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14 February 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 4:14pm

The Palestinian cause is perilously close to becoming a lost one

Donald Trump’s plan represents a new nadir for the Palestinans but the downward trajectory set in long before.  

By Anshel Pfeffer

Dharamshala in northern India’s Himalayan foothills, a backpacker paradise, is also the headquarters of Tibet’s government-in-exile. A small museum tells the history of the Tibetan people, from the days of independence to the struggles under Chinese occupation, since the invasion of 1951. Towards the end of the moving exhibit, is a section on the international campaign to free Tibet, or at least grant it cultural autonomy. It tries, but fails, to hide that while the Dalai Lama was once an international celebrity feted by movie stars and heads of state, his once fashionable cause has, in more recent decades, waned – much like the film career of Tibet’s most famous champion, Richard Gere.

The Tibetans’ plight is no less acute today than when hanging out with Buddhist monks was cool. But the Dalai Lama no longer receives presidential invitations and no one is under any illusion the Chinese will ever retreat. Fashions change, even when it comes to worthy causes.

On 28 January, Donald Trump presented his plan for solving the Israel-Palestine conflict. In the document prepared by Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, there was no mention of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank. Under the US president’s plan, Israel would be permitted to retain control of all its settlements, regarded as illegal by most accepted interpretations of international law, all of Jerusalem (but for a couple of slums in its eastern suburbs) and a wide swathe of land in the Jordan Valley.

Trump’s “deal of the century” offers the Palestinians a clump of moth-holed enclaves, without control of their own airspace, foreign relations or security, as a “state”. Despite the administration’s efforts to win over some pro-US Arab regimes, the plan has been rejected by not only the Palestinians, but also by the Arab League. 

Yet the ritual rejection wasn’t translated into actual support for the Palestinians. On the contrary, while officially committed to the standard Arab line of not “normalising” relations with Israel until the Palestinians receive justice, the leader of another Arab country, Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan, chairman of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan, met openly with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu this week.

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For decades there was a sense that the answer to the Israel-Palestine conflict was just around the corner: a two-state solution or a one-state binational one. European NGOs brought groups of Israelis and Palestinians to Belfast to learn about the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. If the generations-old sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland was resolved through negotiations, surely the Middle East conflict could be too? 

Others likened the Israeli occupation to apartheid in South Africa – a terrible injustice with an obvious solution that one day would inevitably be implemented when the leaders of the oppressors realised they could not hold out forever against the world. But perhaps the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is actually like Tibet, a historic injustice that has been consigned to history and is gradually being forgotten?

It’s easy to treat the Trump plan, like his presidency, as a temporary aberration, with normal service to be resumed once a Democrat replaces him in the White House. But while the plan represents a new nadir for the Palestinians’ hope of statehood, the downward trajectory began long before Trump’s 2016 election. 

Barack Obama, who won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize merely for being elected, forced two unprecedented concessions from Netanyahu early in his administration – a temporary freeze of settlement-building and a public commitment to a two-state solution. In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in 2010, Obama said: “When we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations – an independent, sovereign state of Palestine.”

By his second term, Obama had given up, saying that “the US can’t want peace more than the parties themselves.” At the end of his presidency, he signed a new ten-year treaty with Israel, guaranteeing it $38bn in military assistance. The Palestinians didn’t even warrant a mention in his final UN speech.

Netanyahu brazened out the Obama years, wearing him down, as he has countless other Western leaders. Over the past decade, the Israeli prime minister has sowed division among the other main sponsors of the “peace industry,” the European Union, having courted members of the Visegrád Group, the EU’s awkward squad, such as nationalist Hungary and Poland. To reduce Europe’s standing, he expanded Israel’s diplomatic and trade relations with non-Western countries in the Far East, Africa and Latin America, where human rights and the Palestinians were of no concern. 

“Bibi loves meeting Asian prime ministers,” one Israeli diplomat who accompanied him told me. “They just want to talk about trade and security.”

In his campaign to marginalise the Palestinians, Netanyahu has been aided by other factors. The turmoil in the Arab world shifted the Western media’s attention to other Middle Eastern hotspots. Arab regimes are now more interested in cooperating with Israel against what they see as a shared threat from Iran, and extend no more than lip-service to their Palestinian brothers. Prosperous decades for Israel’s high-tech fueled economy have given it more clout and influence. All this was happening before Trump.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians have fallen into disarray. Their semi-autonomous regions are split, with Gaza under the rule of Islamist Hamas and the West Bank enclaves controlled by the Palestinian Authority’s 84-year-old president Mahmoud Abbas, last elected to a four-year term in 2005. Their supporters in the West may have a strong online presence, and can occasionally muster thousands to march in the streets of London, but their hopes of exerting significant pressure on Israel have been confounded. The Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment (BDS) campaign, now in its 15th year, was designed to replicate the sanctions against apartheid South Africa, but failed to make the tiniest dent in Israel’s burgeoning GDP and yielded only the occasional cancellation of a concert. 

The election of staunch campaigner Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader thrilled pro-Palestine activists. But the party’s landslide election defeat has been seen as further proof that support for the Palestinian cause is rapidly becoming the preserve of a far-left fringe. 

Occasionally, a Democratic candidate in the US presidential race, when pressed, will make a vague commitment to standing by the Palestinians. But this is always coupled with a commitment to, as Bernie Sanders put it, “[Israel’s] right to exist. Not only to exist but to exist in peace and security.” Just like Obama, the next Democratic president, whenever he or she is elected, will have more pressing matters on which to expend political capital.

Some console themselves that if Israel formally annexes the West Bank, the world will finally “wake up to the reality of apartheid” in which Israel dominates a nation of similar size without political rights. Then, under pressure from foreign governments, International Criminal Court indictments, the threat of boycotts and sanctions, and perhaps another Intifada uprising, Israel will be forced to retreat. Perhaps. But where will that pressure come from? Not from an increasingly isolationist US, nor from an introspective Europe, or pro-Israel India, or Russia and China. 

Though the Palestinian cause is still fashionable on a few campuses in the UK and the US, other more pressing subjects, chiefly the climate crisis, are clamouring for students’ limited bandwidth. Trump’s plan is a non-starter and may well have been consciously designed to fail. But there’s no certainty of the Palestinians ever being offered a better one. Their just cause is perilously close to becoming a lost cause.

Anshel Pfeffer is a writer for Ha’aretz and the Economist, and the author of Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu ​​

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