One Arena And Two Players

After a strong victory by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party and a consolidation of rightwing sentiments, Israeli-American relations is the critical arena, and the European and Palestinian leaderships are the two pivotal actors to watch.

We should keep our eyes on one arena and two actors now in any serious assessment of the repercussions of the national election in Israel this week that resulted in a strong victory by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party and a consolidation of rightwing sentiments: Israeli-American relations is the critical arena, and the European and Palestinian leaderships are the two pivotal actors to watch.

The American-Israeli relationship has defined almost all other developments in Arab-Israeli diplomacy since the late 1960s, when American policy structurally and decisively tilted to a pro-Israeli position. Other than the occasional, momentary and superficial rap on Israel’s knuckles by James Baker or Ronald Reagan, or an unsuccessful push by Barack Obama to freeze Israeli settlements, the United States has supported or acquiesced in all major Israeli positions on relations with Palestine. This posture of “no daylight between the United States and Israel” has covered all fields, including military, technical and economic aid, diplomacy at the UN, supporting warfare, and initiatives in other international forums.

Obama-Netanyahu tensions in recent years finally exploded this week, capped by the declaration by unnamed US officials that Washington would now reassess or re-evaluate its positions on Palestinian-Israeli issues in international forums, such as the UN Security Council. Reportedly this could include American support for a Security Council resolution outlining the broad contours of a two-state resolution, which Israel adamantly opposes.

We will know soon if these are momentous structural shifts in the American position, or passing emotional irritations more linked to personalities than to policies. If the United States does support a Security Council resolution affirming a two-state resolution, that would be an important sign of real change. It would open the door to a whole new dynamic in which the United States for the first time differentiates, in its actions rather than just its words, between its ironclad support for Israel’s security, and its objections to Israel’s occupation and settlements policies. A shift in the US position here would dramatically open doors to substantive political developments in several arenas, emphasizing the untenability of the occupation and colonization of Palestinian lands since 1967.

This ties in with the two political actors we should now watch—the European Union (EU) and the Palestinian leadership—to see if meaningful diplomatic change will occur. The EU was a global pioneer in affirming Palestinian national rights in the 1980 Venice Declaration that backed Palestinian legitimate rights and self-determination. Then Europe more or less took a leave of absence from Palestine-Israel diplomacy for some 35 years, before returning to action last year and imposing sanctions on relations with Israeli entities that operate in the occupied territories. It will be important now to see if the EU persists in this direction and more tangibly asserts its support for Israel’s security within its 1948 borders, while punishing Israel for its colonial policies in the 1967 occupied territories. A European lead here, including possibly formal recognition of the State of Palestine within the 1967 occupied territories, would spark important similar follow-up measures by governments, civil society and the private sector.

The Palestinian leadership is the weakest link in this diplomatic chain of actors and issues, due to three related factors: the impact of Israeli occupation-colonization; American, European and Arab policies that perpetuate the status quo; and, the internal incompetences and autocratic nature of Palestinian politics. The Palestinian leadership must now exploit the new landscapes of opportunity and possibility that have been opened up by the small breach in US-Israeli ties and the initial stirrings of reinvigorated European activism.

The Palestinians should take dynamic action to achieve several goals simultaneously. First, they must rehabilitate the Palestinian leadership itself by reconstituting the institutions of the Palestine Liberation Organization as a legitimate, active representative of all Palestinians. Second, they must push hard on several international fronts to challenge and delegitimize Israeli actions in the occupied territories, including in the International Criminal Court, the UN Security Council and General Assembly, and other forums—using nuanced diplomatic engagements to elicit American and European support for some measures that criticize Israel’s criminal colonial behavior. Third, the Palestinians must work with governments and civil society groups around the world to mobilize serious pressure on Israel’s colonization-occupation practices, including sanctions that treat Israel’s occupation in the same manner that the world mobilized against Apartheid South Africa.

New opportunities for diplomacy that may now arise from the evolving pivotal relationship between the American and Israeli governments demand proactive initiatives by Palestinians, Europeans, Arabs and civil society across the world, to provide both the pressure and the possibilities for a negotiated two-state solution that satisfies the legitimate rights of all parties.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the 

Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter at: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global