With one tweet of 35 words, Donald Trump has changed almost 40 years of US policy towards Israel and Syria:
As with other Trump impulses, such as his sudden order in December to withdraw all US troops from Syria, no administration official appeared to have been consulted. Hours earlier, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said from Jerusalem that there was no change in the US position declining to recognise Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Heights. His appearance alongside Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was delayed for almost an hour for Pompeo to assessed the suddenly altered situation.
Of course, White House officials scrambled to gloss the announcement. One insisted that Trump had spoken with national security advisor John Bolton, son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, and Jason Greenblatt, the special representative for Middle East negotiations. In a curiously defensive assertion, the official said: “There’s no obvious constituency not to do this.”
Others wheeled out Trump’s vague references to “security” and “stability”. Pompeo recovered to say the declaration was “historic” and “bold”.
But make no mistake. Trump’s priority had nothing to do with a Middle East strategy. His impulse was fed by three desires: the re-election of Netanyahu on April 9, his own 2020 campaign and the need to constantly stroke his own ego.
Israel seized the Golan Heights in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Fourteen years later, just before its entry into Lebanon’s civil war, the government of Menachem Begin consolidated its hold with the declaration of sovereignty.
Few in the international community accepted the declaration. The Reagan administration, despite its pro-Israel rhetoric, suspended a strategic cooperation agreement with Tel Aviv. The US joined every member of the UN Security Council in Resolution 497, calling the annexation “null and void and without international legal effect”.
The Heights remained in a de facto division, with a UN observer force seeking to prevent any clashes. The Assad regime’s response to the 2011 Syrian uprising, killing 100,000 and displacing more than 11m, threatened to spill over into the area as the UN force withdrew. But the Israeli military presence deterred any regime action, and Netanyahu secured an agreement with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in September 2015 to keep Iran and Hezbollah out of the area.
Friends in need
But Trump’s immediate concern is not with that interplay of Syria, Israel and external actors. As with his order to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, his focus is on a side-by-side declaration linking his fortunes and those of Netanyahu.
The formal indictments of the Israeli prime minister for fraud, bribery, and breach of trust await a hearing. He may face a criminal graft investigation over the state purchase of naval vessels and submarines from German shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp, in one of the biggest cases in Israeli history. Polls have him neck-and-neck with the Blue and White Party of former general Benny Gantz and former finance minister Yair Lapid.
But on Thursday, Netanyahu could be exultant: “President Trump has just made history. He did it again.”
Trump will hope that exaltation boosts his own re-election prospects in a year’s time. His approval ratings are doggedly sticking at just over 40%. They haven’t collapsed despite multiple criminal investigations, the furor over anti-immigration policies and the government shutdown — but neither have they risen amid an economy fuelled by December 2017 tax cuts.
Thus an appeal to a domestic constituency which traditionally votes Democratic — with few exceptions over the past century, Jewish voters have given more than 70% support to the Democrat candidate, including 71% for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Trump’s calculation may be misguided. The Jewish vote is largely propelled by social issues at home, rather than Israel abroad: only 9% cited the latter as the primary cause for their vote in the last presidential election. But an “Israel first” stance could also resonate with non-Jews in America – and pro-Trump Jewish donors and lobbies could be significant in the contest for the US electorate next year.
Then there’s the far from insignificant factor of Trump’s ego. As is often the case with his orders and proclamations, he used the announcement to try to portray his unique place in US history. Throwing in the falsehood that all of his predecessors – as opposed to none – had pushed for recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, he said: “Every president has said ‘do that’. I’m the one that gets it done.”
Recipe for danger
Despite the immediate headlines, Trump’s tweet has little significance for the Heights. The international community, including the UN, is not going to shift its position on their status. And, while Netanyahu may be boosted, the Israeli presence will continue to depend on the strength of arms, the expansion of settlements and the acceptance of actors such as Russia.
But that does not mean the declaration is without effect. Trump’s “stability” is likely to make a further contribution to regional instability.
The Assad regime will seize upon the opportunity to cover up its repression and hold on power. The Syrian foreign ministry’s pledge to regain the Heights is bluff, as the regime’s military can’t even secure its president without the lead of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. But Bashar al-Assad and his inner circle will play the victim over the Heights for their narrative that the US and Israel are the supporters of “terrorism” and aggression.
Trump’s message also casts a dark shadow over the still to be presented Israel-Palestine “peace plan” of his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Some will rightly note that the plan, if it exists, is already a zombie proposal. However, the Golan Heights declaration on top of the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem confirms a Trump administration that has reduced its real objective to pleasing one Israeli – the one sitting in the prime minister’s chair.
And if one wants to take Trump’s “bigly” view of his influence, one can look beyond the Middle East. Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, noted that: “[President Vladimir] Putin will use this as a pretext to justify Russia’s annexation of Crimea.”
That, of course, may not cause Trump – who “gets it done” – the loss of a moment’s sleep, even as some of his advisors and almost everyone across the Middle East are worried sick.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison will have learned a valuable foreign policy lesson in the past day or so as it relates to the Holy Land.
As ye sow, so shall ye reap (Galatians 6:7).
When Morrison allowed a thought bubble to become a political ploy in the Liberal party’s desperation to cling on to a safe seat in the Wentworth byelection, he miscalculated the damage it would cause to his own credibility and the country’s foreign policy settings.
An inexperienced prime minister blundered into the thicket of Middle East politics by announcing Australia would both consider moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and would also review its support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
This latter is the 159-page document negotiated by the permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany. In it, Iran agreed to freeze its nuclear program.
In any event, Morrison indicated Canberra would continue to adhere to JCPOA, thus putting itself at odds with Washington. The United States announced it would abandon the JCPOA, pending the negotiation of better terms.
In his efforts to purloin the Jewish vote in Wentworth, Morrison’s shallow marketing impulses got the better of policy prudence.
He proceeded with haste in the first instance, and now he can repent at leisure after having sought – unsuccessfully it seems – to thread the needle in his policy pronouncements at the weekend.
If we stretch the biblical allusions further, we might say that when it comes to the Middle East, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a political ingénue to shift the status quo in Australia’s position on the vexed Arab-Israel issue.
What has now happened – as it inevitably would – after Morrison announced that Australia would recognise West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and establish a branch office there, is a negative reaction not only from the Muslim world, but from Israel itself.
So an Australian prime minister goes out on a limb for the Jewish state, only to have it sawn off by critics in Israel who did not like the distinction he made between Jerusalem’s Jewish west and Arab east.
Under Israel’s Basic Law, the constitution, an undivided Jerusalem is deemed to be the country’s capital in perpetuity. This position was bolstered in a Knesset vote as recently as this year.
Israel’s official reaction to the Morrison announcement was to describe it as a “step in the right direction”. However, as its implications sunk in, Israeli public figures began to take strong exception to Australia’s “acknowledgement” of Palestinian claims to Jerusalem in a final status peace settlement.
Typical of the reaction was this, via Twitter, from Tzachi Hanegbi, a prominent Knesset member of the nationalist Likud party and confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Yuli Edelstein, the speaker of the Knesset, went further.
We expected more from a friendly country like Australia […] I am hoping that our cool response will make it clear to the Australians that this is not what we were wishing for.
Pointedly, Netanyahu had not commented publicly at time of writing.
In his announcement on Saturday at a Sydney Institute event, Morrison set out his stall on the Jerusalem issue. In the process, apart from infuriating the Israeli nationalist right, he exposed himself to withering criticism at home and in the region.
This was the nub of Morrison’s statement:
Australia now recognises West Jerusalem, being the seat of the Knesset and many of the institutions of government, is the capital of Israel […] Furthermore, recognising our commitment to a two-state solution, the Australian Government has also resolved to acknowledge the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a future state with its capital in East Jerusalem.
While Morrison’s use of the word “acknowledge” falls a long way short of “recognising” Palestinian aspirations, his “acknowledgement”, in the context of final status peace negotiations, trespasses on an Israeli article of faith.
Israel’s insistence on an undivided Jerusalem in perpetuity under its control contradicts an international consensus that East Jerusalem remains occupied territory since the 1967 Six-Day War.
Australia has supported numerous United Nations resolutions to this effect, including Security Council resolutions 242 of 1967 and 338 of 1973 that called on Israel to withdraw from territories occupied in war.
In his efforts to find favour with Israel’s supporters, Morrison crossed that divide, thereby infuriating an Israeli government and discomforting Israel’s backers in Australia, notwithstanding their professed delight at the latest turn of events.
Australia’s position, it might be noted, contrasts with that of the United States. Washington recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital earlier this year without making a distinction between “west” and “east”.
In his Sydney Institute speech, Morrison indicated he and his public service advisers had conferred widely in their efforts to come up with a form of words that would be consistent with his pledge to review Australia’s position on Jerusalem.
This review included consultations with:
…some eminent Australian policymakers: former heads of various agencies and departments whether in Defence, Foreign Affairs or Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Advice to Morrison from what was known as a “reference group” of “eminent Australian policymakers” was overwhelmingly, if not unanimously, resistant to changing the status quo.
In other words, Australia should adhere to settled policy.
Morrison chose to ignore this advice after having committed himself to a review. In the process, and unnecessarily, he has risked negative reactions from Australia’s important neighbours, Indonesia and Malaysia, and from the Arab world. At home, he has exposed himself to criticism he has jeopardised Australia’s international standing for no conspicuous benefit.
This has been a mess, and one entirely of Morrison’s own making, driven by short-term political calculations.
Scott Morrison has announced a compromise position that recognises West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital but does not move Australia’s embassy there until a peace settlement determines Jerusalem’s final status.
Instead Australia will simply establish a Trade and Defence Office in West Jerusalem.
The government briefed Indonesia before the Prime Minister outlined the new Australian policy in a speech in Sydney on Saturday.
Morrison’s announcement in the run up to the Wentworth by-election that Australia would consider moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem caused Indonesia – a Muslim country that is hostile to Israel – to put on ice the conclusion of the free trade agreement between the two countries. It also led to criticism from Malaysia. The government is hoping the compromise will mollify the Indonesians, and enable the finalisation of the trade deal.
In a speech strongly sympathetic towards Israel and condemning the “rancid stalemate” that had emerged in the negotiations to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Morrison outlined Australia’s position.
“Australia now recognises West Jerusalem, being the seat of the Knesset and many of the institutions of government, is the capital of Israel.
“And we look forward to moving our embassy to West Jerusalem when practical, in support of and after final status determination”.
Morrison said Australia would start work now to find a suitable site for an embassy in West Jerusalem.
“Out of respect for the clearly communicated preference of the Israeli government for countries to not establish consulates or honorary consular offices in West Jerusalem, the Australian government will establish a Trade and Defence Office in West Jerusalem.”
Morrison said the defence aspect of this office would be concerned with defence industry, not diplomatic activity, because the Israeli defence ministry was in Tel Aviv.
He also said that “recognising our commitment to a two-state solution, the Australian government has also resolved to acknowledge the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a future state with its capital in East Jerusalem”.
Bill Shorten described the Morrison announcement as “a humiliating backdown”.
Shorten said the government had “walked away from their initial rush of blood to the head”.
Asked whether a Labor government would reverse the decision, Shorten said the ALP believed “Jerusalem should be recognised as the capital of both Israel and Palestine as part of the final stages of a negotiated two-state peace deal”.
Labor would do this “at the final stage and we’re not at the final stage of a two-state peace deal”.
Shorten said he hoped the trade deal with Indonesia would go ahead.
There was no immediate reaction from Israel because of the Jewish Sabbath. At the time when Morrison announced that Australia was considering moving its embassy, this was warmly welcomed by the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, so the Israelis might be disappointed with the Morrison halfway house.
The official Indonesian reaction gave no indication about whether the Morrison announcement would be enough to move along the trade agreement. An Indonesian statement called “on Australia and all member states of the UN to promptly recognise the state of Palestine and to cooperate towards the attainment of sustainable peace and agreement between the state of Palestine and Israel”, based on a two-state solution.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported a member of the main Indonesian opposition coalition, Dian Islamiati Fatwa, a candidate for next year’s election, was critical of the announcement and said the free trade deal should be put on hold.
The Australia Palestine Advocacy Network denounced the Morrison announcement saying that it “was appeasing extremist elements of the party while further slamming closed the door to peace”
“As Israel claims exclusive sovereignty over all of Jerusalem and refuses to abide by United Nations resolutions calling it to withdraw from occupied East Jerusalem, we cannot give them a free kick,” said Bishop George Browning, President of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network.
SUNDAY UPDATE: Malaysia slams Morrison Jerusalem decision
Malaysia has issued a strong statement opposing the Australian decision to recognise West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
As statement from the Malaysian government said: “Malaysia firmly believes that this announcement, made before the settlement of a two-state solution, is premature and a humiliation to the Palestinians and their struggle for the right to self-determination”
“Malaysia reiterates its long standing position that a two-State solution, in which the Palestinians and the Israelis live side by side in peace, based on the pre-1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine is the only viable solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”
All hell broke loose during the Wentworth by-election when Prime Minister Scott Morrison suddenly announced that he was thinking of moving of Australia’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The main objections came, not on merits of the idea itself, but on whether it would upset Indonesia, the nation with whom Australia had just completed a landmark, but unsigned, free trade agreement and the nation with the world’s largest Muslim population.
The agreement is now unlikely to be signed for quite some time. In a face to face meeting with Indonesian President Joko Widodo last week that was intended to clear the way, Morrison was instead pressed about the Middle East.
But how important is the Indonesian trade relationship really? And would it be folly to sacrifice it on the altar of Middle East politics?
Why the relationship matters
Australia and Indonesia have been entwined for a long time.
What is now Indonesia is almost certainly the Australian continent’s oldest trading partner.
Indigenous Australians fished and traded sea cucumber and other goods with their Makassan counterparts from at least the least the early 1700’s. Makassar is in the south-west corner of the Indonesian province of Sulawesi.
Australia provided critical support as what was then known as the Dutch East Indies fought for independence from the Dutch after the end of the second world war.
The Australian government provided medical supplies. Australian waterside workers refused to load Dutch ships.
Australia has helped in times of need
These close ties continued 50 years later during the late 1990s Asian financial crisis when the Reserve Bank of Australia clashed with the International Monetary Fund and Clinton administration, who wanted to impose tough conditions on Indonesia in return for bailing it out.
Australia’s Treasurer Peter Costello took the advice of Reserve Bank Deputy Governor Stephen Grenville, who had been a diplomat in Jakarta, and stared down the IMF and the United States.
As a result the Indonesian economy fared much better, recovered more quickly and avoided much of damage endured by other developing economies that had done as the IMF wanted.
Two decades on, Indonesia is one of Australia’s top 15 trade partners, worth A$16.5 billion in two-way trade, and one of the biggest markets for Australian education.
There’s room for growth
In many ways, Indonesia is underdone as a partner for Australia.
It houses abound 262 million people but only around 250 Australian companies of any size, compared to more than 3,000 in China.
Among the companies that do have a big presence are the ANZ, Leightons, the Commonwealth Bank, Orica and Bluescope.
Its attractions are a massive and growing urban middle class and its need for infrastructure given the logistical challenges of connecting a huge population living across over 17,000 islands.
The relationship will survive Jerusalem
A free trade agreement is important to both sides, whatever political rhetoric President Widodo might need to employ to hold off his fundamentalist opponents.
Morrison told Widodo he would decide on the location of Australia’s Israel embassy by Christmas. The trade deal is likely to be signed soon after.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has launched a strong attack on Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, declaring he has “form” in being anti-Semitic.
Frydenberg, who is Jewish, was responding to Mahathir’s criticism of the Morrison government for considering whether to move the Australian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Mahathir said on Thursday he had pointed out to Prime Minister Scott Morrison during their meeting at the East Asia Summit in Singapore that “adding to the cause for terrorism is not going to be helpful”.
Frydenberg told a news conference that Mahathir “has called Jews hook-nosed people. He has questioned the number of people that have been killed in the Holocaust.
“He banned Schindler’s List as a movie being shown (in Malaysia), though it showed the amazing story of a righteous gentile who saved many people from persecution.”
Frydenberg made similar comments earlier in the day to ABC, saying Mahathir had “form” on making derogatory comments about Jews.
Frydenberg said Morrison was “absolutely right” to begin a process of considering where the embassy should be.
Indonesia is also highly critical of any embassy change, which was
reiterated in the talks Morrison had with Indonesian President Joko Widodo this week. The Indonesians have delayed the signing of the free-trade agreement until Australia makes a decision on the embassy.
Taking a decision on the embassy will be difficult and potentially divisive for the government. Members of the right in the Liberal Party and in the commentariat have been urging the move, but the pragmatists and many in the foreign policy establishment believe the government should stick with the status quo.
While saying that “no one is pre-empting the outcome” of the consideration, Frydenberg in effect made a case for moving from Tel Aviv.
“Australia already recognises Israel’s sovereignty over West Jerusalem. It’s where the Israeli Parliament is. It’s where the Australian ambassador presents his or her credentials. It will be the capital of Israel under any two-state solution,” he said.
“People who say ‘do not put the embassy in Jerusalem’ are making the point that we need to maintain more leverage over the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The reality is that those negotiations have frozen. ”
Frydenberg said Israel was the only country in the world where Australia did not put its embassy in the nation’s capital.
He also criticised what he saw as “a double standard within parts of the United Nations and the Human Rights Council when it comes to Israel, compared with the treatment of other countries.
“The UN General Assembly has passed more anti-Israel resolutions than nearly all resolutions against other individual countries combined.”
Frydenberg said it was inevitable Australia and Indonesia would have
different views on the relationship with Israel.
“Indonesia doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Israel. Next year
Australia is enjoying 70 years of diplomatic ties with Israel. Of
course we are going to have a different view about that relationship.”
Morrison, now in Darwin to meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, said of Frydenberg’s remarks that he was “filling in the history of (Mahathir’s) record on various issues over time”.
Morrison repeated that Australia decided its own foreign policy, not
The 93-year-old Mahathir, recently re-installed as Malaysia’s prime minister, was the object of criticism by then-Prime Minister Paul Keating a quarter of a century ago. When Mahathir refused to attend an APEC summit, Keating condemned him as a “recalcitrant”. Mahathir demanded an apology. The incident embittered relations between the two countries.
Looking back on events 25 years ago, when the Oslo Accords were struck on the White House lawn, it is hard to avoid a painful memory.
I was watching from a sickbed in Jerusalem when Bill Clinton stood between Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for that famous handshake on the White House lawn.
At that moment, I was recovering from plastic surgery carried out by a skilled Israeli surgeon and necessitated by a bullet wound inflicted by the Israeli Defence Forces. (I had been caught in crossfire while covering a demonstration in the West Bank by stone-throwing Palestinian youths.)
That scar – like a tattoo – is a reminder of a time when it seemed just possible Arabs and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians could bring themselves to reach an historic compromise.
All these years later, prospects of real progress towards peace, or as American president Donald Trump puts it, the “deal of the century”, seems further away than ever.
As a correspondent in the Middle East for a decade (1984-1993) and as co-author of a biography of Arafat, I had an understandable interest in the outcome of the Oslo process.
In hours of conversations with members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s historical leadership, I had tracked the PLO’s faltering progression from outright rejection of Israel’s right to exist to acceptance implicit in the Oslo Accords.
Throughout that process of interviewing and cross-referencing with Israeli sources, I had hoped an honourable divorce could be achieved between decades-long adversaries. Like many, I was disappointed.
In 1993, the so-called Oslo Accords, negotiated in secret outside the Norwegian capital, resulted in mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO. This enabled the beginning of face-to-face peace negotiations.
A devastating event
Two years after the historic events at the White House, and by then correspondent in Beijing, I witnessed another episode of lasting and, as it turned out, tragic consequences for the Middle East.
On November 4, 1995, Rabin was assassinated while attending a political rally in Tel Aviv by a Jewish fanatic opposed to compromise with the Palestinians.
That devastating moment brought to power for the first time the current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has distinguished himself by his unwillingness to engage meaningfully with the Palestinians through four US administrations: those of Bill Clinton, George W Bush, Barack Obama, and now Trump.
Some argue the Palestinians and their enfeebled leadership bear significant responsibility for peace process paralysis. That viewpoint is valid, up to a point. But it is also the case that Netanyahu’s replacement of Rabin stifled momentum.
Under Trump, Netanyahu finds himself under no pressure to concede ground in negotiations, or even negotiate at all. Indeed, the administration seems intent on further marginalising a Palestinian national movement, even as settlement construction in the occupied areas continues apace.
On the eve of the accords, there were 110,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That number has grown to 430,000 today. In 2017, those numbers grew by 20% more than the average for previous years.
The Trump administration’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem without making a distinction between Jewish West or Arab East Jerusalem could hardly have been more antagonistic.
By taking this action, and not making it clear that East Jerusalem as a future capital of a putative Palestinian state would not be compromised, the administration has thumbed its nose at legitimate Palestinian aspirations.
The administration’s follow-up moves to strip funding for the United Nations Works and Relief Agency (UNWRA) and assistance to Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem have further soured the atmosphere.
UNWRA is responsible for the livelihoods of thousands of Palestinian refugees in camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. These are the ongoing casualties of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence against the Arabs.
In this context, it is interesting to note that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East envoy, has urged that refugee status be denied Palestinians and their offspring displaced by the war of 1948.
In that year, two-thirds, or about 750,000 residents of what had been Palestine under a British mandate became refugees.
Against this background and years of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, including two major wars – the Six-Day War of 1967 and Yom Kippur War of 1973 – the two sides had in 1993 reached what was then described as an historic compromise.
What needs to be understood about Oslo is that its two documents, signed by Rabin and Arafat, did not go further than mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO in the first, and, in the second, a declaration of principles laying down an agenda for the negotiation of Palestinian self-government in the occupied territories.
What Oslo did not do was provide a detailed road-map for final status negotiations, which were to be completed within five years. This would deal with the vexed issues of refugees, Jerusalem, demilitarisation of the Palestinian areas in the event of a two-state settlement, and anything but an implied acknowledgement of territorial compromise, including land swaps, that would be needed to bring about a lasting agreement.
Writing in the Journal of Palestine Studies in 1994, Oxford professor Avi Shlaim described the White House handshake as:
one of the most momentous events in the 20th-century history of the Middle East. In one stunning move, the two leaders redrew the geopolitical map of the entire region.
Now emeritus professor, Shlaim’s own hopes, along with those of many others, that genuine compromise was possible, have been dashed.
Referring to the recent passage through the Knesset of a “basic law” that declares Israel to be “the nation-state of the Jewish people”, Shlaim recently observed:
This law stands in complete contradiction to the 1948 declaration of independence, which recognizes the full equality of all the state’s citizens ‘without distinction of religion, race or sex’… Netanyahu has radically reconfigured Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, rather than a Jewish and a democratic state. As long as the government that introduced this law stays in power, any voluntary agreement between Israel and the Palestinians will remain largely a pipe dream.
Martin Indyk, now en route to the Council on Foreign Relations from the Brookings Institution, shared Shlaim’s hopes of an “historic turning point’’ in the annals of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
As Clinton’s National Security Council adviser on the Middle East, Indyk was responsible for the 1993 arrangements on the White House South Lawn. He writes:
The handshake was meant to signify the moment when Israeli and Palestinian leaders decided to begin the process of ending their bloody conflict and resolving their differences at the negotiating table.
Two decades later, in 2014, the funeral rites were pronounced on the Oslo Process after then Secretary of State John Kerry had done all he could to revive it against Netanyahu’s obduracy. Oslo had, in any case, been on life support since Rabin’s assassination.
“Then,” in Indyk’s words, “along came Trump with “the Deal of the Century”. Indyk writes:
His plan has yet to be revealed but its purpose appears clear – to legitimize the status quo and call it peace. Trump has already attempted to arbitrate every one of the final status issues in Israel’s favor: no capital in East Jerusalem for the Palestinians; no ‘right of return’ for Palestinian refugees; no evacuation of outlying settlements; no ’67 lines; no end of occupation; and no Palestinian state…
Over 25 years, in shifting roles from witness to midwife, to arbiter, the United States has sadly failed to help Israelis and Palestinians make peace, leaving them for the time being in what has essentially been a frozen conflict.
However, as history shows, “frozen conflicts” don’t remain frozen forever. They tend to erupt when least expected.
Twenty-five years ago, I shared a bloody hospital casualty station – not unlike a scene from M.A.S.H. – with more than a dozen wounded Palestinians. Some of them would not recover from terrible wounds inflicted by live ammunition.
I asked myself then, as I do now: what’s the point of it all?
The mainstream media have broadly accepted the justifications from the United States, France and Britain of humanitarian motivation for the retaliatory strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime.
Journalist Adam Johnson analysed US mainstream coverage and reported that:
major publications take the bulk of the premises for war for granted — namely the US’s legal and moral right to wage it — and simply parse over the details.
The air strike proceeded without publication of proof that Syria was responsible for the alleged atrocity in Douma. Reports are emerging that cast doubt on the official narrative.
Regardless, swift action was demanded and taken. Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are only now gaining access “to establish facts around the allegations of chemical weapons use in Douma”.
Strikes illegal under international law
Alongside claims for justification from the Trump administration, similar rhetoric featured in statements from French and British leaders. French President Emmanuel Macron claimed there was no doubt Syria was responsible for a chemical attack on civilians, in gross violation of international law. He said:
We cannot tolerate the trivialisation of chemical weapons, which is an immediate danger for the Syrian people and our collective security.
British Prime Minister Theresa May agreed, saying “we cannot allow the erosion of the international norm that prevents the use of these weapons”. May identified the lack of consensus in the UN Security Council as a driving factor in the joint military action.
Even this week the Russians vetoed a resolution at the UN Security Council which would have established an independent investigation into the Douma attack. So there is no practicable alternative to the use of force to degrade and deter the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.
The United Nations Charter contains a prohibition on the threat or use of force against another state. Exceptions to this rule of international law are tightly constrained:
Under Article 51 of the Charter, states retain a right to individual and collective self-defence in the case of an armed attack.
Under Chapter VII of the Charter, the Security Council may authorise military force to restore international peace and security, if non-forceful measures have failed.
The British government has published a brief asserting the legality of the air strike on Syria as an exercise of “humanitarian intervention” (effectively invoking the doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect” or R2P, without explicitly mentioning it).
The argument is that the UK and its allies were entitled to use force against Syria because:
- there was convincing evidence of large-scale and extreme humanitarian distress;
- there was no practicable alternative to using force in order to save lives; and
- the use of force in response was proportionate and time-limited to relieve humanitarian suffering.
Yet the R2P doctrine does not establish a new legal basis for the use of force. It allows for the use of force as “humanitarian intervention” only within the provisions of Chapter VII of the Charter, in the case of grave international crimes.
The Labour opposition in the UK has released its own legal opinion, sharply contradicting the government and asserting that the strikes were illegal.
Illegal but legitimate?
The allies responsible for this week’s air strike have not claimed explicit authorisation under the Charter. Instead, their aim has been to establish the legitimacy of the strike. This approach was endorsed by the European Union and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
According to President Trump:
The nations of Britain, France, and the United States of America have marshalled their righteous power against barbarism and brutality.
The Assad regime cannot be absolved of its brutality. Indeed, it is a fundamental objective of the post-second world war international legal order to save humanity from the “scourge of war” and promote human rights.
And there can be little doubt that the international legal system is far from perfect, having failed to protect populations around the world from gross violations of humanitarian and human rights law.
In Syria, hundreds of thousands have been killed over seven years of civil war, and millions are now refugees or internally displaced. The complexity of the conflict has seen monitors cease to estimate a death toll.
However, efforts to establish an alternative foundation for military action, beyond what is currently legal, pose risks that must be grappled with.
If states are permitted to determine when force is warranted, outside the existing legal framework, the legitimacy of that framework may be fatally undermined. How could any consistency of response be ensured? By what standard will states distinguish between benevolent and “rogue” regimes?
Leader of the UK opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, challenged Prime Minister May on these grounds:
Does the humanitarian crisis in Yemen entitle other countries to arrogate to themselves the right to bomb Saudi positions in Yemen, given their use of cluster bombs and white phosphorous?
It is relevant in this context that Saudi Arabia is a highly valued client of the British arms industry. According to War Child UK, total sales to the kingdom have topped £6 billion since the conflict in Yemen began. The UK has refused to support a proposed UN inquiry into allegations of Saudi war crimes in Yemen.
Meanwhile, crimes against humanity and gross human rights violations are alleged against Myanmar, the Philippines and Israel, among other states, without attracting the kind of “humanitarian intervention” undertaken in Syria.
Humanitarian intervention or regime change
Jeremy Corbyn has made the case for diplomacy as the only reasonable way forward. Syria should not be a war theatre in which the agendas of external actors take precedence, he argues.
The US has long envisaged regime change in Syria, and stepped up sponsorship of opposition groups since 2009.
Robert Kennedy Jr. traced the history of US intervention in Syria from the first CIA involvement in 1949. He argues that this is another oil war, and says of broader interventionism in the Middle East:
The only winners have been the military contractors and oil companies that have pocketed historic profits, the intelligence agencies that have grown exponentially in power and influence to the detriment of our freedoms and the jihadists who invariably used our interventions as their most effective recruiting tool.
Central to US strategic thinking is the relationship between Syria and Iran. US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, seemed to say that a condition for US withdrawal is that Iran cease to function as an ally of Syria.
With the US gaze so firmly fixed on Iran and Russia, the rationale for “humanitarian intervention” can and should be more firmly critiqued.
The link below is to an article reporting on persecution news from Israel.