Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Israel, Palestine and Transnational Pressure in the Donald Trump Era

Israel is once again in the news and that too for all the wrong reasons. The resumption of settlement activity on West Bank has flustered the world community, which argues that any unilateral measure is bound to derail the peace process with Palestine. The closing declaration at a Mideast peace conference in Paris urged both sides to “officially restate their commitment to the two-state solution” and disassociate from voices that reject this.

The ‘voices’ was not just an apparent reference to the right-wing Zionists of Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, but a scathing rebuke of Trump’s proposed policy to shift the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The incoming President Donald Trump, in a marked shift in US-Israeli foreign policy, echoed the political motivations of the current Netanyahu-led coalition government and may well go a step further to support the settler movement. His nominee for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Republican South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley will blast the world body over its treatment of Israel at her Senate confirmation hearing amid reports of U.S plans to cut funding to the UN.

Late last year, defying extraordinary pressure from Trump and furious lobbying by Israel, the Obama administration allowed the United Nations Security Council to adopt a resolution that condemned Israeli settlement construction. Notably, the American abstention from the vote broke a long-standing tradition of shielding Israel from action at the UN.

The issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has long been a major source of dispute between Israel and most of the international community, including its own closest ally, the US. These are basically communities established by Israel on land occupied in the 1967 Middle East war, also including East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, areas in the Sinai Peninsula seized from Egypt and the Gaza strip. The contentious settlements in Gaza were dismantled when Israel withdrew from the territory in 2005. While the territories in the Sinai Peninsula were ultimately ceded to Egypt, the Golan Heights and West Bank have remained prized possessions.

Even if agreement could be reached on settlements in the West Bank, the issue of settlements in East Jerusalem is even thornier. Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1980, in a move not recognized internationally. It regards East Jerusalem as its eternal, indivisible capital and does not consider the sector in any way occupied - and by extension, it does not regard Jewish neighborhoods there as settlements. Settlers themselves choose to live in these communities for a range of reasons - from economic, incentivized by government subsidies, to religious, based on the Biblical prophecy that God gave the land to the Jewish people.

The official Israeli response to any criticism of its settlement activity at the UN level has been to “condemn the interference of the world community in bilateral matters between itself and Palestine”. Benjamin Netanyahu has flatly castigated both the UN resolution and the Paris conference for singling out Israel in an otherwise volatile region.  He points to the failure of the UN to effectively deal with the Syrian conflict, while hounding Israel relentlessly.

While Israel’s commitment to ensure Palestinian statehood is indeed subject to scrutiny, there is a seething clash underway between nationalist agendas and transnational responsibilities of collective states in responding to geopolitical conflicts. Are international agencies like the UN authorized to influence and involve in the domestic affairs of a member state? When does UN-sponsored initiatives or collective action by a majority of member states infringe on the national sovereignty of another state? How damaging is the concerted effort to undermine democratic institutions and the right-wing upheavals against a globalized and interconnected world? Would a possible U.S isolationist policy under Trump further destabilize or ensure peaceful co-existence in the Middle East?

The scope of this article would be an attempt to analyze these trends against the background of the Israeli settlement activity, Trump’s foreign policy pronouncements and the rise of dictatorial politics at the international level. The international reaction to these developments in the Trump-era will determine whether the two-state solution is here to stay or waiting to fall prey to hyper-nationalist ambitions.

Trans-national involvement in bilateral issues

50 years since the Middle East war of June 1967, there have been many peace plans and negotiations. Some of these have been successful, including those between Egypt and Israel and Israel and Jordan, but a settlement has still not been reached in the core conflict - the dispute between the Israelis and Palestinians. Although it must be acknowledged that many of the mediators – including the UN, US, Russia, EU – have largely been successful in pressurizing Israel to make concessions, the issue of Palestinian statehood has been circumvent by mainstream discourse.

In order to understand this attitude, one needs to look no further than the popular meme, sold by sovereign states themselves, about the “international action in bilateral issues being a violation of another state’s national interests”. However, the obvious point being missed here is that nations don’t have rights, people do. Apart from the Israeli government’s lack of due diligence on this matter, there are other legitimate concerns being raised by secular groups and political activists in Israel worried about the dire consequences of unbridled settlement activity on West Bank.

The impunity exercised by Israel disregards international treaties assiduously being engineered to mitigate the consequences of state occupation and undermines the self-determination and democratic aspirations of peoples forced onto the firing line between combating forces from both sides. But how can Israel’s allies, unsurprisingly very few in its own neighborhood, impress this fact while taking into account Israel’s own security concerns in the region?

The international legal obligations that protected individuals against the power of the state can be found principally in the UN Charter, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1948 Genocide Convention, and the two International Covenants on human rights drawn up in 1966. Cumulatively, these established important limits on the exercise of sovereign prerogatives, argued by Prof Jack Donnelly in his essay The Social Construction of Human Rights. By no measure has Israel carried out genocidal or ethnic cleansing crimes against Palestinians, but the routine expulsion of the latter from their homes and the systematic establishment of settlements amounts to a travesty of international norms and justice. But as pro-Israel advocates, like Maajid Nawaaz would argue, Israel isn’t the problem in the Middle East by a long shot. While the argument rings true in the present times, however, the case being built here is how no nation should be let off the hook in violation of international norms.

In the event of Israel’s failure to abide by international norms, what constitutes an effective response by other states? Having known that their recent activity on West Bank is illegal or illegitimate (as the US likes to call it), isn’t it futile to convince Israel that their conduct in the international realm should be governed by considerations of legitimacy and not power? Well, this seems to imply that power and legitimacy are in an antithetical relationship. 

But as Inis Claude argues ‘the two concepts are complimentary as rulers seek legitimization not only to satisfy their consciences but also to buttress their positions'. Simply put, how should the ‘power of legitimacy’ constrain state action? The answer lies is in the fact that the violations of a norm or law do not necessarily mean that it has ceased to exist. It all depends upon how widespread the non-compliance is, since, if violators (Israel) are subject to exclusion by their peers, then this will confirm the efficacy of the norm despite acts of non-compliance with it.

This can only be realized through transnational efforts at putting Israel in its place. This is possibly the only medium through which norms and rules 'establish inter-subjective meanings that allow the actors to direct their actions towards each other, communicate with each other, appraise the quality of their actions, criticize claims and justify choices’. However, it should take us little time in acknowledging how the entry of Donald Trump into the international arena can deliver a knock-out punch to the concept of legitimacy. Crucially, if he manages to rally with him a large enough group of supporters who are prepared to adopt the new norm (use the nationalist meme to deflect criticism) as the standard of appropriate behaviour, it will replace the previously accepted practice.

Trump: Fancying dictatorial politics or committed to collective goals?

Donald Trump may have made his intentions well and truly clear right from the start, contrary to what many of his skeptics foresee to be an unpredictable four years for the United States of America. At least on the foreign policy domain, there is little doubt that the nature of alliances that would be forged by the Trump administration will focus on putting American interests first but also to significantly embrace analogous regimes elsewhere in the world. 

His endorsement of the Brexit result exemplifies an ardent ideology framed around the notions of hyper-nationalism, protectionism and anti-globalization. His bromance with Putin is no secret as he continues to admire the Russian President’s style of politics.

He has also attracted the attention of Rodrigo Duterte, the President of Philippines; Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President of Turkey; Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, President of Egypt; Joseph Kabila, President of Democratic Republic of Congo; Pierre Nkurunziza, President of Burundi; Idriss Déby, President of Chad and other hopefuls like French Presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. By expressing dismay at US involvement in Syria, Trump is of the view that the threat of ISIS dwarfs any wrongdoing of Bashar Al-Assad and outrightly stated his commitment to fight ISIS by cooperating with Putin. He has also been dismissive of NATO terming it as an ‘obsolete’ military alliance, thereby raising fears among allies in Eastern Europe. 

Almost all of these leaders share many dubious records in common: their domestic human rights track record and concern for democratic values, just to mention a few, isn’t quite awe inspiring. British Prime Minister, Theresa May and Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP have also vowed to strengthen ties with the new administration, hoping to undo hiccups and missed opportunities under Obama’s watch. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that each of these leaders have tapped into the nationalist sentiments of voters and adopted an authoritarian brand of governance at the domestic front.

Perhaps, none will be watched with as much scrutiny and matched for sheer symbolism than Trump’s relationship with Netanyahu. Although the resolutions are unbinding, his open support for Israel’s settler movement signals contempt for mutually agreed rules of the international system and threatens to undermine the legitimate Palestinian calls for self-determination. To be sure, it will be unfair to skip any mention of the connivance and double-game of the Arab states that fail to recognize the existence of Israel, thereby keeping the issue of Palestinian statehood in limbo. On a clearly polarized issue such as this, many are quick to write obituaries of both sides without objectively invoking justifications enshrined in the international relations rule book.

The key point about notions of international legitimacy is that they are not within the control of individual agents. Realists argue that powerful states consciously espouse those moral principles that serve their own interests thereby failing to address geopolitical conflicts; in this case Palestinian statehood. This view relegates the prevailing norms and rules of any international order to reflections of the underlying distribution of power. Once established, norms will serve to constrain even the most powerful states in the international system. Therefore, the Trump-Netanyahu combine can be constrained by the rules of international society if there is also corresponding pressure being applied by a collective of states committed to shared goals.

The UN and other transnational groupings might need to play a larger and forceful role to prevent a series of democratic gains from being slowly eroded across the globe. An internationalist narrative is in urgent need to stem the tide of hyper-nationalistic wave, as the Trump era prepares to embolden similar uprisings in the rest of the world. While these shockwaves capture the waning influence of transnational organizations like the UN, EU and other international pressure groups and regional groupings, there is still light at the end of the tunnel. In that respect, the issue of Palestinian statehood could once again be the focal point in the larger debate about whether states are willing to set aside their nationalist agendas in the wake of bolder global reactions such as the Middle East peace conference held in Paris.

Carl Jaison

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