Trump’s ‘deal of the century’, breathlessly flagged up back in the summer, was finally officially launched on 28 January. The announcement came at a press conference shared jointly between the US president and Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, with ambassadors from Gulf statelets United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman and Bahrain pulled in to make up the numbers. No Saudi representative showed up, perhaps suggesting that Riyadh preferred to let its satraps take the flak for lending support to such a toxic plan. Right from conception to birth, it has been clear that this deal was written in Tel Aviv and rubber stamped in Washington. It is not a plan for peace but a declaration of war. But it is a war in which neither Israel nor the US can count on many staunch allies.
There turned out to be few surprises in the deal. Israel is to be given a free hand in annexing all the Palestinian territory on the West Bank illegally grabbed by armed settlers; the Jewish state is to be granted full sovereignty over the whole of Jerusalem, which is to be accorded the status of Israel’s capital; the right to return for the Palestinian diaspora, recognised by the UN, is to be ditched; and those Palestinians exiled in neighbouring Arab states are to be stripped of their refugee status, and hence will no longer qualify for support from the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA).
In exchange for all this and much more besides on Israel’s wishlist, what is offered to the Palestinians? A demilitarised state in nominal charge of the remaining dismembered bits of the West Bank and Gaza, connected by a tortuous network of roads, bridges and tunnels, a mock homeland which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas aptly characterised as resembling a “Swiss cheese”. Such a state, a state that is not even in control of its own borders, would be a state in name only, with or without international recognition, shiny new ministerial portfolios and a hallowed seat in the UN. For even the most moderate Palestinians, represented by Abbas, such a mangled form of statehood is intolerable.
There was a certain symmetry in the parallel situations in which Trump and Netanyahu found themselves. Trump needed to focus public attention away from the impeachment farce at home, whilst Netanyahu was faced with a national election on 2 March at a time when he was under investigation on corruption charges. Both leaders were in need of a high profile distraction.
But more is involved here than just short-term electoral chicanery. The botched on-again, off-again US withdrawal from Syria, the clumsy handling of US allies (alienating Turkey and dumping the Kurds), the underlying failure to make its writ run in the Middle East and the corresponding ascendency of Russian diplomacy in the region, all point to the growing isolation of Washington, an isolation for a long time experienced by Israel, imperialism’s guard dog in the region. Seen in this light, this ‘deal’ is a desperate gamble on the part of the US to regain the initiative in the region, relying heavily on its most loyal of allies, Zionism. The problem is that when this deal fails, as it must surely do, it will not be Israel alone that pays the price but also the USA. Washington seems fated to remain locked in an ever tightening dead man’s embrace with Israel as history rolls over them both.
The deal of the century went down like a lead balloon at the UN Security Council, with only Israel and the US voicing support. As well as being denounced by Russia, China, Vietnam and South Africa, the deal also came under fire from Germany, France and Belgium amongst many others. In these circumstances, the attempt by Israel’s UN envoy Danny Danon to bang the drum for regime change, accusing President Abbas of being unrealistic and declaring that peace could not come so long as the President remained in power, fell flat on its face.
Of course it is not any enthusiasm for the Palestinian cause that motivates such as France and Germany to step away from the US plan. Rather it is the fact that Trump’s trampling approach to diplomacy threatens to tear away the veil of hypocrisy and deceit upon which imperialism – and not just US imperialism – relies to maintain the status quo in the region. By casting this veil aside, Washington is making it harder for the comprador regimes of the Gulf to go on paying lip service to the Palestinian cause whilst continuing to act in the predatory interests of the West and assist in holding back Arab social progress.
The French envoy warned the UNSC that the US plan “cements despair for young people” in Palestine, joining other EU voices in criticising the deal (Sheren Khalel, ‘Deal of the century makes “Swiss cheese” of Palestinian territory’, Middle East Eye, 11 February 2020). But this is not like the good old days when all the great and the good came to the UN, had a good talk, passed yet another high-minded resolution reprimanding Israel for ‘excesses’ and then went home again, secure in the certainty that the latest resolution would join all the others gathering dust on the shelf whilst nothing fundamental would change. No, Trump is calling everyone’s bluff now, brazenly asserting that might is right and telling the world to put up or shut up. All those previous logic-chopping exercises to determine how many dead resolutions can dance on the head of a pin, the stock in trade of international diplomacy, are unceremoniously bundled out. And whilst the EU measures out its mild reproofs in coffee spoons, the Palestinians are left to draw their own less polite conclusions about the way ahead. In truth it is not really the ‘despair’ of Palestinian youth that truly concerns France and the rest, but rather their anger, and the anger of the masses right across the Middle East and beyond.
Even Britain, the most slavish of Washington’s imperialist allies, is getting cold feet. Whilst vacuously hoping that the US plan might be the basis for opening up dialogue, the British envoy to the UN tacked on a nervous caveat, asserting that Britain would condemn unilateral action “by any parties”, referencing London’s stated opposition to the annexation of parts of the West Bank. Whilst such ‘principled opposition’ is as much use as a chocolate fireguard, it gives us a clue just how alone ‘America First’ is getting to be on the world stage when even toady number one is threatening to hop off.
Reactions in the Middle East
The ambassadors from Oman, the UAE and Bahrain voted with their feet by dutifully turning up at the Netanyahu/Trump press conference, and Qatar also voiced its approval in absentia. Egypt too has given token support. But across the Middle East these lukewarm words of praise for the US initiative are being drowned out by a furious tsunami of criticism.
Turkey, Syria and Iran have all denounced the deal. Syria’s denunciation of the deal comes as no surprise, given that it has done more to support Palestine over the years than has any other Arab country, not only in words but in deeds. Likewise given Iran’s long standing record as a key player in the axis of resistance, it is not to be wondered at that it has expressed nothing but contempt for Trump’s ‘vision’. And on the realpolitik side it suits Turkey’s President Erdogan to join in the chorus of denunciation, looking to buff up Turkey’s credentials as a mover and shaker in the Muslim world and happy to put the boot into its erstwhile imperialist master.
Some of the most biting criticism of the deal has been coming from some seemingly unlikely quarters, as witness some candid remarks which the Kuwaiti parliamentary speaker, Marzouk Al-Ghanim, made to a session in Amman of the Arab Parliamentary Union. Addressing a score of parliamentary speakers from across the Arab world, he symbolically dumped a copy of the Trump deal into a bin, a gesture which was greeted with a warm ovation. He denounced the plan in the most vigorous terms, saying that it “was born dead” and “should be thrown in the dustbin of history”. After he had declared that “the timing of the Deal of the Century is immature, and it denotes strange naivety and a ridiculous rashness,” the meeting went on unanimously to denounce the deal. The session included speakers from Syria and Iraq, but also from Egypt, Qatar and Oman, who one must presume were swept along by the tide!
Al-Ghanim went on to comprehensively rubbish the deal, claiming that it was “rejected by the Arab leaders, governments, elites and peoples, and is Islamically refused from Rabat to Jakarta,” adding for good measure that “The Europeans are not enthusiastic, and realise that the deal is unrealistic, unacceptable, unimplementable, and the irony this time is that so many American and Israeli voices expressed their rejection of this project. No one supports this mutant formula of a funny hypothetical settlement” (‘Speaker of Kuwaiti Parliament throws “Deal of the Century” in the bin’, Middle East Monitor, 10 February 2020). The fact that both the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, neither regarded as hotbeds of anti-imperialism, have denounced the deal confirms the breadth of the revolt. It is clear that any leadership in the Arab world that ignores the mass popular backlash provoked by Trump’s deal will be heading for choppy waters ahead. Such are the fruits of US diplomacy.
Great Fajr Campaign
The single most provocative part of the deal, and the issue which has sparked one of the biggest spontaneous movements of revolt so far, is the plan to grant Israel sovereignty over all the holy places in Jerusalem and Hebron. Having stolen the country, Zionism wants now to steal the country’s cultural identity, and wants to enforce that theft through the barrel of a gun.
“‘The collective dawn prayers started in Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque in November, at the initiative of the city’s families and young activists who protest the Israeli incursions to the holy sites. Before long, several other families and citizens joined in as a reaction to the Israeli attempts to undermine the Palestinian presence and take over the mosque,’ Hafzi Abu Sunainah, director of the Ibrahimi Mosque, told Al-Monitor.
“He noted that the campaign soon spread to various mosques in the West Bank, including Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem, urging Palestinians to defend their holy sites that are constantly attacked by Israel.
“In September 2019, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Hebron and entered the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Netanyahu also pledged in September to annex the settlement of Kiryat and the Jewish areas in Hebron, including the Ibrahimi Mosque.
“Al-Haram al-Ibrahimi is the heart of the city of Hebron and is under constant Israeli attack. This prompted the Palestinians to attend the mass dawn prayers, regardless of the cold and rain, the military checkpoints and the harassment by Israeli soldiers,” Abu Sunainah said.
“The Ibrahimi Mosque was divided to accommodate Jewish worshippers following a 1994 massacre at the hands of a settler who murdered 29 Muslims — 45% of the mosque’s area was dedicated to Muslims and 55% to Jews.
“On Jan. 10, Palestinians in Hebron went in droves to Al-Aqsa Mosque for the Friday dawn prayers, as they were urged by Jerusalemites, in response to a Jan. 2 attack by the Israeli police on worshippers at Bab al-Rahma (Gate of Mercy), the eastern gate of Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. The police used tear gas to disperse the crowd.
“On Jan. 25, the Israeli police also stormed the house of former Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and head of the Supreme Islamic Council Ekrima Sabri and ordered him not to enter Al-Aqsa Mosque compound for four months. He was accused of inciting hatred against Israel during his Friday sermons.
“The Israeli decision came after Sabri, who is seen as the highest Islamic figure in the city, defied a Jan. 19 Israeli police order barring him from visiting the mosque for one week. On Jan. 24, he entered the compound with dozens of worshippers who carried him on their shoulders.”
“The campaign, which is expended to grow larger in the coming weeks, received political support from both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.
“‘We support the Great Fajr Campaign in the face of the Israelis who fear the large Palestinian crowds during the dawn prayers. We urge all Palestinians to join hands at Al-Aqsa to protect it from the Judaization policies, along the lines of what happened at the Ibrahimi Mosque that was divided and turned into a synagogue,’ Nayeb Jabour, a deputy for Hamas in the dissolved Palestinian Legislative Council, told Al-Monitor.
“Adnan Ghaith, governor of Jerusalem and a member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, told Al-Monitor, ‘The deal of the century carries a clear threat to Jerusalem and its holy sites. The deal is a message for Jews to perform their prayers at Al-Aqsa and for the temporally and spatial division of the mosque.’”
“He added, ‘The Palestinians will not tolerate any undermining of Al-Aqsa and are capable of defending it, and the campaign is proof of that’" (Ahmad Melhem, ‘Dawn of protest: Palestinians stand against “deal of century” at prayers’, Al-Monitor, 7 February 2020).
It is clear from this testimony that, far from despairing, the Palestinians are a mighty and courageous nation requiring only a unified leadership to mobilise for the struggle. Of all the unintended consequences the ‘deal of the century’ brings in its train, the most uncomfortable for imperialism must be the sight of Fatah, Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine marching shoulder by shoulder through Gaza, on the very day that the deal was announced. The leader of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, phoned Abbas to support the stance taken by the Palestinian Authority, and urged the formation of a united front. Long may this unity prevail!