By Kevin Ovenden
It was the most extraordinary parting shot by a US Secretary of State. Not Rex Tillerson, whose repeated barbs at Donald Trump up to his sacking this March were remarkable enough in demonstrating the deep dysfunctionality at the heart of US foreign policy-making; but the final speech in office of Barack Obama’s Secretary of State, John Kerry.
It is worth recalling Kerry’s speech of December 2016 now, and the enraged response to it by Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu, as the crisis facing the Palestinians and in the wider Middle East is set to deepen this summer thanks, not least, to two decisions by the Trump White House. The first, already taken, is to move the US embassy in Israel to occupied Jerusalem in defiance of world opinion. The second, delayed but inching forwards weekly, is to declare defunct or fatally flawed the Iran nuclear deal negotiated during the Obama presidency.
Both are set to take place in May, though EU governments are fighting a rearguard action aimed at maintaining the framework of the Iran deal. And both also are moves ecstatically welcomed by a Netanyahu administration facing swirling corruption allegations at home and, despite bluster, a rising level of international isolation.
It would be tempting to locate the further spiralling of crisis this summer that we must anticipate mainly in the capricious decisions of a fractured Washington. There’s little doubt that those do have immediate effect.
Abrogating the Iran deal would have an enormous impact – not upon nuclear activity in Iran, though the expansionist Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohamed bin Salman, in March shockingly talked up the prospects of the ongoing arms race in the region, pledging that Saudi Arabia would seek to develop a nuclear weapon if Iran did. Given that “evidence” for such Iranian action has only ever amounted to allowed activities within the nuclear non-proliferation treaty it is not difficult to see how Washington’s repudiation of the Iran deal could be taken as a trigger for Saudi arms development in that direction.
The bigger impact of the course of confrontation with Iran that Trump – in full alignment with Netanyahu – has declared to be his aim is that it would mark a rupture with the already unstable balance of forces in the region that the Obama administration and its European allies attempted to cohere out of the chaos of the Iraq occupation and then the many-sided war in Syria. That involved de facto acceptance of some role for Iran in the constellation of powers in the Middle East: alongside Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey. Those are key US and Western allies. Iran is not, but one outfall of the deal struck under Obama was to find a careful concert of limited areas of cooperation – for example in dealing with ISIS in Iraq and Syria – while curtailing any wider growth of Iranian influence and demarcating a counterbalancing role for Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
It was always a highly unstable arrangement thanks to the severe weakening of US hegemony in the region arising primarily from the disaster of the Bush-Blair war and occupation of Iraq. Where once a US government could impose some hierarchical order on the regional powers of the Middle East, Obama post-Iraq had instead to adopt the more precarious role of lion-tamer holding the ring among those competing states.
Crucial to the policy was to obtain some movement on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Indeed the promise of a “roadmap to peace” was at the centre of the bargain the George Bush White House supported by Tony Blair made over a decade and a half ago, first in securing a coalition of support for the war on Afghanistan and then in trying to limit the extent of international opposition to the subsequent Iraq war.
Absurd as it may seem now, there were scores of Labour MPs in 2003 who said they were reluctantly prepared to vote for the Iraq war on the promise of intense efforts to secure the implementation of Oslo and the establishment of a Palestinian state. More seriously, that pledge gave various Middle Eastern leaders something to say to an oppositional public who opposed a Western assault on an Arab state.
Instead of a revitalised peace process, the 2003 Iraq invasion was followed swiftly by the Israeli war on Lebanon and the imposition of the siege on Gaza in 2006. And now Trump’s embassy move has been greeted by declarations from even US allies that the vaunted “two-state solution” meant to be at the heart of the Oslo Accords and the peace process itself are both dead.
For many they had been long expired and Trump has merely given the last rites. But that should not lead us to underestimate the significance of the Trump shift. It marks a break with a quarter of a century of US policy that had been relatively consistent under three presidents: Clinton, Bush and Obama. That was to hold out the prospect of a resolution of the Palestine issue, on however unfavourable terms to the Palestinians, as a lever to manage wider conflicts in the region – either to contain them or, in the moment of neoconservative and liberal interventionist delirium 15 years ago, to “remake the Middle East”.
It was with great frustration back in December 2016 that John Kerry addressed the failure of that quarter century of US policy. In so doing, he touched upon the processes far deeper than Trump’s caprice that mean an intensification of the Palestine question, now in circumstances lacking even the fiction of containment through a peace process.
Kerry ritualistically intoned the deep friendship and support for Israel of all US governments but said: “Some seem to believe that the US friendship means the US must accept any policy, regardless of our own interests, our own positions, our own words, our own principles — even after urging again and again that the policy must change.”
The policy he was referring to was the accelerated illegal settlement expansion programme in the West Bank, which only a week earlier the UN Security Council had condemned with, almost uniquely, the US abstaining rather than exercising its veto or having it cast by a pliant British representative. Kerry called the settlements a “violation of international law”, which they are. He went on to say that “the status quo is leading to one state and a permanent occupation”. Then, highlighting the changing demographic balance inside Israel, especially when its extending grip on territories of the West Bank is included, he warned that without a settlement and establishment of even a minimal Palestinian state, Israel would face “either being a Jewish state or a democratic state” but it could not be both.
In the eyes of any even-handed, let alone pro-Palestinian observer, Kerry’s words were incredibly mild. And they did rather make his appeal for implementing a two-state solution seem utopian. But the remarkable thing was that a US Secretary of State was faintly echoing arguments that the pro-Palestinian movement has been making for the last 15 years.
The first is that despite Israel’s enormous reliance upon US support, Tel Aviv has its own interests that have diverged at critical moments from Washington’s. Even in 2001 George Bush sought Arab support for the war on Afghanistan by promising a “roadmap to peace” in Palestine, only for Israel’s Ariel Sharon to respond with a major violent incursion weeks later into the West Bank. The rejection of even the Oslo process by ever more right wing Israeli governments merely came to a head in the repeated spats between Obama and Netanyahu. In one sense, Trump’s policy shift is but a recognition of that and resolution of it decisively in favour of the most right wing government Israel has ever had. But that comes at the expense of traction elsewhere in the Middle East and globally.
The second is that the ongoing annexation of much of the West Bank, the expulsion of Palestinians from Jerusalem, the permanent siege on Gaza and the increasing apartheid restrictions upon Palestinians living within 1948 Israel have negated a two-state solution. One consequence is that where once support for Israel could be cast as being for two states, now it is the expansionist dynamic of the Israeli state, and the growth of more right wing forces in its polity, that stand in public discourse as preventing peace, even for those who thought the Oslo agreement viable.
Thirdly, the stock, the political capital of the state of Israel, has withered and wasted and is lower now than at any time since the Nakba of 1948. Of course it enjoys unparalleled support form the US state. But that is now headed by a repulsive hard right president, and that is indicative of how wider support for the Israeli government, the state and its policies has both fallen in the West and is increasingly dependent upon radical right wing opinion.
Global public opinion
The BBC found this year that 66 percent of people in Britain view Israel negatively. Support among Jewish people, particularly the young, on both sides of the Atlantic for Israel is falling. From being an argument against radical Palestinian opinion the commonsense notion of some kind of just two-state solution is now much more an indictment of the Netanyahu government. Its grisly embrace of some far right North American and European formations, cemented in a shared propagation of anti-Muslim racism, has reinforced that trend.
So from independentist demonstrations in Catalonia to anti-fascist protests in Greece and radical movements in South Africa it is common to see the Palestinian flag as a global symbol of resistance and justice. The flag of Israel, meanwhile, adorns reactionary demonstrations from North America to Australia.
The continuing growth of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and wider Palestinian solidarity campaigning can justifiably lay considerable claim to creating this new political reality.
But it is underpinned by two more fundamental factors. The first, of course, is the continuing resistance of Palestinian society, in Palestine in the camps and in the exiled diaspora. This May also marks 70 years since the Nakba of the expulsion of the Palestinian people. Despite predictions by some, the succeeding generations have not forgotten or reconciled to dispossession.
The second is the total failure of a US-led policy of 25 years to impose a surrender peace upon the Palestinians via Oslo. The burden of that failure, however, lies as much with the Israeli state itself and its structural inability to break with the logic of ongoing expansion and expulsion. The reality on the ground of that for the Palestinians is harsh indeed. It has also proved disabling of every great power attempt to find some new concordat in the Middle East, rebalancing elite interests but leaving the fundamental structures of wealth, power and extractive capitalism little changed.
The latest, bloody instantiation of that failure is the connected disasters across an extended region from Libya, through Egypt under General Sisi, to Yemen and into Syria. The rallying of counter-revolution to meet the Arab revolutionary process of 2011 and the manifold wars of intervention of the last six years, incubated from the disaster of Iraq, often served to sideline the Palestinian question.
The failure now, however, of those interventions and the more unstable situation that has resulted mean that the question of Palestine is set to return this summer, as a loadstone for any genuine progress in the Middle East. This time it is without the fiction of Oslo – killed in Tel Aviv. And it is without the artful “even-handedness” of an Obama or a Clinton, but with the vulgar brutishness of Trump, abetted by a British Tory government resting upon the votes of the DUP.
In advance of developments in May, it is time for the left everywhere to prepare and restate: Palestine is still the issue.