Fighting for Palestinian rights in the Trump era

A move of the US embassy to Jerusalem would confer the Trump administration’s recognition on Israeli claims to the city that are rejected by world governments.

Mahfouz Abu Turk APA images

Donald Trump last week chose bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman, a homeowner in the ethnically cleansed Talbiyeh neighborhood of West Jerusalem, to be US ambassador to Israel.

The pick has serious implications for US domestic and international politics and the Palestinian liberation movement.

Trump has consistently named extremists to key administration positions and Friedman is no different.

He opposes a two-state solution and supports Israel formally annexing the West Bank, while Gaza would remain a sealed off bantustan.

Friedman predicted in August that as president Trump would move quickly to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

In its announcement of his nomination, the Trump transition team made clear that Friedman looked forward to working “from the US embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”

World governments, including the US, have always rejected Israel’s claims regarding Jerusalem and asserted that the final status of the city is to be determined by negotiations.

Friedman has accused President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry of “blatant anti-Semitism,” insinuated that Palestinian citizens of Israel who criticize the state should be stripped of their citizenship and insisted that the liberal Zionist group J Street is comprised of “kapos” who, as he put it, “turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps.”

“Friedman’s appointment is a distressing signal that the new administration will give the Israeli government a free hand to deepen its fundamentally undemocratic and abusive control over Palestinian land, resources and rights,” asserted Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace.

Friedman himself is president of a US tax-exempt organization that has raised millions of dollars to directly support illegal settlements in the West Bank.

Trump and the family foundation of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, are notable contributors.

From one perspective, Friedman’s appointment – and the shift it presages – amounts to a more accurate labeling of existing US policy.

After all, the Obama administration claimed to oppose settlements, but blocked every effort to stop Israel from building them, including using the US veto at the UN.

The Obama administration rewarded Israel with the biggest military aid package in history – at least $38 billion over 10 years.

Obama’s policies, both what he did and did not do, set the stage for whatever comes next and things are likely only to get worse, much worse.

Shifting US politics

In the current context, it is easy to forget that there remains significant public support for measures to hold Israel accountable.

Recent polling found that 60 percent of Democrats support serious action against Israel, including economic sanctions, because of settlement construction.

That’s up from fewer than half just one year ago. More than two in five independents and nearly a third of Republicans – a surprisingly high number – also support similar measures. Overall, 46 percent of Americans – almost half – are ready for such action.

These figures are particularly remarkable as no high-profile Democrat or Republican has endorsed sanctions against Israel. But Senator Bernie Sanders’ strong primary challenge to Hillary Clinton, including his harsh criticisms of her unconditional support for Israel and his appointment of supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement to the Democratic Party’s platform committee, showed that a more courageous approach is possible.

Should prominent Democrats begin backing sanctions, support can be expected to rise even more dramatically. At the moment, however, the Democratic Party’s top leaders remain staunchly behind Israel.

Once Obama leaves office in January, the most senior elected Democrat will be Senate minority leader Charles Schumer, who calls himself a “guardian of Israel.”

Already, Representative Keith Ellison, a leading candidate to head the party’s top governing body, the Democratic National Committee, has buckled under Democratic pressure. One of the most outspoken elected Democrats for Palestinian rights, Ellison has in recent weeks expressed opposition to the BDS movement.

Unless Ellison can harness the grassroots energy that helped propel Sanders, more capitulations can be expected.

As for putative progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren, her defense of Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza does not, according to The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, make her an “inspiring left-wing icon of the Democratic Party.”

If Friedman’s appointment is indeed a harbinger of Trump’s policies, the Democratic Party will be challenged to take a stand, especially as its base becomes increasingly discontented with Israel’s actions.

Don’t back down

Dissent from the party’s staunch pro-Israel line – including, for instance, the powerful speech by Rev. William Barber III, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP at the Democratic convention last summer – is likely to continue.

Mondoweiss’ Phil Weiss argues that Friedman’s appointment forces a “rendezvous with reality” among liberal Zionists, and within Jewish communal organizations, that the two-state solution is finished.

The obstruction of justice by both US ruling parties has helped drive the growth of the BDS movement, as more activists conclude that there is no other viable path for them to push for Palestinian freedom and equality.

Attempts by governments and Israel lobby groups to suppress and stigmatize the BDS movement, already formidable in the US and Europe, may become even more draconian in the Trump era.

Such measures, including legislation and harassment, constitute not just an attack on the Palestine solidarity movement, but a broad assault on basic constitutional rights. Many activists and Trump-targeted groups are bracing for further assaults on the rights of immigrants, workers, women and LGBTQ communities and a further rolling back of protections won by the civil rights movement.

There is an opportunity, but also an urgent necessity, for advocates of Palestinian rights to join forces with others still fighting for genuinely progressive politics. Friedman’s brazen contempt for Palestinian rights means that Palestinians may be heard as never before by sympathetic communities, some of whom do have the backing of elected officials.

Now more than ever, supporters of Palestinian rights must be present in all the arenas these battles are being fought.

International response

Just as Trump may sharpen simmering political differences over Palestine within the US, this may also happen internationally. The European Union, in particular, will have to choose whether to acquiesce to Trump’s wholesale adoption of Israel’s annexationist agenda or finally start making policy on its own.

Without the pretense that the US and EU are on the same page over a “peace process” that long ago ceased to exist, European governments, pushed by strong popular support for Palestinian rights, may be willing to act.

Given Europe’s deep complicity and inaction, we should not be overly optimistic.

Europe will be preoccupied with its own internal crises, including Brexit. The rise of Europe’s xenophobic and Islamophobic far right also plays into Israel’s hands as much as Trump’s election does in the US.

But European governments will have to confront whatever world Trump tries to make, and that will include responding to his Middle East policies.

Challenging 21st century apartheid

Israel’s leaders see opportunities for “historic changes” in the Trump era, to help them cement their exclusivist, ultra-nationalist vision of the future.

They are betting that Israel’s 21st century version of apartheid will be tolerated by much of the world, or at least that Palestinians will not be able to muster sufficient support to challenge it.

There may also be a repeat of the massive violence Israel visited on Gaza three times in the last decade – every time with the significant support of Obama, before and after he entered office. It is difficult to see Trump giving Israel any less of a free hand than Obama did.

No doubt the challenges will be enormous, and many governments and organizations will fail to rise to the moment, but there are possibilities for progress.

What may be different this time is that there will not only be popular outrage, but Democratic Party officials may be willing to speak out, supported by the base.

If the repression directed at BDS has so far not stopped the movement’s growth, then any new Israeli resort to mass violence is likely to impel more people towards boycott and demanding that their governments impose sanctions.

Other governments that usually bow to the US may take more independent positions, spurred by popular revulsion at Israel’s attacks on an occupied people.

What’s more, Israel faces a profound dilemma to which its leading right-wing politicians have no internationally marketable answer: if they are “successful” and annex much or all of the West Bank they will put an end to even the most naive hopes for a two-state solution.

What then?

The options will be apartheid or one state with equal rights for all. Ironically, it may be Trump and officials like Friedman who hasten that reckoning.

Much of the world will not accept an apartheid that can no longer be obscured behind a fictional “peace process.”

No victory is guaranteed, but understanding this landscape and the challenges and opportunities it holds will provide Palestinians and their allies the best chance to fight back and secure freedom and equal rights.

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Michael F. Brown

Michael F. Brown is an independent journalist. His work and views have appeared in The International Herald Tribune, TheNation.com, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The News & Observer, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Washington Post and elsewhere.