Ivanka Trump and US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin stand next to the dedication plaque at the US embassy in Jerusalem, during the dedication. Photo: Reuters/Ronen Zvulun
Ivanka Trump and then-US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin stand next to the dedication plaque at the US Embassy in Jerusalem in 2018. Photo: Reuters / Ronen Zvulun

Nearly 73 years after it began to unleash havoc on the Middle East, little has changed in the dynamics of the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. World powers and international organizations seem to have thrown in the towel, conceding that they are incapable of remedying the impasse, and as time goes by, diplomacy and fence-mending prove more evasive.

In the final days of the US administration of Donald Trump, the dawning of the Abraham Accords, through which a handful of Arab countries initiated diplomatic relations with Israel, offered solace to the Jewish state, boosting its foothold at the doorstep of its arch-nemesis, Iran.

To the Palestinians scrambling for sovereignty, though, the announcements mostly gave the impression of a stab in the back by their fellow Arabs who now appeared to be prioritizing their economic and security interests rather than what had been an ideological cause for several years.

On March 23, Israelis went to the polls for the fourth time in two years to elect members of the Knesset. The incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clinched an easy victory and his right-wing Likud Party secured a 24.19% majority of the seats.

As he had implied on a number of occasions, furthering settlement constructions in the West Bank, notwithstanding what international law says, would be on the top of the agenda, while peace talks destined to achieve an understanding with Palestinians would play second fiddle to his other ambitions.

The United States, traditionally aspiring to function as an intermediary in the conflict, may decide under President Joe Biden to retract the carte blanche Trump had offered Israelis to annex Palestinian lands at will. Biden has instructed that $235 million in US aid to Palestinians, two-thirds of which will go to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), is to be reinstated.

That said, he hasn’t yet named a special envoy to work on the Israel-Palestine portfolio, and some observers say a breakthrough shouldn’t be expected in the US policy.

Asia Times spoke to Greg Shupak (left), a Canadian author, activist and lecturer in media studies at the University of Guelph, to discuss the recent normalization accords between Israel and Arab states in the Middle East and North Africa, the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, and the US government’s stance on the ongoing conflict at the heart of the region.

Kourosh Ziabari: Israel has been working in recent months to formalize its relations with a number of Arab countries, and initiated official diplomatic ties with Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates, with more normalization accords pending. What are the reasons behind Israel’s enthusiasm to forge friendly ties with Arab states? What are these governments’ incentives for forming new alliances with Israel?

Greg Shupak: Israel has normalized ties with the countries you mention plus Morocco, and would like to do so with other nations in North Africa and West Asia, because Israel sees these steps as a way of removing the Palestinian question from the agenda.

By having a functional relationship with as many countries in its neighborhood as possible, Israel can be seen as a state like any other, as if it weren’t keeping millions of refugees from returning to their homes, engaged in more than 50 years of military occupation, and practicing open discrimination against 20% of people who hold Israeli citizenship, namely the Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Iran is also a factor. Israel and the countries with which it has recently normalized relations were incentivized to reach these agreements so as to form a united front against Iran….

Israel already had varying degrees of relationships with these countries’ governments but normalization sends a signal that they will no longer even pretend to care about the Palestinians and thus can openly line up with Israel against Iran.

Economic considerations are at work, as well. Capitalists in each of these countries welcome the investment opportunities normalization entails and care little – if at all – about such matters as Palestinian liberation or the devastation a military conflict with Iran would entail.

Of course, the warmongering against Iran and the financial enticements go hand-in-hand: Normalization allows weapons sales to proliferate between Israel and its friends in the Gulf and North Africa and the United States, which is overseeing these developments.

KZ: Palestinians have raised a number of demands on different occasions as preconditions for an agreement with Israel. They include being entitled to an independent Palestinian state, recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Will Israel ever grant Palestinians such rights?

GS: I frankly cannot imagine a scenario in which someone from one of what are presently the major parties in Israel suddenly permits Palestinians to have the fundamental rights that they are afforded under international law and, frankly, any defensible standard of justice.

Several conditions would have to shift dramatically for Israel to end the apartheid system it has built from the river to the sea. These would include another sustained Palestinian popular uprising and a massive Palestine solidarity movement, crucially in the countries [that are] most responsible for Israel’s actions such as the United States, Canada, the UK, and the EU nations.

A broad, pro-Palestinian movement on the Israeli side of the Green Line may also be a necessary component.

KZ: The West Bank and the Gaza Strip are gravely suffering from deep economic crises and unemployment. What is the responsibility of the international community regarding this undesirable situation? Is it possible for these regions to attain economic stability while the occupation persists?

GS: The humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza is a direct consequence of Israel’s merciless siege of the territory. I’m not sure there is such a thing as “the international community,” since there are major divisions and tensions among nation-states, but it is clear that the United States and its partners are directly responsible for the dire conditions in Gaza.

After all, the US gives Israel $3 billion a year in military aid that Israel can use to enforce the siege that crushes Gaza’s economy by severely constraining its ability to import and export goods and the ability of labor to move in and out of the territory.

Not to mention that the siege also denies such things as clean water, power, and medicine to Gaza residents – most of whom, of course, are refugees….

The economic challenges Palestinians in the West Bank face are also inseparable from Israeli colonization and occupation of the territory, which prevent Palestinians from controlling factors like the value of the currency used in their lands and hence also inflation.

Israel also determines who is allowed to move into, out of, and within the West Bank, which gives it control over labor and capital flows as well as tourism.

KZ: Do you think the United States is currently capable of playing the role of an effective and impartial intermediary in establishing peace between Israel and Palestine, and is fulfilling that role prudently?

GS: The United States cannot mediate Palestine-Israel because the US is a party to Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians. Israel would not be able to do what it does to the Palestinians without the US giving it the necessary political, economic, and military support.

KZ: What will be the elements of an all-encompassing solution or agreement that settles the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians and removes the specter of this seven-decade-old conflict from the Middle East?

GS: I can’t predict the future but I cannot imagine a scenario wherein there is a workable agreement that sees Palestinians give up the right of their refugees to return. They haven’t for more than 70 years…. It’s likewise hard for me to imagine the Palestinians agreeing to live as second-class citizens in their homeland.

Maybe Israel and the US will eventually find a Palestinian “leader” who agrees to such things – or I should say, another one, because [Yasser] Arafat effectively did at Oslo – but I’ll be shocked if the majority of the Palestinian population ever accepts such things as a “solution” for any length of time.

It’s not for me to dictate how everyone across historic Palestine lives but my personal opinion is that a single, democratic state from the river to the sea – one to which Palestinian refugees have been allowed to return – without special privileges for any one ethno-religious group, is the best way to resolve Palestine-Israel. Ideally, I’d like this to be a socialist state, but I probably shouldn’t get greedy and ask for too much.

KZ: In December 2017, then-president Donald Trump announced the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, followed by the US moving its embassy to the city. Trump’s announcement was repudiated by a majority of world leaders. How do you think this decision will affect the balance of power between the Israelis and the Palestinians?

GS: Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was a way for Trump and his Israeli allies to try to legitimize Israel’s control and annexation of Jerusalem. It gives Israel a further bargaining chip to be able to say that the US has blessed Israeli hegemony over the city.

However, the move has minimal effects on the balance of power between the Israelis and the Palestinians. While America’s official policy did not previously recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, the US’s alleged opposition to Israeli domination of the city did not change the fact that Israel had the world’s sole superpower as its generous sponsor.

Furthermore, Israel had already been occupying the entire city since 1967 and populating it with illegal settlements while demolishing Palestinians’ homes. Trump saying that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital might have a minor diplomatic and ideological impact, but this primarily symbolic move does little to shift an already lopsided balance of power that features one state with over 200 nuclear weapons occupying a people with zero.

KZ: How do you think the Joe Biden administration will craft its Middle East policy, particularly with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Do you expect a marked departure from Trump’s overly pro-Israel stance?

GS: I expect that Biden administration will have a minor shift in tone from Trump’s. The Biden government will probably mutter about how Israel should stop illegally building settlements in occupied territory, but there is nothing to indicate that Biden will make Israel face any significant consequences for doing so.

Moreover, Tony Blinken, Biden’s secretary of state, has already said that the new administration won’t reverse Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and won’t relocate the US embassy from the city, where Trump had moved it from Tel Aviv.

When one looks at the personnel filling out the Biden government, it’s basically the third Obama administration, so I see no reason to believe that Biden would withhold support for Israel should it, say, launch a massive assault on Gaza the way Israel did twice when [Barack] Obama was in office and once just before he came into power, receiving Obama’s unflinching support in each case.

Nor do I expect that Biden would push for a meaningful, just resolution to the question of Palestine considering that he rarely misses an opportunity to declare his affinity for the US-Israeli special relationship and considering that the administration in which he was vice-president pursued diplomatic initiatives calling on Palestinians to forgo the right of their refugees to return while insisting that they accept a Bantustan as a so-called state.

KZ: Has the Canadian government, under the leadership of Justin Trudeau, ever used its leverage on Israel to persuade the Jewish state to moderate its policy of occupation and settlement enterprise in the West Bank? In what ways have the policies of the Trudeau government differed from those of his Conservative predecessor, Stephen Harper?

GS: The Trudeau government has been a staunch defender of Israel, with rare exceptions. Canada did cast UN votes in favor of Palestinian self-determination in 2019 and 2020 but it appears that this was meant as a rebuke of Netanyahu in particular, rather than the longer-term entrenching of Israeli apartheid.

The measure also seems to have been part of Canada’s failed campaign to secure a seat on the Security Council. These rather toothless UN votes mean little in practice, though. Trudeau attacks the Palestinian rights movement BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] at every opportunity, wrongly insinuating that it’s anti-Semitic.

He wouldn’t even condemn Israeli massacres of Palestinian civilians during the Great March of Return – like Israel, Canada is itself founded on an ongoing process of violent colonial dispossession of the indigenous population.

Meanwhile, Canadian and Israeli economic ties remain deep, and the Canadian government goes on being part of the same US-led imperial alliance as Israel, one that is defined by the oppression and exploitation of peoples across the Arab-majority countries, and that can only be undone by solidarity between anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist mass movements, from West Asia to inside the metropolitan nations.

Kourosh Ziabari is an Iranian journalist and reporter. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow. Kourosh was named a finalist in the category of Local Reporter of the Year in the 2020 Kurt Schork Awards in International Journalism.