Pushing for “normalization” of Israeli apartheid

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak holds a press conference with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (Zhang Ning/Sipa)

The Arab League proposed in 2002 what became known as the Arab Peace Initiative to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was an unprecedented, bold offer which promised Israel full normalization in exchange for a complete withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967 and the creation of a Palestinian state. The plan called for a “just settlement” to the Palestinian refugee issue. This, in practical terms, meant renunciation of the right to return, despite this being an individual right under international law of which no state or authority can forfeit on behalf of the refugees. The Arab Peace Initiative was based on what fallaciously became known as the “international consensus” for the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that of “two states, for two peoples,” championed by the Zionist left as well as Israel’s patrons in the West. The plan represented a rare united front among Arab regimes, one which would have been unthinkable a few decades earlier, signifying an open shift in policy towards Israel.

The mere offer signified a de facto acceptance of the Zionist colonial implant in the region as well as submission to its military dominance. It was thus with no surprise that Israel did not rush to accept the plan. Israel’s response was that of complete indifference. After all, why would Israel rush to define its borders and give away parts of Jerusalem to a future Palestinian “state,” when the Arab governments inadvertently gave legitimacy and comfort to Israel’s ongoing policies of ethnic cleansing inside Palestine?

The plan was reaffirmed at the Arab League’s 2007 summit in Riyadh where only Libya was missing. Muammar al-Qaddhafi, who has ruled Libya for the past 40 years, professed allegiance to the principles of the old-guard. Explaining the reasons for the lone Libyan boycott, Foreign Minister Abdel Rahman Shalgham argued that “all the Arabs now consider Iran to be the main enemy and have forgotten Israel;” Arabs “keep pressing the Palestinians to respond to the conditions of the Quartet, no one presses Israel.” Libya had a point. There has been a shift in regional alliances, whereby an overlapping of interests united the West, Arab regimes (now increasingly identified as “Sunni” in an overtly sectarian discourse) and Israel against Iran.

Arab states have historically lacked a consistent commitment to the Palestinians. Deeply divided, the Palestinian cause had often been used to distract discontent from problems at home and to advance the populist agendas of Arab dictators. Even prior to the creation of Israel, King Abdullah I of Jordan had expressed his commitment to an exclusive Jewish state in Palestine. He didn’t sign a peace deal with Israel earlier on for fear of isolation. That taboo was broken in 1979 by Egypt — the most populous Arab country — gradually redefining the limits of what the autocratic Arab regimes could get away without risking their seats of power in face of popular discontent.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the most influential of these countries, are now leading the anti-Iran campaign. Iran’s threat to their regional dominance coupled with a dose of anti-Shiite hostility, has led them to take Israel as a convenient ally. Israel on the other hand is anxious to quash Iran, an opponent to its regional supremacy. In an address to last February to the annual gathering of Israel’s political-military elite in Herzliya, former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni clarified this view: “Being used to feeling secluded in the Middle East, with the whole Arab world against us, we look around and suddenly notice other countries alongside Israel — Arab, Islamic countries, who no longer view Israel as the enemy, countries who understand that Iran is the main enemy, seeing Iran as no less a threat than we do.”

US President Barack Obama is keen to capitalize on these cleavages so to facilitate the shifting of alliances that would form the basis for a new Middle East. His administration is currently developing a comprehensive strategy to consolidate this emerging alliance into meaningful actions to deter Iran and transform the overlap in interests into enduring relationships. The Palestinian issue, as the prime arena for the power play of regional forces, is a pivotal avenue to close the current vacuum. And this is where the Arab Peace Initiative comes back into play.

One of the recently mooted changes to this initiative is the adoption of the model currently in use in negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, that of gestures of goodwill before a fully fledged agreement — or even full blown negotiations — is in place. As recently reported by the Israeli daily Haaretz, the US expects the Arab states to take steps towards normalization as gestures of goodwill towards Israel. Obama made this explicit in his 18 May press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when the president stated that “Arab states have to be more supportive and be bolder in seeking potential normalization with Israel.”

The last 15 years of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has more than proven the failure of this model. Goodwill, or outright collaboration by the Palestinian Authority, led only to the entrenchment of Israel’s colonial system. The Arab League’s campaign of normalization will contribute to enhance the international legitimacy of Israel’s racist regime, this in spite of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s open rejection of the plan. Ironic.

Western-aligned Arab regimes have already already taken significant steps towards normalization. They cheered the last two Israeli massacres, Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009, refusing to take decisive steps towards a ceasefire. Egypt and Saudi Arabia boycotted an Arab League meeting in January, buying time for Israel to “finish the job” in Gaza. Last April, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia took another massive step towards full normalization and met with Israel’s president, war criminal Shimon Peres in New York. Fearing backlash, the Saudi propaganda machine was quick to deny such a meeting took place. (The trend has not been uniform however; responding to public outrage at Israel’s Gaza massacre, Qatar closed in January an Israeli trade office it had hosted for years as part of normalization steps taken since the 1993 Oslo accords.)

In light of these state-led efforts to normalize Israel’s ethnic cleansing and ghettoization of the Palestinians under a racist apartheid regime, how can we bring back into the equation principles of justice, equality and human rights? How can we ensure the refugees are afforded the right to return to their homes, that there is equality between Israelis and Palestinians, and ultimately the peace with justice?

When governments consistently fail to act in support of these principles, pursuing instead undemocratic agendas, ordinary people should take the struggle into their own hands. People of conscience around the world should step up efforts for boycott, divestments and sanctions (BDS) of Israel as per the 2005 call of Palestinian civil society organizations. This will ultimately become a powerful force capable of counteracting state-led efforts to legitimize Israel’s system of oppression. Israel is waging a battle for legitimacy and as Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director recently admitted, BDS has the potential to shift the odds in favor of justice. These grassroots efforts are particularly timely in Arab and Muslim countries, where there isn’t yet a significant movement to this end, at a time where their despotic governments are raising the white flag of surrender to Israel.

Ziyaad Lunat is an activist for Palestine and co-founder of the Palestine Solidarity Initiative (www.palestinesolidarity.org). He can be reached at z.lunat A T gmail D O T com.