Dr. Saeb Erekat: Donald Trump Must Not Pander to Lobbyists on the Israeli-Palestinian Issue

OpEd
January 17, 2017

Trump will be confronted with Israeli demands aimed at burying peace, the top Palestinian negotiator writes.

Over the past few weeks, the Israeli government has built momentum for further annexation of occupied Palestinian territory while rejecting international peace initiatives. Senior Israeli ministers have openly declared the election of Donald Trump as a strategic opportunity to advance right-wing extremist government goals: speed up settlement construction, annex occupied territory, and achieve U.S. recognition of Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem.

They have even made use of Republicans, such as Mike Huckabee, an advocate of annexing the West Bank who has visited settlements, to advance such goals and use the American legislative process as an extension of Israeli politics. More likely than not, the first day that President-elect Donald Trump takes office, the question of whether he will maintain the decades-long U.S. policy of keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv, and the positions of the international community at large, will be firmly placed on his desk for immediate action.

The principles of U.S. policy regarding Israeli settlements, including the annexation of East Jerusalem, have been consistently critical under previous administrations—Republican and Democrat alike. It was U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who rejected any official contacts with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) until it recognized the 1967 border. In 1988, the PLO made the painful compromise of recognizing Israel over 78 percent of historic Palestine, at the same time that it declared the State of Palestine (mostly unrecognized in the West) over 22 percent of our historic homeland and recognized all U.N. resolutions. This was the beginning of the official PLO-U.S. channel that would lead to the Madrid Peace Conference under President Bush.

The letter of invitation for the Madrid Conference, signed by U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, clearly stated that the outcome of any negotiations would be to end the Israeli occupation. He stressed that the U.S. “does not recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem or the extension of its municipal boundaries.” He also said that “the U.S. will continue to oppose settlement activity in the territories occupied in 1967, which remains an obstacle to peace.”

I was part of the Palestinian delegation at the Madrid Conference at the time, while Benjamin Netanyahu acted as spokesperson of the Israeli delegation. The Israeli government only negotiated when President Bush threatened to cut the soft loans Washington grants Israel.  Secretary Baker went as far as reading the phone number of the White House, asking the Israelis to “call when you are serious.” Israel’s then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir eventually went to Madrid, but announced what would become official Israeli practice regarding dragging out the peace process: “I would have conducted the autonomy negotiations for 10 years, and in the meantime we would have reached half a million souls in Judea and Samaria.” With Benjamin Netanyahu, the number of settlers has reached around 650,000 by the beginning of 2017.

In a recent interview with The Washington Post, right-wing Israeli politician Naftali Bennett stated that, “on the one hand, [Israeli] prime ministers from left and right talk about founding a Palestinian state…on the other hand, the policies do not support that vision. I think that is what is frustrating the world.” He is right. During the eight years of the Obama administration, we were confronted with strong action by Washington in order to prevent Palestinians from taking our case to the international community.

“The Israelis want the two-state solution” we would hear from more than one interlocutor. But it was after locking Washington in for a $38 billion deal that the Israeli government pushed Washington aside, increased their settlement and house-destruction policies, and pushed for domestic legislation to facilitate settlement expansion. It was Netanyahu who left the U.S. administration no alternatives regarding the two-state solution.

Although President-elect Donald Trump, echoing the misguided sentiments of his new pick for ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, said that December’s U.N. resolution that condemned Israeli settlement building, and from which the U.S. abstained, was a “big loss for Israel” making it “much harder to negotiate peace,” that is not the opinion of those who genuinely want the two-state solution to succeed.

Let’s look at the facts. That resolution, UNSC Resolution 2334, doesn’t say anything new—on the contrary, it reiterates decades-long U.S. policy and international law. Perhaps this very critical point was lost during U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s speechon December 28. Further, the resolution does not question Israel’s legitimacy, rather it asks member states to distinguish between Israel and Israel’s illegal settlement regime that sits on occupied Palestinian land—land which was already compromised in 1948 and then further occupied in 1967. If this resolution makes anything harder, it is Israel justifying the legitimacy of its illegal settlement-industrial complex over 22 percent of historic Palestine.

As soon as he begins his presidency, President-elect Trump will be confronted with a series of Israeli policies and demands aimed at burying any hopes for a just and lasting peace in the region and the two-state solution, including moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. We can only hope that his presidency will support global peace and justice rather than further pandering to lobbyists intent on erasing half a century of established U.S. policy.  

Saeb Erekat is the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization and helped negotiate the Oslo Accords in the 1990s.

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