian liberation while Israel's colonization of Palestinian lands is completed. But the outcome isn't predetermined. The BDS movement represents one vector among the forces at play, while another is the possibility of renewed resistance of Palestinians and the return of mass struggle in the wider region.

An increasingly unabashed and unbridled Israel will mean an acceleration of the horrors being visited on the Palestinians, but it will also lay bare the racist colonialism that has always been at the heart of the Zionist project.