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In recent weeks the Palestinian people have scored major victories that would havedire consequences for Israel if law and morality governed political destiny. Instead, these successes are offset by adverse geopolitical developments as a result of the Biden presidency embracing some of the worst features of Trump’s hyper-partisanship with respect to Israel/Palestine. Law and morality alter reputations, bear on the legitimacy of contested policies, while geopolitics bear more directly on behavior, the difference is best understood as separating symbolic and substantive politics.
Yet, legitimacy gains should not be dismissed just because nothing that matters on the ground seems to change, and sometimes vindictively changes for the worse. In the long game of social and political change, especially in the course of the last 75 years, the winner of the Legitimacy War waged for the high legal moral ground and competition for intensity of political commitment has much more often than not eventually controlled the outcome of a struggle for national self-determination and sovereign independence, overcoming geopolitical obstructions and military superiority along the way. The anti-colonial wars, it should not be forgotten, were won by the weaker side militarily, although quite often enduring an ordeal of desecration along the way. So far, Israeli leadership, although worried by its setbacks on the battlefields of the Legitimacy War have not departed from the American game plan of devising security through a combination of military capabilities and regional activity, allying against Iran, while subverting the unity and stability of potential hostile neighboring States.
Relevant is the great unlearnable lesson of the last century that the U.S. dominated the military dimensions of the Vietnam War and yet managed to lose the war. Why unlearnable? Because if learned, the case for a permanent wartime military budget would disappear, and the stubborn mythic belief that ‘our military keeps us safe’ would lose much of its credibility.
With Biden as president, reviving alliance-based confrontational geopolitics, the prospect is for a dangerous and costly worsening of relations among major centers of global wealth and military power, avoiding the kind of reallocation of resources urgently requires to meet the challenges of the Anthropocene. We can bemoan the dysfunctionality of global militarism, but how can we gain the political traction to challenge it? This is the question we should be asking of our politicians without distracting them from addressing the urgencies of the domestic agenda bearing on health, economic recovery, and assaults upon voting rights.
The Palestinian struggle continues, and offers the template of a colonial war carried on in a post-colonial era, in which a huge national oppressive regime backed by geopolitical support is required to enable Israel to swim against the strong liberation tides of history. Israel has proved to be a resourceful settler colonial state that has carried to completion the Zionist Project by stages, and with the vital help of geopolitical muscle, and has only recently begun to lose control of the normative discourse that earlier had been controlled by dramatizing the saga of persecuted Jews in Europe who deserved sanctuary accompanied by the denialist dismissal of Palestinian national claims to be secure in their own homeland. The Palestinians, having no significant relationship to the history of antisemitism were made to pay some of the humanitarian costs inflicted on Jews by the Holocaust while the liberal West looked on in stony silence. This one-sided discourse was reinforced by claiming the benefits of modernity, an insistence that the replacement of dirty backward Arab stagnancy in Palestine by a dynamic modern and flourishing Jewish hegemony, which later was also valued as a Western foothold in a region coveted for its energy reserves and more recently feared because of its anti-Western extremism and Islamic resurgence. The conflict over the land and the ideological identity of the emergent state, unfolding over a century, has had many phases, and has been affected, almost always adversely, by developments within the region and by geopolitical intervention from outside.
As with other anti-colonial struggles, the fate of the Palestinians will eventually turn on whether the struggles of the victimized people can outlast the combined power of the repressive state when, as here, it is linked to the regional and global strategic interests of geopolitical actors. Can the Palestinian people secure their basic rights through their own struggles wages against a combination of internal/external forces, relying on Palestinian resistance from within, global solidarity campaigns from without? This is the nature of the Palestinian Long Game, and at present its trajectory is hidden among the mystifications and contradictions of unfolding national, regional, and global history.
Palestinian Normative Victories
Five years ago no sensible person would have anticipated that Israel’s most respected human rights NGO, B’tselem, would issues a report declaring that Israel had established a unified apartheid state that governed from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, that is, encompassing not only Occupied Palestine but Israel itself. [This is Apartheid: A regime of Jewish Supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in Occupied Territory, 12 Jan 2021] With careful analysis the report showed that Israeli policies and practices with respect to immigration, land rights, residency, and mobility were administered in accordance within an overriding framework of Jewish supremacy, and by this logic, Palestinian (more accurately non-Jewish, including Druze and non-Arabic Christians) subjugation. Such a discriminatory and exploitative political arrangement is descriptive of apartheid, as initially established in South Africa and then generalized as an international crime in the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. This idea of apartheid criminality was carried forward in the Rome Statute that provides the framework within which the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague carries on its activities. Article 7 of the Rome Statute, a treaty of the parties, governing the ICC enumerates the various Crimes Against Humanity over which the ICC asserts its jurisdictional authority. Apartheid is classified as such a crime in Article 7(j), although without any accompanying definition, and no investigation by the ICC of apartheid allegations involving Israeli perpetrators has ever occurred. It is notable that regarding ‘apartheid’ as a crime against humanity would reduce the burden of proof as compared to allegations of ‘genocide.’
Only weeks after the B’Tselem Report came the much anticipated decision of the Pre-Trial Chamber of the ICC on February 6, 2021. By a 2-1 vote the Chamber’s decision affirmed the authority of Fatou Bensouda, the ICC Prosecutor, to proceed with an investigation of war crimes committed in the Occupied Palestinian territories since 2014, as geographically defined by its provisional 1967 borders. To reach this outcome the decision had to make two important pronouncements: first, that Palestine, although lacking many of the attributes of statehood as define by international law, did qualify as a State for purposes of this ICC proceeding, having been accepted as a Party to the Rome Statute in 2014 after being recognized by the General Assembly on November 29, 2012 as a ‘non-member Observer State.’; and secondly, that the jurisdiction of ICC to investigate crimes committed on the territory of Palestine was authoritatively identified as the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, that is, the territories occupied by Israel during the 1967 War. In a decision that sought to convey impressions of judicial self-restraint it was pointed out that these legal positions were limited to the facts and claims under consideration, and did not purport to prejudge the statehood or territorial claims of either Israel or Palestine in other contexts. The lengthy dissent rejected this reasoning, relying heavily on the continuing relevance of the agreements concluded in accord with Oslo diplomacy that allegedly altered the status of the occupation, and took precedence, concluding that the Prosecutor lacked the legal competence to proceed with the investigation. [As the present Prosecutor’s term expires in June 2021, and a new Prosecutor takes over, Karim Khan, the future of these legal proceeding is uncertain.]
It should be observed that this Pre-Trial proceeding had attracted unusually widespread interest in the world both because of the identity of the parties and the intriguing character of the issues. Jurists have long been intrigued by defining statehood in relation to different legal settings and by settling jurisdictional disputes addressing issues arising in territories that lack permanently established international borders and clear lines of sovereign authority. An unprecedented number of amicus curiae briefs were submitted to the ICC, including by prominent figures on both sides of the controversy. [I submitted an amicus brief with the collaborative help of the Al Haq researcher, Pearce Clancy. ‘The Situation in Palestine,’ amicus curiae Submissions Pursuant to Rule 103, ICC-01/18, 16 March 2020] Israel was not a Party to the Rome Statute, and declined to participate in the proceedings directly, but its views were well articulated by several of the amicus briefs. [e.g. by Dennis Ross who led the Clinton Era peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine. ‘Observations on Issues Raised by Prosecution for a ruling on the Court’s territorial jurisdiction in Palestine,’ ICC-01/18, 16 March 2020].
This decision was promising from a Palestinian point of view as an exhaustive Preliminary Investigation conducted by the Prosecutor over the prior six years had already concluded that there was ample reason to believe that crimes had been committed by Israel and by Hamas in Palestine, specifically referencing three settings: (1) the massive IDF military operation of 2014 in Gaza, known as Protective Edge; (2) the disproportionate uses of force by the IDF in responding to the Right of Return protests during 2018; (3) settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The Prosecutor can now go forward has been legally established, including with the identification of individual perpetrators who could be charged and held accountable.
Whether this will happen now depends on the approach adopted by Mr. Khan when heassumes the role of Prosecutor in June, which remains a mystery despite speculation.
A further Palestinian victory is the defection of highly respected and well known liberal Zionists who have, so to speak, not seen the light, but speak openly about it, and command access to mainstream media. Peter Beinert is the most relevant example in an American context, but his announced disbelief in Israeli willingness to reach accommodation with the Palestinians on any reasonable basis is one more victory in the domain of symbolic politics.
It was reasonable for Palestine and Palestinians to hope that a more moderate Biden presidency would reverse the most damaging moves taken by Trump that seemed to undermine still further Palestinian bargaining power as well as significantly encroached on Palestinian basic rights, and did so in a manner that rejected both the authority of the UN and international law. The Biden Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, sent signals on the most significant issues that seemed to affirm and ratify rather than reverse or modify the Trump diplomacy. Blinken affirmed, what Biden had implied, with respect to shifting the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and thus joining Trump in defying a UNGA Resolution in 2017 that declared such a move as ‘void’ and without legal effect. Blinken has also indicated support for Israel’s territorial incorporation of the Golan Heights, which again defied international law and the UN, which had stood by a firm principle, earlier endorsed with respect to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories after the 1967 War in iconic Security Resolution 242. This text confirmed that foreign territory could not be
acquired by force, and anticipated Israeli withdrawal to 1967 borders (as modified by negotiations about minor border adjustments agreed to between the parties).
And above all, Blinken endorsed the normalization agreements between Israel and four Islamic States (U.A.E., Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco) achieved by bullying tactics of Trump
and the pursuit of self-interest. These were mainly symbolic victories for Israel having to do with regional acceptance and legitimacy credentials as well as regional containment and pushback alignment contra Iran. In many respects they extend prior de facto developments with a minimal impact of Israeli/Palestine dynamics.
Assessing Gains and Losses
So far Israeli fury directed at the ICC outweighs Palestinian geopolitical disappointments, the latter being likely tempered by apparent lingering hopes for a marginally improved relationship between the PA the U.S. and EU countries. And there have been some proper adjustments, including the announced willingness to reopen of PLO information centers in the U.S. and resumed diplomatic contact by Washington with the Palestinian Authority, and some language suggesting a return to diplomacy between in contrast with the Trump effort to dictate the terms of an Israeli victory put forth as ‘the deal of the century.’ Yet Biden’s early efforts in less controversial policy spheres to undo as much of Trump international mischief as possible, from rejoining Paris Climate Change Agreement, the WHO and UN Human Rights Council to expressing the intention to stress global cooperation and a revived internationalism, contrast with leaving as is the worst elements of the Trumpist effort to shatter Palestinian hopes. Whether this can be explained by the strength of bipartisan U.S. support of the Israeli unconditional relationship or by regional strategic factors is a matter of conjecture. Perhaps, the most plausible explanation is Biden’s own pro-Israeli past combined with his proclaimed commitment to unify America, working with Republicans to the extent possible. His totemic slogan seems to be ‘together we can do anything,’ which so far has not
had much encouragement from the other side of the aisle.
What might make the Palestinians somewhat more hopeful is the degree to which these two developments were battleground sites for those defending Israel by all means possible. Even Jimmy Carter was demeaned as an ‘anti-Semite’ because his 2007 book merely suggested in its title that Israel needed to make peace with the Palestinians or risk becoming an apartheid state. Recall that John Kerry’s rather mundane observation that Israel had two years left within the Oslo framework to make peace with Israel to avoid an apartheid future for itself encountered such a hostile reaction that he was led to apologize for the remarks, more or less repudiating what seemed so plausible when articulated.
As recently as 2017 an academic study sponsored by the UN, which I wrote together with Virginia Tilley, confirming apartheid allegations was denounced in the Security Council as a defamatory text unfit to be associated with the UN. The critical statements were accompanied by veiled American threats to withhold funds from the UN unless our report was repudiated, and it was dutifully removed from the UN website by order of the Secretary General. Even most Zionist militants at this point prefer silence in global settings rather than mounting attacks on B’Tselem once most beloved by liberal Zionists as tangible proof that Israel was ‘the only democracy in the Middle East.’
The reaction by Israel to the ICC decision rises to apoplectic levels of intensity. The fuming response of Netanyahu was echoed across the whole spectrum of Israeli politicians. In Netanyahu’s outrageous calumny against the ICC: “When the ICC investigates Israel for fake war crimes, this is pure anti-Semitism.” He added, “We will fight this perversion of justice with all our might.” Intemperate as are these remarks, they do show that Israel cares deeply about legitimacy issues, and rightly so. International law and morality can be defied as Israel has done repeatedly over the years but it is deeply mistaken to suppose that the Israeli leadership does not care. It seems to me that Israeli leaders understand that South African racism collapsed largely because it lost the Legitimacy War. Maybe some Israeli leaders are beginning to grasp the writing on the wall. The ICC decision may turn out to be a turning point not unlike the Sharpeville Massacre of 1965. This may be so even, as is likely, not a single Israeli is ever brought to justice before the ICC.