The End of an American Era in Palestine and Israel

There was a time not long ago when American officials on a bipartisan basis worried about how the timing of their trips to Israel would affect the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The United States wanted to be seen as a credible mediator; therefore, US diplomats considered the potential of destructive Israeli actions—which could appear as coordinated with American policy—in undermining the US position. In short, the optics mattered.

The split-screen images of American officials celebrating with Israelis while Palestinians were being killed will eternally scar the Palestinians’ memory.

“Nothing has made my job of trying to find Arab and Palestinian partners for Israel more difficult than being greeted by a new settlement every time I arrive (in Israel),” James Baker, President George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state, once famously told Congress. Vice President Joseph Biden was likewise frustrated when he arrived in Jerusalem in 2010 only to find that on the same day, Israel would announce the significant expansion of a settlement there. He proclaimed: “I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem,” saying that it “undermines the trust we need right now.”

Those days are over. Washington is not even pretending anymore to play the role of a trustworthy mediator.

On May 14, the United States opened its new embassy in Jerusalem with great fanfare. President Donald Trump and his administration could have chosen any other date, but instead either callously disregarded Palestinian sentiment or deliberately sought to add insult to injury by opening the embassy the day before Palestinians mark the Nakba, or “catastrophe”—referring to the expulsion of three quarters of a million Palestinians from their homes 70 years ago, making way for the establishment of the State of Israel. Just a short distance away, Israeli military snipers were shooting Palestinian protesters in Gaza, killing some 60 people. Since March 30, the protests in Gaza have continued on a near weekly basis and have been repeatedly repressed by the Israeli military, whose snipers have killed more than 121 Palestinians and wounded over 13,000.

The Gaza massacre may well mark a crucial turning point: the end of the peace process era. The split-screen images of American officials celebrating with Israelis while Palestinians were being killed will eternally scar the Palestinians’ memory. Such images also represent a microcosm of the American government’s historical role in the denial of Palestinian rights, one no longer hidden behind a facade of acting as an “honest broker.”

The coming era is likely to be characterized by more of what we saw on the ground in Gaza last month.

Throughout this so-called peace process era, the United States commandeered the handling of the Palestinian-Israeli issue by relentlessly using its veto in the Security Council to prevent any multilateral input or discussion. While doing so, and instead of trying to mediate a just resolution between two sides unequal in power, Washington continued to finance and support the stronger party, encouraging Israel to impose its will on the weak and occupied Palestinian population.

From the outset, the Trump Administration appeared to be predisposed to supporting Israel over the Palestinians more than any administration before it, even in the most destructive of ways. The events of recent weeks should eliminate any doubts. Today, statements and talking points of American envoys like Jason Greenblatt and US Ambassador David Friedman are practically indistinguishable from those of Israeli government officials. Greenblatt continues to parrot the Israeli government’s response to international criticism of its actions in Gaza. For his part, Friedman has been making incendiary comments about US domestic politics and media coverage that would be shocking coming from an American diplomat under normal circumstances.

Popular Mobilization vs. State Repression

The coming era is likely to be characterized by more of what we saw on the ground in Gaza last month: Palestinian popular resistance brutally repressed by overwhelming Israeli force. With the flawed creations of the peace process, like the stagnant Palestinian Authority (PA), and with Palestinian leadership in limbo, popular mobilizations and other acts of civil disobedience will continue to fill the void.

Nearly 20 years ago, the PA was billed as a vehicle to transition Palestinians to statehood. Instead, it is now seen by many as part of the problem, perpetually keeping Palestinians in a holding pattern. Today, polls show that the largest single group of Palestinian respondents support no particular political faction; indeed, the entire idea of leaders governing while under foreign military occupation or siege, as if they had the autonomy to effectively do so, has been exposed as a farce. The failure of these institutions and parties, however, does not mean Palestinians will stop demanding their basic rights. The images of a far more powerful Israel using its military might against stateless Palestinians armed with slingshots and rocks will become increasingly familiar going forward.

Now, however, we can look forward with the benefit of knowing the flaws of the peace process: that negotiations under occupation have been attempted and exhausted.

This dynamic between Palestinian protest and Israeli repression will not be limited to Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem—and it never was. Shortly after the “embassy day massacre,” Palestinian citizens of Israel gathered in Haifa peacefully to protest the killings in Gaza. Israeli police brutally quashed the gathering, beating several protesters and arresting about 20. The head of a civil rights organization, Jafar Farah, was arrested and ended up in the hospital after his knee was broken by police while in custody. When Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List of Palestinian citizens of Israel, the third largest party in the Knesset, went to the hospital to visit Farah, where he was allegedly handcuffed to his bed, Odeh was denied entry by Israeli police. Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman responded in lock-him-up fashion, saying that Odeh was a “terrorist” whose place is “not in the Knesset, it’s in prison.”

Is It Time for a Return to an Old Era?

In many ways, this moment is very much a return to the era before the peace process, to the spirit of the first intifada. The wide-scale Palestinian uprising that took place from 1987 to 1993 featured popular mobilizations, demonstrations, civil disobedience, and boycotts.

All this happened, and perhaps was only possible, because the PLO was not in Palestine at the time. It also forced the start of the peace process because Israel understood that the costs to its international image were increasing unsustainable and the PLO understood that Palestinians on the ground were not going to sit idly by and wait for their rights to materialize.

Now, however, we can look forward with the benefit of knowing the flaws of the peace process: that negotiations under occupation have been attempted and exhausted. Still, the Trump Administration continues to speak of a soon-to-be-released peace plan, the so-called ultimate deal. If one listens closely to different officials in the administration, however, it becomes clear that there is no set timeline for its release—if any such peace plan exists. And even if it did, it is hard to imagine that Trump and his team would find people who would take it seriously.

Shifting Opinion in the West and around the World

This coming era will not only feature asymmetrical confrontations between Israel and the Palestinians, but it will also include growing confrontations between people of conscience around the world and in Israel—the very necessary confrontations that the peace process helped delay. With no peace process to create illusions about the future, people around the world and Americans, in particular, will increasingly have to deal with questions regarding what comes next. For how long can Israel continue to rule over millions of Palestinians while denying their rights? Individuals, in particular, will ask themselves, how long can I continue to support Israel’s policies? How long can my government continue to support these injustices?

Confronting these questions has already begun. For years, people have been turning away from Israel precisely because they cannot bring themselves to support what it is doing to the Palestinians. This new stage will catalyze this process.

Increasingly, carte blanche support for Israel’s oppressive policies has become a right-wing issue in the United States. As progressives and people who care about human rights and equality are becoming alienated, those for whom Israel is an ideological or religious issue, like evangelical Christians, are dominating pro-Israel opinion. This is the reason why the bigoted pastors John Hagee and Robert Jeffress were chosen to play roles in the embassy opening ceremony in Jerusalem, a city holy to three faiths, despite their history of Islamophobic and anti-Semitic statements.

President Trump and his administration have further helped crystallize America’s weakened position—and impending isolation—in the world community regarding Israel and Palestine. Signs of this were on display this past week in the United Nations as an unprecedented rebuke of American diplomacy unfolded. After further killings in Gaza, the Security Council convened to consider resolutions on the situation. Kuwait put forward a resolution condemning Israel’s actions and US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley made clear she would oppose the resolution. Instead, she offered her own. In her statement, Haley blamed the Palestinians for the situation in Gaza and said that the Kuwaiti resolution “sides with terrorists over Israel.” She went on to say: “We strongly encourage this Council to vote against Kuwait’s resolution and acknowledge the concerns of Hamas by voting for the U.S. resolution. Each of you has a choice. You either support Hamas or not. This vote will tell the story.”

When Kuwait’s resolution came up for a vote, ten countries, including Russia and France, supported it. The United Kington, Poland, the Netherlands, and Ethiopia abstained; Haley kept her promise and vetoed the resolution as the only no-vote. But most interesting was the vote on the American resolution. Not only did the council refuse to comply with Haley’s request on Kuwait’s resolution, but not one single member voted alongside the United States on its own resolution. The United States was the only no-vote on the Kuwaiti resolution and the only yes-vote on its own resolution—alone even among allies. This embarrassing moment of isolation is a new nadir in the international community’s confidence in Washington’s diplomatic and peacemaking abilities.

What Comes Next?

Eventually, this new era could culminate in a tipping point and ultimately yield a much-needed shift in American policy, the kind that actually holds Israel accountable for denying Palestinian rights. The question is how much farther off into the future that point will be, and how many more Palestinians will suffer in the interim.

In the meantime, we are likely to see continued popular mobilizations. It is possible that the Palestinian leadership in Gaza, where Hamas is in control, is learning from the positions of the grassroots movement there, which characterized some of the mass-based actions of the first intifada. In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority, in coordination with Israeli occupation, has worked to keep popular mobilizations and dissent limited. But with a discredited and aging leadership in Ramallah, a serious lack of public confidence in the PA, and a possible transition in leadership on the horizon, it is unclear how much longer the West Bank can wait before joining in wide-scale mass mobilizations akin to the marches that straddled the entirety of the demarcation line between the Gaza strip and Israel.

Yousef Munayyer is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Yousef and read his previous publications click here