Category Archives: Syrian Golan Heights

Annexation: How Israel Already controls More than Half of the West Bank

A state of de facto annexation already exists on the ground in most of the occupied West Bank.

Almost two-thirds of the Palestinian territory, including most of its most fertile and resource-rich land, is under full Israeli control. About 400,000 Jewish settlers living there enjoy the full rights and privileges of Israeli citizens.

At least 60 pieces of legislation were drafted by right-wing members of the Knesset during the last parliament to move Israel from a state of de facto to de jure annexation, according to a database by Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group.

Yesh Din points out that the very fact that some of these bills have passed as laws constitutes a form of annexation: “The Israel Knesset [now] regards itself as the legislative authority in the West Bank and the sovereign there.”

Paradoxically, many of those bills were opposed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, even though they were drafted from within his own ruling coalition.

Netanyahu argued that it would be wrong to pre-empt US President Donald Trump’s peace plan, implying that annexation is high on the agenda.

Leaked details suggest that Washington is now preparing to green-light the formal annexation of at least some of that territory as part of its deal-making, though Netanyahu’s political difficulties and his decision to call another election in September could mean putting details on ice once again.

The Golan precedent

Three recent developments have also brought the idea of Israel annexing parts or all of the West Bank onto the agenda.

In March, US President Donald Trump recognised Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, seized from Syria during the 1967 war and annexed by Israel in 1981 in violation of international law. The US decision suggested a precedent whereby it might similarly approve a move by Israel to annex the West Bank.

In April, in the run-up to Israel’s general election, Netanyahu said he would use the next parliament to “extend sovereignty” to all illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, using a phrase preferred by Israeli politicians to “annexation”.

About 400,000 settlers live in the West Bank in 150 official settlements and another 120 so-called “unauthorised” outposts that have been covertly sponsored by the Israeli state since the 1990s. These settlements have jurisdiction over 42 percent of West Bank territory.

In early June, the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, a stalwart supporter of the settlements and one of the architects of Trump’s supposed “deal of the century”, told the New York Times that he believed Israel was “on the side of God” and said: “Under certain circumstances, I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.”

Support in Israel growing

Support in Israel for annexation is growing, with 42 percent backing one of several variants in a recent poll, as opposed to 34 percent who were behind a two-state solution. Only 28 percent of Israelis explicitly rejected annexation.

Behind the scenes, debates about formally annexing the Palestinian territories have been rife in Israel since it occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza in 1967.

Successive Israeli governments, however, have demurred out of concern both that there would be strong international objections (most UN member states would be opposed to the annexation of territory recognised as illegally occupied in international law) and that Israel would be under pressure to give Palestinians in annexed areas citizenship, including the right to vote, that would undermine its Jewish majority.

Senior government ministers such as Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon were among the early proponents of annexing parts of the West Bank. They drew up maps for a permanent settlement programme that would allow Israel to hold on to swathes of the West Bank, especially the most fertile land and the aquifers.

Through the late 1970s and 1980s, a justice ministry official, Plia Albeck, declared large areas of the West Bank “state land”, allowing the government to treat it as effectively part of Israel and build settlements.

Speeding tickets and police stations

Israel has applied its laws to the settler population and dozens of Israeli police stations located in the West Bank operate as if the territory has been annexed, issuing speeding tickets and enforcing other infractions on Palestinians. Palestinians’ ultimate recourse to adjudication on legal matters is Israel’s Supreme Court.

In 2011, that court decided that Israel was allowed to exploit more than a dozen quarries, one of the Palestinians’ key resources, because the occupation had become “prolonged” – a ruling that treated the West Bank as if it had been de facto annexed.

Since the Olso accords, Israeli leaders have tended to pay lip service to Palestinian statehood, at some distant future point. But in practice, they have encouraged the rapid expansion of the settlements. This policy is sometimes referred to as “creeping annexation”.

A number of variants have been advanced by the Israeli right, ranging from the annexation of all Palestinian territories, including Gaza, to annexation limited to certain areas of the West Bank.

How Oslo gave Israel control

The main framework for the Israeli debate about annexation is the Oslo process which temporarily carved up the occupied West Bank into Areas A, B and C as a prelude, it was assumed, to eventually transferring sovereignty to the Palestinian Authority.

Area C, 62 per cent of the West Bank, is under full Israeli control and where the settlements are located. It is also where most of the water, agricultural and mineral resources are to be found.

Area B, 20 percent, is under Israeli security control and Palestinian civil control. And Area A – mainly Palestinian built-up areas on 18 percent of the West Bank – is nominally under full Palestinian control.

The option favoured by most of Netanyahu’s Likud party involves the annexation of areas populated with settlers, or about 40 percent of the West Bank mostly located in Area C.

This option would keep West Bank Palestinians outside the annexed areas and make it easier to avoid conferring any residency or citizenship rights on them. The Palestinian Authority would be given “limited autonomy” – a kind of glorified municipal role – over the remaining fragments of the West Bank.

To the right of Likud, opinions range from annexing all of Area C to annexing the entire West Bank and Gaza, and the creation of Palestinian “Bantustans” modelled on South Africa’s racist apartheid system. Some propose a “salami” method, with Israel gradually slicing off more of the West Bank.

The Israeli centre-left fears formal annexation not only violates international law but will damage Israel’s image abroad by encouraging comparisons with apartheid-era South Africa. In the absence of a Palestinian state, a minority of Jews might soon be ruling over a majority of Palestinians.

The centre-left is also concerned about the costs of annexation. Commanders for Israel’s Security, a group of retired security officials, argue that annexation will lead to the inevitable collapse of the Palestinian Authority.

As a result, they believe Israel would incur annual costs of between $2.3bn and $14.5bn, depending on the extent of the West Bank area annexed. There would also be a loss of $2.5bn in foreign investments. Palestinian uprisings could cost Israel’s economy as much as $21bn.

Right-wing economists like Amatzia Samkai of the Caucus for Eretz Israel say Israel will benefit economically. If Area C is annexed, only a small number of Palestinians will be entitled to Israeli welfare payments, he says. Such costs, he adds, can be more than offset by an expanded labour force and a drop in real-estate prices after West Bank land is freed up for house building by Israelis.

Knesset ‘sovereign’ in West Bank already

Of the 60 pieces of draft annexation legislation brought before the Knesset, eight have passed into law.

The main laws that have been passed include:

  • annulling a special council overseeing higher education in West Bank settlements and transferring its powers to the main Israel Council for Higher Education.
  • approving retroactively the theft of private Palestinian land used to build settlements. The previous official position was that settlements should be built only on land Israel had declared state land because it was not owned by Palestinians.
  • extending benefits available in Israel – from tax exemptions and egg production quotas to renewable energy investments – to West Bank settlements.
  • unifying the criminal register used by police in Israel and the West Bank.
  • transferring powers to adjudicate matters involving the West Bank to lower courts in Israel.
  • prohibiting businesses from refusing to supply services to West Bank settlements.

In addition, Yesh Din notes, Israel has recently shifted its diplomatic position and legal arguments to the courts in relation to the West Bank.

It has rejected the West Bank’s status as being under occupation, asserted Israel’s authority to operate there and eroded the obligation to protect the rights and property of the Palestinian population.

Another significant piece of legislation Netanyahu is known to favour – chiefly for personal reasons because it could be used to protect him from corruption indictments – is an Override Law.

The measure is being aggressively promoted by settler groups because it would strip Israel’s Supreme Court of judicial review powers to block legislation annexing the West Bank.

Palestinian support?

On the Palestinian side, a tiny number, mostly business leaders, have backed annexation of the West Bank. They have been cultivated by the Trump administration as a potential alternative leadership to the Palestinian Authority. Most Palestinians consider them traitors or collaborators.

Hebron businessman Ashraf Jabari, for example, has entered into a partnership with settler counterparts in the “Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce”, using the settlers’ Biblical name for the West Bank.

The chamber promotes joint ventures such as shopping centres along West Bank main roads, tourism initiatives and infrastructure projects.

Jabari and others have consciously sought to package annexation on Israeli terms as similar to the one-state agenda of a growing section of the Palestinian population, especially those supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS).

“We have to think about this area as one entity, not two entities and two realities,” he told journalists recently.

Certainly, there are Palestinians who consider annexation and Israel’s direct re-occupation of the West Bank, unmediated by the PA, as a necessary condition for Palestinians launching a civil rights or anti-apartheid struggle to realise a genuine one-state solution.

• First published in Middle East Eye

Was that the Next Palestinian President You Just Banned, Mr Trump?

Hanan Ashrawi, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee Member, speaks to journalists at UN Headquarters. (UN Photo/Evan Schneider)

Grandma Ashrawi is more than a match for Israel’s stooges in the White House and whatever ‘deal of the century’ they have cooked up for the Holy Land

So the Trump administration will no longer allow Hanan Ashrawi into the US even though she’s a top diplomat, has family there and visits regularly. Why?

A US State Department spokesperson told Haaretz that “visa records are confidential under US law; therefore, we cannot discuss the details of individual visa cases”, adding that the law “does not authorize the refusal of visas based solely on political statements or views if those statements or views would be lawful in the United States.”

Ashrawi is reported as saying, in her forthright way, that refusal to let her in was a political act and full of “pettiness and vindictiveness.”

Ashrawi, a Palestinian Christian, is something of a hot potato. She was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council representing Jerusalem in 1996 and again in 2006. She has been a member of the Executive Committee of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) for 20 years, becoming the first woman to hold a seat in the highest executive body in Palestine. It is recognised as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people by the 137 states with which it has diplomatic relations. Ashrawi’s father, a physician, was a founder of the PLO.

She has a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Literature from the Department of English at the American University of Beirut and completed her education with a PhD in Medieval and Comparative Literature from the University of Virginia. She is also an Honorary Fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford.

Ashrawi has been an official spokes of the Palestinian delegation to the Middle East peace process starting with the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991. In 1996, she was appointed as the Palestinian Authority Minister of Higher Education and Research. Before that she was Dean of the Faculty of Arts at Birzeit University.

In 2003 Ashrawi received the Sydney Peace Prize, an award praised by, among others, Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State. Albright called Ashrawi “a brilliant spokeswoman for her cause”.

Ashrawi, now 72, is a grandmother, and several of her grandchildren live in the United States. So why is America hostile towards her?

Israeli occupation “a most pervasive form of oppression, dispossession and denial”

In a recent article in Al Jazeera, Marwan Bishara reminds us that for the past year and a half Trump and his administration have been showering Benjamin Netanyahu and his apartheid regime with anti-Palestinian ‘gifts’…. like recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv, ending US assistance to UNRWA (the agency that supports millions of Palestinian refugees), quitting the UN Human Rights Council and shutting down the PLO’s office in Washington.

As if that wasn’t enough the Trump administration has stopped describing the West Bank and East Jerusalem (which are Palestinian) as “occupied” and instead calls them “Israeli-controlled”. This gives Netanyahu all the encouragement he needs for expanding Israel’s illegal settlements and pledging to annex them. To cap it all Trump then delivered Netanyahu a splendid election present in recognising Israel’s illegal annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights. Of course, whatever Trump says that territory is still Syria’s.

Western media, when providing ‘balance’ to news on the Israel/Palestine conflict, usually wheel in a Palestinian spokesperson who is unintelligible. Israeli spokespeople on the other hand are media trained and sound very British/American, giving them a huge advantage. Ashrawi has perfect English and is a highly articulate and persuasive woman – an unrivaled expert in Middle East affairs — and capable of reducing Trump and his entourage to mincemeat in any broadcast encounter. Therefore she poses a clear and present danger to their hopes of putting across and maintaining the false narrative that sustains Israel’s rogue dominance in the Middle East.

Haaretz reproduces some of Hanan Ashrawi’s recent tweets. In one she says:

I despise hypocrisy, misogyny, absolutist fundamentalism, populism, racism of all kinds, exclusivity, arrogance & condescension, power politics & militarism, cruelty in any form, & any sense of entitlement & exceptionalism…

In another:

Most of all, I have no tolerance for the Israeli occupation in all its manifestations as a most pervasive form of oppression, dispossession & denial; I have no respect for the enablers of this inhuman condition nor for its apologists…

She tells it straight. And in her tweets she adds:

I’ve met (and even negotiated with) every Sec. of State since Shultz, and every President since George H. W. Bush (present administration excluded); I’ve been a vocal critic of this administration and its underlings; I believe in freedom of speech.

This is one formidable lady! I have her down as the next Palestinian president, head and shoulders above any male candidates. But will the good people of Palestine have a say in the matter? The presidency of Mahmoud Abbas, the quisling loser, should have ended in 2009. But the corrupt system he presides over has allowed him to cling to power indefinitely, to his people’s great detriment.

Saudi’Israeli’a

Only a few years ago this geo-political portmanteau would have seemed fanciful to farcical.  Saudi Arabia, that theocratic monarchy, and Israel, a Western-styled democracy?  But times have changed, and all signs point to a confluence of interest between these two ideologically opposed, Middle Eastern states.  Moreover, this curious confluence flows through the Mesopotomac swamp of Washington, D.C.

As a sign of things to kingdom come, President Trump’s first foreign foray was to Riyadh (not Moscow), for some symbolic sword-dancing and weird orb-touching.  From there, Trump dutifully flew to Tel Aviv. Trump’s trip was a tip of the hat to what his regime’s foreign policy would be:  Saudi’Israeli’a First.

Since then, the Trump Folks have gone rogue by declaring Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital, in accordance with Israeli wishes, and, most recently, recognizing Israel’s illegal 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights.  Besides such signs of fealty to a foreign power, as there was no public American call for these moves in defiance of international consensus, the Trump Team is quite recently on record defending atrocities by both its Saudi and Israeli partners.

Indeed, on the very day that the United States “recognized” Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (May 14, 2018), Israeli Defense Forces shot up and massacred 60 Palestinians protesting in Gaza, leaving over 2,000 others bullet-wounded.  Bizarrely, Nikki Haley, then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, responded to this mass murder by indignantly accusing the Palestinians themselves of provoking Israel’s right to self-defense against the stone-throwing; or, what’s a Goliath to do against so many Davids?  Shoot to kill, apparently.  The U.S. Press won’t ask too many questions later; neither will the Saudis, for that matter.

Speaking of the Saudis: in the case of Jamal Khashoggi (or, What the Bone Saw?!), Trump’s handlers have provided exceptional cover for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s exhibition of gangsterism. Despite some pushback from Congress (even Saudi loyalist Senator Lindsey Graham cried “Heavens to Betsy Ross!” while washing Khasoggi’s blood off his face in a huff…), the Trump regime has used the assassination to re-affirm its supporting role in Saudi Arabia’s illegal war against Yemen.  In the Death Star eyes of Team Trump, the lives of Palestinians and Yemenis are equally irrelevant, evidently.

Of course, the ongoing Guernica in Yemen has been framed as a proxy war against Iran.  For reasons known only to Jared Kushner and that weird orb, perhaps, the Trump, Saudi, and Israeli regimes are all being confluenced by some otherworldly threat from the Islamic Republic.  This state of affairs naturally poses the real-world question: What threat, Iran?  None, as far as any reasonable eye can far see.

In terms of military spending alone, the Iranian juggernaut is dwarfed by the expenditures of its “regional superpower” rivals. Moreover, while the United States heavily subsidizes the Saudi’Israelians, it sanctions Iran, further enhancing this Middle Eastern imbalance of power.  It is also notable that Saudi Arabia currently spends more on its military than any country except for China and the USA, while Israel is the only Middle Eastern state with the complete suite of WMD–a fact rarely mentioned. In this context, the very real irony emerges that Iranian defense spending is literally for the defense of Iran.

So, Iran is back in the cross-hairs of the Regime Changelings.  There’s a new “Axis” in Southwest Eurasia, as Uncle Samson strains to maintain the Twin Pillars of American Middle Eastern policy–Saudi Arabia and Israel–while hurling hoary epithets toward Iran at the behest of these two “client states”.  Things go “Bump!” in the Arabian night, but does anyone seriously believe there’s an Iranian devil in the woodpile?  In Riyadh, Tel Aviv, and Wahhabington. D.C., the answer is an emphatic, fundamentalist, “Yes!”

This USA-KSA-Israel “Axis of Roguery” certainly presents a peculiar spectacle on the world stage.  The petrodollar system–or financialization of Oil–underpins the U.S.-Saudi relationship, while an irrational enmity toward Iran binds Israel and the Kingdom, despite the fact they don’t even have official relations.  Enter the con-man Trump, who fronts for neocon-men, to grease this unlikely–and possibly rickety–wheel.  As Trump unkosherly hogs the spotlight (Wart of the Deal?), the Saudi’Israelian true believers weave new war in the shadows of Trump’s tweets.

In the neologistical case of “Saudi’Israeli’a?”, then, I think we can safely drop the question mark.  However, we should keep in mind that this geo-political symbiosis is as inherently unstable as it is real–and really whipping the U.S. War Chariot into a renewed Crusade against the recycled villain du jour, Iran.

France and the EU: Recognizing Yet Supporting Apartheid Reality in Palestine

A recent statement made by the outgoing French Ambassador to the US regarding the nature of Israeli apartheid accentuates a larger ailment that has afflicted the European Union foreign policy.

The EU is simply gutless when it comes to confronting Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine.

Ambassador Gerard Araud was, of course, right when he told the US magazine, The Atlantic, that Israel is already an apartheid state.

Noting the “disproportion of power” between Israel and the Palestinians, Araud said, “The strongest (meaning Israel) may conclude that they have no interest to make concessions.”

And since Israel “won’t make (Palestinians) citizens of Israel  … they will have to make it official, which we know the situation, which is apartheid.” Araud added, “There will be officially an apartheid state. They are in fact already.”

The fact that Araud has only divulged such obvious truths at the end of his five-year diplomatic assignment is expressive of the nature of politics, in general, and European politics, in particular.

The unpleasant truth is that the EU has served as an American lackey in the Middle East and has consistently operated within Washington’s acceptable margins. EU diplomacy rarely ventures away from this maxim. The fact that Araud dared to speak out is the exception, not the rule.

But Araud’s revelations are unlikely to translate into anything substantive. Moreover, they will not inspire a serious rethink in the EU’s position regarding the Israeli occupation or the US’ blind support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s militant and racist policies towards the Palestinians.

Some had hoped that the advent of an erratic and abrasive president in the White House could jolt the Europeans into action. They were encouraged by the January 2017 Paris Middle East summit that took place, despite American protests.

More than 70 countries added their voices to that of their French host, declaring their opposition to the illegal Jewish settlements and calling for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state as “the only way” to achieving peace.

The summit’s final statement urged Israel and the Palestinians to “officially restate their commitment to the two-state solution.” Then-French President, François Hollande, explained that his country’s motive was to merely ensure the ‘two-state solution’ is the frame of reference for future negotiations.

But what good did that do? Israel and the US ignored the summit as if it never took place. Tel Aviv continued to pursue its Apartheid policies, crowning these efforts with the Nation-state Law in July, which declared Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people”.

Trump, too, ignored the French and the EU altogether. On December 15, 2016, he selected an ardent Israeli supporter, David Friedman, to be his Ambassador to Israel. Friedman opposes the two-state solution and still refers to the Occupied Palestinian Territories in some ancient biblical designations, Judea and Samaria.

Nor did Trump consider the French position when he moved his country’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem last May.

How did the EU respond to the concrete, albeit illegal, American actions? With more redundant statements that merely emphasized its political position but lacked any mechanism for serious action.

Last December, eight EU ambassadors, including that of France, issued a statement at the UN that was clearly aimed at the US. “We, the European Union members of the (UN Security) Council, would like to reiterate once more and emphasize the EU’s strong continued commitment to the internationally agreed parameters for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East, based on international law, relevant UN resolutions and previous agreements,” the statement read, in part.

Again, words and no action. The same pattern was repeated after Trump took it upon himself to grant the Occupied Syrian Golan Heights to Israel, defying the UN, the EU and, needless to say, the aspirations of millions of Arabs.

The EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, countered with another statement, on behalf of 28 EU states that Europe “does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights.”

So what? While the US defies international law with concrete steps, the EU settles for mere words, emphasizing a status quo that, even when it was embraced by Washington itself, wrought nothing but misery for Palestinians.

EU ineptness is only matched by its hypocrisy. Israel still enjoys advantageous trade privileges with Europe, and diplomatic ties between Israel and most EU member countries are at an all times high.

The only collective European initiative that seemed to matter at the time was in 2013, when the EU requested that Israeli products made in illegal Jewish settlements be labeled as such. After years of haggling, the EU admitted that monitoring Israeli trade practices as far as labeling is concerned has proven “impossible”.

The French position on trade with the illegal settlements was particularly disgraceful. While the Irish Senate had voted on December 5 to end the import of settlement-produced goods, in October 2018 the French did the exact opposite by suspending the special labeling rules.

In truth, the ineffectiveness of EU policies is nothing new, nor can it be blamed on Trump’s unilateral measures, either.  In fact, the words of French Ambassador Araud are consistent with the frustration felt by other EU diplomats throughout the years.

In February 2013, a report issued by EU diplomats described illegal Jewish settlements as “the biggest single threat to the two-state solution”, calling on Brussels to take decisive measures to stop Israel’s “deliberate and provocative” settlement enterprise.

It has been over six years since the report was issued. The EU did nothing to stop the illegal settlements, which have grown in leaps and bounds since then.

Worse, in the latest elections won by Netanyahu, he promised to annex the illegal Jewish settlements into Israel.

Considering the unconditional American support regarding Israel’s previous illegal annexations of Jerusalem and the Golan, this, too, could be a tangible reality in the near future. After all, the Jewish Nation-state law recognized Jewish settlements as “national value” and the state “will labor to encourage and promote (their) establishment and development.”

In the face of the US backing of Israel, EU foreign policy is inconsistent, weak and, ultimately, a failure. Alas, the idea which gained momentum during the early months of Trump’s presidency that the EU can develop a truly independent foreign policy position on Israel and Palestine has proven wrong.

To change all of that, EU members should heed the words of the French Ambassador, recognize the apartheid reality in Palestine and act against it as forcefully as the world acted against South African apartheid, which led to its final, irreversible collapse in 1994.

Trump’s Stance on the Golan will allow Israel to Operate with Impunity Elsewhere

When President Donald Trump moved the US embassy to occupied Jerusalem last year, effectively sabotaging any hope of establishing a viable Palestinian state, he tore up the international rulebook.

Last week, he trampled all over its remaining tattered pages. He did so, of course, via Twitter.

Referring to a large piece of territory Israel seized from Syria in 1967, Mr Trump wrote: “After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability.”

Israel expelled 130,000 Syrians from the Golan Heights in 1967, under cover of the Six Day War, and then annexed the territory 14 years later – in violation of international law. A small population of Syrian Druze are the only survivors of that ethnic cleansing operation.

Replicating its illegal acts in the occupied Palestinian territories, Israel immediately moved Jewish settlers and businesses into the Golan.

Until now, no country had recognised Israel’s act of plunder. In 1981, UN member states, including the US, declared Israeli efforts to change the Golan’s status “null and void”.

But in recent months, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu began stepping up efforts to smash that long-standing consensus and win over the world’s only superpower to his side.

He was spurred into action when Bashar Al Assad – aided by Russia – began to decisively reverse the territorial losses the Syrian government had suffered during the nation’s eight-year war.

The fighting dragged in a host of other actors. Israel itself used the Golan as a base from which to launch covert operations to help Mr Assad’s opponents in southern Syria, including Islamic State fighters. Iran and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, meanwhile, tried to limit Israel’s room for manoeuvre on the Syrian leader’s behalf.

Iran’s presence close by was how Mr Netanyahu publicly justified the need for Israel to take permanent possession of the Golan, calling it a vital buffer against Iranian efforts to “use Syria as a platform to destroy Israel”.

Before that, when Mr Assad was losing ground to his enemies, the Israeli leader made a different case. Then, he argued that Syria was breaking apart and its president would never be in a position to reclaim the Golan.

Mr Netanyahu’s current rationalisation is no more persuasive than the earlier one. Russia and the United Nations are already well advanced on re-establishing a demilitarised zone on the Syrian side of the separation-of-forces line. That would ensure Iran could not deploy close to the Golan Heights.

Mr Netanyahu is set to meet Mr Trump in Washington on Monday, when the president’s tweet will reportedly be converted into an executive order.

The timing is significant. This is another crude attempt by Mr Trump to meddle in Israel’s election, due on April 9. It will provide Mr Netanyahu with a massive fillip as he struggles against corruption indictments and a credible threat from a rival party, Blue and White, headed by former army generals.

Mr Netanyahu could barely contain his glee, reportedly calling Mr Trump to tell him: “You made history!”

But, in truth, this was no caprice. Israel and Washington have been heading in this direction for a while.

In Israel, there is cross-party support for keeping the Golan.

Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the US and a confidant of Mr Netanyahu’s, formally launched a plan last year to quadruple the size of the Golan’s settler population, to 100,000, within a decade.

The US State Department offered its apparent seal of approval last month when it included the Golan Heights for the first time in the “Israel” section of its annual human rights report.

This month, senior Republican senator Lindsey Graham made a very public tour of the Golan in an Israeli military helicopter, alongside Mr Netanyahu and David Friedman, Mr Trump’s ambassador to Israel. Mr Graham said he and fellow senator Ted Cruz would lobby the US president to change the territory’s status.

Mr Trump, meanwhile, has made no secret of his disdain for international law. This month, his officials barred entry to the US to staff from the International Criminal Court, based in The Hague, who are investigating US war crimes in Afghanistan.

The ICC has made enemies of both Washington and Israel in its initial, and meagre, attempts to hold the two to account.

Whatever Mr Netanyahu’s spin about the need to avert an Iranian threat, Israel has other, more concrete reasons for holding on to the Golan.

The territory is rich in water sources and provides Israel with decisive control over the Sea of Galilee, a large freshwater lake that is crucially important in a region facing ever greater water shortages.

The 1,200 square kilometres of stolen land is being aggressively exploited, from burgeoning vineyards and apple orchards to a tourism industry that, in winter, includes the snow-covered slopes of Mount Hermon.

As noted by Who Profits, an Israeli human rights organisation, in a report this month, Israeli and US companies are also setting up commercial wind farms to sell electricity.

And Israel has been quietly co-operating with US energy giant Genie to explore potentially large oil reserves under the Golan. Mr Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has family investments in Genie. But extracting the oil will be difficult, unless Israel can plausibly argue that it has sovereignty over the territory.

For decades the US had regularly arm-twisted Israel to enter a mix of public and back-channel peace talks with Syria. Just three years ago, Barack Obama supported a UN Security Council rebuke to Mr Netanyahu for stating that Israel would never relinquish the Golan.

Now Mr Trump has given a green light for Israel to hold on to it permanently.

But, whatever he says, the decision will not bring security for Israel, or regional stability. In fact, it makes a nonsense of Mr Trump’s “deal of the century” – a regional peace plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that, according to rumour, may be unveiled soon after the Israeli election.

Instead, US recognition will prove a boon for the Israeli right, which has been clamouring to annex vast areas of the West Bank and thereby drive a final nail into the coffin of the two-state solution.

Israel’s right can now plausibly argue: “If Mr Trump has consented to our illegal seizure of the Golan, why not also our theft of the West Bank?”

• First published in The National

Israel and the Golan Heights: A Wider Geopolitical Game

In the recent autumn session of the United Nations General Assembly a number of resolutions involving the Syrian Golan Heights occupied by Israel came up for debate and voting. A familiar pattern emerged. The first of the votes to be noted was UNGA Resolution A/C.4/73/L.20. The wording of this resolution was that the general Assembly “reaffirmed that Israel’s settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories including East Jerusalem are illegal and an obstacle to peace and social development”.

The second resolution, A/C.4/73/L.22 said that the General Assembly “determines that all legislation and administrative measures taken by Israel, the occupying Power, that purport to alter the character and legal status of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights are null and void.”  The wording of this resolution echoed the wording of United Nations Security Council resolution 497 of 17 December 1981, which was 37 years previously. That earlier resolution was passed unanimously; i.e. the United States included.

The third resolution, L/73/L.30 expressed the General Assembly’s deep concern “that Israel has not withdrawn from the Syrian Golan, which has been under occupation since 1967” (i.e. 51 years).

The voting on each resolution respectively was 154 in favour (with 6 No votes and 15 abstentions; 149: 2: and 22; and 99: 10: 66.

The United States, which was part of a unanimous Security Council vote in 1981 condemning Israel’s actions in the Golan Heights as “null and void” was one of the two ‘No’ votes in the second resolution referred to above. The other No vote, unsurprisingly, was Israel. The United States and Israel both voted ‘No’ to the other two resolutions as well. Australia abstained in respect of each of the three votes.

This voting pattern and the debate that surrounded them is significant for a number of reasons.

The first reason is that it unequivocally demonstrates that where Israel is concerned there is a different standard applied by the United States (and Australia) where breaches of international law are concerned.

It is indisputable that land occupied by conquest cannot be returning by the occupying power, much less incorporated into the administrative regime of the occupying power. Yet this is precisely what Israel has done, first by maintaining its occupation post the 1967 Six Day War, and then in 1981 purporting to incorporate the Golan Heights into its own administrative territory.

It is not difficult to envisage the rhetoric from the United States if Russia or China had made any similar moves. One has only to recall the incessant barrage of propaganda from the United States and its allies about “Russian aggression” when Crimea was reincorporated into the Russian Federation following an overwhelming popular vote.

The United States is similarly making threats against China after President Xi made a speech recently pointing out that Taiwan was part of China and that reunification was a goal for the near future. The United States accepted that Taiwan was part of China until 1949 when the Nationalists were defeated in the civil war.

As the Americans showed by voting against a resolution that they had previously been part of a unanimous Security Council in accepting, consistency is not their strong suit. The withdrawal from the antiballistic missile treaty in 2001, and from an INF treaty in 2018, and their abandonment of the JCPOA in 2018 are further illustrations of that point.

It also lays bare, yet again, the hypocrisy of western political leaders, notably in the United States and Australia, who forever trumpet their alleged commitment to the “rules based international order”.

There is no clearer example over a sustained period of time of Israel’s total disregard for international law than in their treatment of the Palestinians and the continued illegal occupation of the Golan Heights. Neither of these examples is the subject of public criticism by American or Australian politicians, and judging by their voting behaviour in the United Nations, support for Israel’s actions is either tacit or explicit.

Earlier in January 2019 two United States Republican Senators, Cruz and Cotton, went public in a joint statement that was remarkable for its complete disregard for international law, its equally cavalier disregard for the factual situation in the Middle East, and for its display of what is best described by the Hebrew word “chutzpah” (insolence, cheek or audacity).

Cruz and Cotton’s statement said, in part:

Responding to the threat posed by Iran and its proxies requires ensuring that Israel can defend its territory and its citizens from attack. To support Israel’s right to self defence, Washington should take the long overdue step of affirming Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

This is a frankly bizarre departure from reality and a number of commentators have already pointed this out.1  It came at the same time as National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were making equally absurd statements on their recent foray to Middle Eastern capitals.2

Even if Israel had legitimate self-defence concerns, occupying the territory of a neighbouring state is neither feasible nor legal. There must therefore be an alternative explanation for Israel’s continued disregard for international law, the extraordinary public comments of two senior members of the Trump administration, and the pattern of behaviour of United States in the region, notwithstanding the recent erratic and contradictory behaviour of its leadership.

One possible explanation that fits the known facts, and which incidentally also helps explain the extraordinary lack of criticism by Western nations of Israel’s continued illegal occupation of the Golan Heights, can be found in the activities of an American company called Genie Energy.

This little-known company is headquartered in Newark, New Jersey. Its strategic advisory board includes such luminaries as Dick Cheney (former US vice president under Bush Jr); James Woolsey (former CIA director); Larry Summers (former head of the US Treasury); Rupert Murdoch (chairman of News Corporation among other media interests); and Jacob Rothschild. It would be hard to nominate a better-connected group of people, all of them noted for a strong pro-Israel bias.

Genie Energy, through its subsidiary Afek Oil and Gas, was granted an oil exploration license for the occupied Golan Heights by the Israeli government. Needless to say, the Syrian government was not consulted.

As far back as October 2015 Afek discovered oil reserves in the Golan Heights, with a potential yield estimated at billions of barrels3 Actually developing those vast reserves would require the solidification of Israel’s control over the occupied territory.

It cannot legally do that, although lack of legality has never been a hindrance to Israel since 1948. Its de facto control of the Golan Heights, however, is key to understanding Israel’s moves in the Middle East since 1967. In recent years Israel’s support for terrorist groups fighting the Assad Government in Syria is destined in part to keep the Syrian army and Iranian supported Hezbollah from challenging Israel’s control of the Golan Heights. It is not a coincidence that Israeli territory proper has not suffered a single ISIS inspired attack although prima facie one might have thought that a Jewish state would be anathema to Islamic fundamentalists.

The evidence is now overwhelming that Israel has been one of the main supporters of ISIS because it suited their own wider geopolitical ambitions.4  When a jihadist group occupied some small towns in the Israeli controlled Golan Heights in February 2017, the Israeli army and air force took no steps to oppose them.

Israel’s ambitions for the Golan Heights are matched by the United States in northern Syria where the area it occupies (also illegally) provided 90% of Syria’s pre-war oil production. Both the United States and Israel have long intended to build a pipeline to provide gas to Europe, supplanting Russia as Europe’s principal supplier.

As Robert Kennedy Jr pointed out5 US plans began in 2000 with a $10 billion 1500 km pipeline from Qatar through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Turkey. It was when Syria rejected their proposed role in the plan in 2009 (as it would jeopardise their relationship with Russia) that the CIA began funding terrorist groups in Syria.

Seen in this broader context, the blatant ongoing illegality of Israel’s occupation of the Golan, the US deep state’s strong desire to remain in northern Syria, the sanctions against Russia, the overt threats against German companies involved in Nord Stream 2,6 and the suppression of most of this material in the western mainstream media (in which Murdoch is a dominant figure) all form part of a long-term set of plans hatched in Washington and Tel Aviv that have nothing to do with the rights and freedoms of the Syrian people.

As courageous independent journalists on the ground in Syria such as Vanessa Beeley have amply demonstrated7, the ordinary people of Syria are but pawns in a wider geopolitical game. In the extraordinary chaos and destruction that the illegal western intervention in Syria has caused, Australia has played a small but significant role.

Actually detecting a benefit to Australia in all of this is more than elusive, but as John Menadue recently pointed out8 for all their protestations about the rule of law and shared western values, the reality is that western politicians have always sacrificed principle for geopolitical expediency.

In the rapidly changing geopolitical framework brought about by Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015 and a consequent shifting of alliances by key players such as Turkey, it remains to be seen whether the untenable ambitions of Israel and the United States can be brought to fruition. 2019 looks to be no less dangerous than the year just past.

  1. Moon of Alabama 10 January 2019.
  2. See, for example, Strategic Culture Foundation 15 January 2019.
  3. The Economist, ‘Black Gold Under the Golan, 7 November 2015.
  4. Haaretz, 8 September 2018.
  5. Ecowatch, 25 February 2016, Another Pipeline War.
  6. DW, 14 January 1019.
  7. 21st Century Wire, 17 October 2018.
  8. John Menadue, 15 January 2019.

What’s in Trump’s “Deal of the Century”? The Answers are in Plain Sight

There are mounting signals that Donald Trump’s much-delayed Middle East peace plan – billed as the “deal of the century” – is about to be unveiled.

Even though Trump’s officials have given away nothing publicly, the plan’s contours are already evident, according to analysts.

They note that Israel has already started implementing the deal – entrenching “apartheid” rule over Palestinians – while Washington has spent the past six months dragging its heels on publishing the document.

“Netanyahu has simply got on with deepening his hold on the West Bank and East Jerusalem – and he knows the Americans aren’t going to stand in his way,” said Michel Warschawski, an Israeli analyst and head of the Alternative Information Centre in Jerusalem.

“He will be given free rein to do what he likes, whether they publish the plan or, in the end, it never sees the light of day,” he told Middle East Eye.

Eran Etzion, a former Israeli foreign ministry official, agreed: “Israel has a much freer hand than it did in the past. It feels confident enough to continue its existing policies, knowing Trump won’t stand in the way.”

Netanyahu ‘the winner’

According to the latest reports, the Americans may present their plan within days, soon after the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Yossi Alpher, a former aide to Ehud Barak during his premiership in the late 1990s, said it was clear Netanyahu was being “kept in the loop” by Trump officials. He told MEE: “He is being apprised of what is coming. There won’t be any surprises for him.”

Analysts are agreed that Netanyahu will emerge the winner from any Trump initiative.

Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli politician who was a pivotal figure in the Oslo peace process of the early 1990s, said Netanyahu would cynically manipulate the plan to his advantage.

“He knows the Palestinians will not accept the terms they are being offered,” he told MEE. “So he can appear reasonable and agree to it – even if there are things he is unhappy with – knowing that the Palestinians will reject it and then be blamed for its failure.”

Alpher agreed. “If the plan is rejected, Trump will say he did his best, he offered the parties the greatest deal ever, and that they must now be left to settle the issues on their own.”

He added that the only obstacle to Washington presenting the plan were fears about Abbas’s waning health. Trump’s team might then prefer to shelve it.

Even then, he said, Netanyahu would profit.

“He can then continue with what he’s been doing for the past 10 years. He will expand the settlements, and suppress the rights of Israelis who oppose him. He will move Israel towards a situation of apartheid.”

Fragments of land

In an early effort to win Trump’s favour, reported by MEE a year ago, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas proposed a land swap ceding 6.5 percent of the occupied territories to Israel. That was more than three times what had been accepted by the Palestinians in previous peace talks.

But the Palestinians appear to have lost the battle and are now braced for the worst. Abbas has derided the plan as “the slap of the century”, and has said he will not commit “treason” by agreeing to it.

According to Palestinian officials, they are likely to be offered provisional borders over fragments of land comprising about half the occupied territories – or just 11 percent of what was recognised as Palestine under the British mandate.

The Palestinian areas would be demilitarised, and Israel would have control over the borders and airspace.

Israel and the Palestinians would then be left to “negotiate” over the status of Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, with Trump likely to back Netanyahu to the hilt, according to the analysts.

It is widely assumed that the Americans have rejected any principle of a right of return for Palestinian refugees, either to Israel or to the areas of the occupied territories that Israel wins US approval to seize.

Gaza and Golan windfalls

The US embassy’s move to Jerusalem last month appears to signal that the Trump administration will recognise all of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. That would deny Palestinians East Jerusalem, long assumed to be the capital of any future Palestinian state.

And separate reports this month suggest that the announcement of the peace plan may be timed to coincide with new measures for Gaza and the Golan Heights. There have been rumours for several years that Washington and Israel have been pressuring Cairo to let Palestinians in Gaza settle in Sinai.

According to Israeli reports, Washington may be close to unveiling a scheme that would weaken the border between Gaza and Egypt, and allow Palestinians to work and maybe live in northern Sinai.

The aim would be to gradually shift responsibility for the enclave away from Israel on to Egypt and further undermine prospects for a Palestinian state in historic Palestine.

And in a separate move that would complete Netanyahu’s windfall, an Israeli government minister claimed late last month that the Trump administration may be ready to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Golan.

The Heights were seized by Israel from Syria during the 1967 war and annexed in violation of international law in 1981.

No longer ‘occupied’

A Jerusalem Post report last month suggested that the White House document would be unlikely to include a commitment to a “two-state solution”, reflecting previous comments from Trump.

That would free Israel’s hand to seize areas of the West Bank it has colonised with its ever-expanding settlements.

Noticeably, the latest annual report from the US State Department on the human rights situation by country, published in April, drops for the first time the term “occupied Palestinian territories”, implying that the Trump team no longer views much of the West Bank as under occupation.

Netanyahu told a recent meeting of his Likud faction: “Our successes are still to come. Our policies are not based on weakness. They are not based on concessions that will endanger us.”

So given Israel’s recent moves, what can we infer about the likely terms of Trump’s peace plan?

1. Gerrymandering Jerusalem

The most sensitive of the final-status issues is Jerusalem, which includes the incendiary Muslim holy site of al-Aqsa. Trump appears to have effectively recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by relocating the US embassy there last month.

The embassy move is likely to be interpreted by Netanyahu as a retroactive seal of approval from the US for a series of Israeli measures over recent months designed to engineer a Greater Jewish Jerusalem.

The main thrust are two legislative proposals to gerrymander the city’s boundaries and its population to create an unassailable Jewish majority. Both have been put on hold by Netanyahu until the announcement of the peace plan.

The first – called the Greater Jerusalem Bill – is intended to annex several large Jewish settlements close by in the occupied West Bank to the Jerusalem municipality. Overnight that would transform some 150,000 West Bank settlers into Jerusalem residents, as well as effectively annexing their lands to Israel.

In a sign of the impatience of members of Netanyahu’s cabinet to press on with such a move, the bill is due to come up for consideration again on Sunday.

A separate bill would strip residency in the city from some 100,000 Palestinians who are on the “wrong side” of a wall Israel began building through Jerusalem 15 years ago. Those Palestinians will be all but barred from Jerusalem and assigned to a separate council.

In addition, Israel has intensified harsh measures against Palestinians still inside East Jerusalem, including night arrests, house demolitions, the closing down of businesses, the creation of “national parks” in Palestinian neighbourhoods, and the denial of basic services. The barely veiled aim is to encourage residents to relocate outside the wall.

Experts have noted too that Palestinian schools inside the wall are being pressured to adopt the Israeli curriculum to erode a Palestinian identity among pupils.

2. Abu Dis: a Palestinian capital?

With Jerusalem as Israel’s exclusive capital, Trump’s team is reported to be seeking a face-saving alternative location for a future Palestinian “capital” outside Jerusalem’s municipal borders.

According to rumours, they have selected the town of Abu Dis, 4km east of Jerusalem and cut off from the city by Israel’s wall more than a decade ago.

The Abu Dis plan is not new. At the end of the 1990s, the US administration of Bill Clinton proposed renaming Abu Dis “al-Quds” – Arabic for “the Holy”, the traditional name of Jerusalem because of its holy places. That was seen as a prelude to designating it the future capital of a Palestinian state.

Reports about the elevation of Abu Dis in the new peace plan have been circulating since late last year. In January, Abbas rejected the idea outright.

Only last month Yair Lapid, leader of Israel’s centre-right Yesh Atid party, highlighted reports about the imminent change of Abu Dis’s status in comments directed at Netanyahu.

Abu Dis is a densely populated village home to 13,000 Palestinians. In practice, it is all but impossible to imagine how it could function meaningfully as the capital of a Palestinian state – something that makes it an attractive proposition for most of Netanyahu’s coalition.

Currently, most of Abu Dis’s lands are under Israeli control, and it is hemmed in by the wall and Jewish settlements, including the 40,000 inhabitants of Maale Adumim.

Several government ministers have made Israel’s annexation of Maale Adumim a priority. Netanyahu has delayed such a move, again citing the need to wait for the announcement of the Trump peace plan.

Beilin said it was mistakenly believed that he and Abbas agreed on Abu Dis as a Palestinian capital back in the 1990s.

“It wasn’t credible as an idea then, and the map looks very different now,” he said. “The Palestinian capital has to be in East Jerusalem. Nothing else will work.”

3. Access to al-Aqsa

There has also been talk of a plan to create a narrow land corridor from Abu Dis to the al-Aqsa mosque, so Palestinians can reach it to pray.

However, Israel has been allowing ever larger numbers of settlers into al-Aqsa, which is reputedly built over two long-destroyed Jewish temples.

Meanwhile, Israel has been tightly restricting access to the site for most Palestinians. There have been long-standing Palestinian fears that Israel is seeking to engineer a situation where it can impose its sovereignty over the mosque.

David Friedman, Trump’s ambassador to Israel and a benefactor to the settlements, only heightened such fears last month when he was pictured apparently accepting a photo doctored by religious settlers that showed al-Aqsa mosque replaced by a new Jewish temple.

4. Jordan Valley

Under the Oslo accords, some 62 percent of the occupied West Bank was classified as Area C, under temporary Israeli control. It includes much of the Palestinians’ best agricultural land and would be the heartland of any future Palestinian state.

Israel never carried out the withdrawals from Area C intended in the Oslo process. Instead, it has been accelerating the expansion of illegal Jewish settlements there, and making life as hard as possible for Palestinians to force them into the confines of the more densely populated Areas A and B.

The Trump plan is reported to offer recognition of provisional Palestinian borders on about half of the West Bank – effectively awarding most of Area C to Israel. Much of that land will be in the Jordan Valley, the long spine of the West Bank that Israel has been colonising for decades.

Last December, as the Trump plan took shape, Israel announced a massive programme of settlement expansion in the Jordan Valley, designed to more than double the settler population there. Three new settlements will be the first to be built in the valley in nearly 30 years.

At the same time, Israel has lately been intensifying the harassment of the ever-shrinking Palestinian population in the Jordan Valley, as well as other parts of Area C.

In addition to denying Palestinians access to 85 percent of the Valley, Israel has declared military firing zones over nearly half of the area. That has justified the regular eviction of families on the pretext of ensuring their safety.

Israel has also been developing accelerated procedures to demolish Palestinian homes in the Jordan Valley.

5. The rest of Area C

Israel has been speeding up efforts to expand the settlements in other parts of Area C. On 30 May, it announced nearly 2,000 new homes, the great majority of them in isolated settlements that it was previously assumed would be dismantled in any peace deal.

Additionally, Israel has been quietly preparing to “legalise” what are termed “outposts” – settlements, usually built on private Palestinian land, that violate a “no new settlements” agreement with the US dating from the 1990s.

At the same time, Israel has been destroying Palestinian communities in Area C, especially those that stand in the way of efforts to create territorial continuity between large settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Late last month, France objected after Israel’s supreme court approved a plan to demolish the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, next to Maale Adumim. The families are supposed to be moved to a garbage dump in Abu Dis.

The French statement warned that Israeli actions were threatening “a zone of strategic importance to the two-state solution and the contiguity of a future Palestinian state”.

In its place, it was recently revealed, Israel is planning to build a new settlement neighbourhood called Nofei Bereishit.

In another sign of mounting international concern, some 70 Democratic members of the US Congress appealed last month to Netanyahu to stop the destruction of the Palestinian community of Sussiya, between the Gush Etzion settlements and Jerusalem.

US lawmakers expressed concern that the move was designed to “jeopardise the prospects for a two-state solution”.

6. Gaza and Sinai

It is becoming hard for the Trump administration and Israel to ignore the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza – one Israel helped to engineer with an 11-year blockade and intermittent military attacks. The United Nations warned some time ago that Gaza would soon be “uninhabitable”.

Seeking a solution, the White House hosted 19 countries at a meeting in March to consider the situation in Gaza. The PA boycotted the meeting.

At the time, Arab media reported that the Trump peace plan might include a commitment from Egypt to free up northern Sinai for a future Palestinian state. According to a Hamas official, Cairo offered reassurances that it was opposed to “settling Palestinians in Sinai”.

But a report in Haaretz has revived concerns that the White House may try to achieve a similar end by other means, by launching a Gaza initiative to coincide with the peace plan.

The paper noted that the Trump team had picked up proposals from an Israeli general, Yoav Mordechai, who participated in the White House meeting in March.

A reported initial stage would see Palestinians from Gaza recruited to work on $1.5bn worth of long-term projects in northern Sinai, funded by the international community. The projects would include an industrial zone, a desalination plant and a power station.

Egyptian opposition to such an initiative is reported to be weakening, presumably in the face of strenuous pressure from Washington and Arab allies.

Palestinian protests

The Palestinians are doing their best to try to halt the peace plan in its tracks. They are currently boycotting the Trump administration to show their displeasure.

Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki called last month on Arab states to recall their ambassadors from the United States in protest.

And an emergency meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation has proposed that an international peacekeeping force, modelled on those used in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, be deployed to protect Palestinians.

In another sign of anger at the Trump initiative, the Palestinians defied the US by submitting a referral for the International Criminal Court at the Hague to investigate Israel for war crimes last month.

Etzion, the former Israeli foreign ministry official, however, warned that a turning point could be on the horizon.

“A Palestinian implosion is coming and that could change the situation in unexpected ways,” he told MEE. “The question is which implosion comes first: the humanitarian catastrophe about to engulf Gaza, or the political vacuum created when Abbas leaves.”

Arab pressure

Nonetheless, the Palestinians are facing huge pressure to give in to the peace plan.

The Trump administration has already cut funding to the UN refugee agency, UNRWA, which cares for more than two million refugees in the occupied territories. It is also poised to pull more than $200m of funding to the Palestinian Authority this summer.

Trump has also sought to recruit the Arab states to lean on Abbas. According to reports, the Palestinian leader was presented with a 35-page document originating from the Americans when he visited Saudi Arabia last November, and told to accept it or resign.

In recent years the Saudis have increased their aid to the Palestinian Authority, giving them greater leverage over the Palestinian leader.

In exchange for the Arab states acceding to Trump’s plan, Washington appears to be rolling out a more draconian policy towards Iran to limit its influence in the region.

The Arab states understand that they need to first defuse the Palestinian issue before they can be seen to coordinate closely with Israel and the US in dealing with Tehran.

• First published in Middle East Eye

“Skirmishes”: Israel’s Syria Blitz

A key ‘mainstream’ media theme in covering the Israeli army’s repeated massacres of unarmed, non-violent Palestinian civilians protesting Israel’s military occupation in Gaza – killing journalists, a paramedic, the elderly and children – has been the description of these crimes as ‘clashes’.

This has been a clear attempt to obfuscate the fact that while two groups of people are involved, only one group is being killed and wounded.

To the casual reader – and many readers do not venture beyond the headlines – a ‘clash’ suggests that both sides are armed, with both suffering casualties. One would not, for example, describe a firing squad as a ‘clash’. There was no ‘clash’ in New York on September 11, 2001, and so on.

Following Israel’s massive blitz on more than 100 targets in Syria on May 10, ‘mainstream’ coverage offered similarly questionable frameworks of understanding. A Guardian headline read:

Israel retaliates after Iran “fires 20 rockets” at army in occupied Golan Heights (Our emphasis)

For moral, legal and public relations reasons, the issue of which side started a conflict is obviously crucial. If the public recognises that the case for war is unjustified, immoral or illegal – that a country has chosen to launch a war of aggression – they will likely oppose it, sometimes in the millions, as happened in 2002 and 2003 in relation to the Iraq war. It is thus highly significant that the Guardian described Israel as retaliating.

The BBC reported of Israel’s attacks:

They came after 20 rockets were fired at Israeli military positions in the occupied Golan Heights. (Our emphasis)

Reuters took the same line as the Guardian and BBC:

Iran targets Israeli bases across Syrian frontier, Israel pounds Syria

Iranian forces in Syria launched a rocket attack on Israeli forces in the Golan Heights early on Thursday, Israel said, prompting one of the heaviest Israeli barrages in Syria since the conflict there began in 2011. (Our emphasis)

The New York Times also reported:

It was a furious response to what Israel called an Iranian rocket attack launched from Syrian territory just hours earlier. (Our emphasis)

And yet, the report buried a challenge to its own claim that Israel had retaliated in the second half of the piece:

Iran’s rocket attack against Israel came after what appeared to have been an Israeli missile strike against a village in the Syrian Golan Heights late on Wednesday. (Our emphasis)

According to the BBC (see below), the Israeli missile strike had targeted an Iranian drone facility killing several Iranians.

So, actually, it might be said that Iran was retaliating to Israeli attacks – a more reasonable interpretation, given recent history also described by the New York Times:

Israel has conducted scores of strikes on Iran and its allies inside Syria, rarely acknowledging them publicly.

Nevertheless, the corporate media theme has been that Israel retaliated, part of a long-term trend in media coverage. In a 2002 report, Bad News From Israel, The Glasgow University Media Group commented:

On the news, Israeli actions tended to be explained and contextualised – they were often shown as merely “responding” to what had been done to them by Palestinians (in the 2001 samples they were six times as likely to be presented as “retaliating” or in some way responding than were the Palestinians).

Was Iran Skirmishing?

But was Iran even involved at all? The opening, highlighted sentence in a front-page BBC piece by diplomatic editor Jonathan Marcus left the reader in no doubt:

These are the first skirmishes in a potential war between Israel and Iran that promises a fearful level of destruction – even by the standards of the modern Middle East.

So this was a ‘skirmish’, a clash involving Israel and Iran – they were both involved in the combat. And yet, in the second half of the article, Marcus wrote:

The alleged Iranian attack last night – I say alleged because at this stage there is no confirmation from Iranian sources as to the precise authors of the attack – involved a single and relatively short-range system, what appears to have been a multiple-barrelled rocket launcher.

How can the Iranian attack be merely ‘alleged’ half-way down the article but a bald fact in the highlighted opening sentence?

In fact, not only has there been ‘no confirmation’, there has been outright Iranian rejection of the claims. Abolfazl Hassan-Baygi, deputy head of the Iranian parliament’s national security committee, commented:

Iran has nothing to do with the missiles that struck the enemy entity yesterday.

Associated Press (AP) reported Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi commenting that Israel’s attacks were based on ‘fabricated and baseless excuses’, and were a breach of the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria.

AP quoted a senior Lebanese politician and close ally of Syria and Iran, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, as saying: ‘this time the Syrian retaliation was in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights but next time it will be in Israel proper. (Our emphasis)

Later in his BBC piece, Marcus wrote:

The immediate tensions stem from an Israeli air strike on what they claimed was an Iranian drone facility at the so-called T-4 air base, near Palmyra, on 9 April, which reportedly killed several Iranian military advisers.

This again challenged the idea that Israel had ‘retaliated’, but again it was not given the kind of prominence that could challenge Israel’s version of events.

So the ‘skirmishes’ may actually have consisted of Israel first attacking an Iranian drone facility killing Iranian personnel, and then launching a massive attack against Iranian positions across Syria, without Iran responding at all. And yet Marcus wrote:

It is a conflict that needs to be averted and the time to do it is now. However Israel and Iran remain on a collision course.

Despite the uncertainty on whether Iran had attacked, Marcus concluded:

Iran’s strategic intent is clear…it is unlikely to be dissuaded from its efforts.

He added:

Israel has drawn its red lines and it is clearly not going to back down either.

Obama also famously drew his ‘red line’ in Syria in 2012, threatening a massive attack in the event of Syrian government use of chemical weapons. But for Marcus, Israel’s actual launch of a massive attack merely constituted the drawing of ‘red lines’.

And again, ignoring his own doubts about what had happened, the required warmongering ‘balance’ was favoured:

For the immediate future, the pattern of strike, attempted riposte, and counter-strike is likely to continue.

If it had started at all! Marcus concluded his article with three ominous lines identifying another threat alongside the danger of Israel drawing more ‘red lines’ with more massive attacks:

One clear danger is that Iran may seek to exact its revenge outside the Middle East.

Pro-Iranian factions have in the past attacked Israeli tourists abroad or Jewish organisations, notably in Latin America.

A successful terrorist attack of this kind would inevitably alter the picture, pushing Israel and Iran to the brink of a full-scale war.

The word ‘terrorist’ thus made its first appearance in the last line of Marcus’s piece, in reference to a hypothetical Iranian atrocity.

The idea that Israel might already have committed terrorist atrocities in Syria by launching unprovoked attacks, by illegal bombings committed completely outside of international law, is unthinkable.

Selective Reporting Increases the Risk of a Greater Middle East War

The mainstream media news in recent days has carried reports of an exchange of rockets between forces based in Syria and what has been generally characterized as an Israeli “response.”  The Israelis claim that Iranian forces fire the rockets aimed at the Golan Heights. There are conflicting accounts as to whether or not the Iranian’s are responsible or whether the rockets were in fact fired by Syrian forces.

The claim and counterclaim have obscured more significant points that are not mentioned by the mainstream media. The first of these is that the latest round of attacks by the Israeli forces on military positions in Syria is not the first such attack.

Israel has long taken to itself the right to attack Syrian military positions. These attacks have intensified in recent years and are part of Israel’s dual aims with regard to Syria. The first aim is to expedite the overthrow of Syria’s President Bashar al Assad. The Israeli attacks generally benefit the various terrorist groups fighting the Syrian army and its Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah allies.

Israeli support for the terrorist groups further extends to the use of Israeli military hospitals in the Golan Heights treating wounded terrorists.

The second important factor is that the Iranians, like the Russians and Hezbollah, are in Syria at the request of the legitimate sovereign Syrian government, recognised as such and by the United Nations and other international bodies. The almost invariable use of the pejorative nomenclature “Syrian regime” is a non-subtle attempt to propagandize the view of the US government and its lackeys that the Syrian government is in some way illegitimate.

The third omission in the news reports is that the area being shelled by the Syrians and/or Iranians is that the sole target is the Golan Heights. This is a significant (700 mi.²) piece of land, the western two thirds of which has been occupied by Israel since the six-day war in 1967.

It is a fundamental principle of international law that territory conquered in a war cannot be retained by the conquering power, in this case Israel. This principle is restated in Security Council resolution 242 (1967) which in the preamble emphasized “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war,” and further emphasized the requirement of all member states “to act in accordance with article 2 of the charter” (prohibiting force in the resolution of disputes).

The resolution went on to require (clause 1 (i) the “withdrawal of Israel Armed Forces from territories occupied in the recent (6 Day War) conflict.” Israel simply ignored this resolution is it ignores all obligations under international law that do not record with its geopolitical goals.

On 14 December 1981 Israel went further and purported to annex the territory it had illegally occupied since 1967. Three days later on 17 December 1981 the United Nations Security Council unanimously (with no abstentions) in Resolution 497 declared that Israel’s Golan Heights Law, which gave effect to  the annexation, was “null and void and without international legal effect”, and called on Israel to rescind its action.

Again, that was ignored by Israel, as was a later General Assembly resolution on 29 January 2007 which expressed the General Assembly’s deep concern that Israel had it not withdrawn from the Syrian Golan, contrary to relevant Security Council and General Assembly resolutions, and stressed the illegality of Israel’s settlement constructions and other activities in the occupied Syrian Golan since 1967.

The resolution went on to state that the occupation and de facto annexation constituted a “stumbling block in the way of achieving a just, comprehensive and lasting peace in the region.”  It demanded once more that Israel withdraw to the pre-June 1967 lines.

In a familiar pattern, voting was 107 in favour, 6 against and 60 abstentions.

Apart from ignoring Israel’s continuing disregard of UN resolutions condemning its occupation and annexation of Syrian Golan, the media also fail to examine why Israel should continue its defiance of the overwhelming wishes of the international community.

There are two major factors in operation here. The first is that the geographical expansion of Israel’s territory has been a central plank of Israeli policy since at least the publication of the Yinon Plan in February 1982, which set out the blueprint for a “greater Israel.”  The Plan envisaged the incorporation into Israel wholly or significant parts of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

There is no possible legal basis upon which such a plan could be an advanced, but as noted, considerations of international law are rarely factored into Israel’s geopolitical considerations.

The second factor in operation here is that the Syrian Golan is, according to a November 2015 article in the UK journal The Economist (7 November 2015) the site of three test drillings conducted by a subsidiary of the US company Genie Energy. These drillings indicated oil reserves “with a potential of billions of barrels.”  Again according to the Economist, the Israeli government is being urged by lobby groups to take advantage of the chaos in Syria to demand international recognition of Israel’s annexation.

One clue as to why Genie Energy should receive so little media coverage of its activities, including the potential theft of Syrian resources, can be found in the composition of the board of directors. That board includes Jacob Rothschild of the UK banking dynasty, Dick Cheney, former US vice president under GW Bush, James Wolsey, a former head of the CIA, and Rupert Murdoch. The latter’s media empire ensures that coverage of Israel is rarely critical. Murdoch, whose 1700 worldwide newspapers unanimously editorialized in favour of the 2003 Iraqi invasion, also ensures that the public is not given vital relevant information.

That was never clearer than in the current (non) coverage of the sustained illegal interventions in the Syrian war by the United States, United Kingdom, France, Saudi Arabia and Australia or the astonishingly one-sided coverage of the current massacre of Palestinian civilians by Israeli soldiers as they protest the theft of their land and destruction of their human rights. Also completely missing from the media commentary is a discussion of what Robert Kennedy Jr aptly called “another pipeline war” (www.ecowatch.com 25 February 2016).

The Syrian war is a highly relevant component of the wider geopolitical issues affecting the region. These include, but are not limited to, the US plan to use Qatari gas via a pipeline to Europe with the overall objective of reducing or eliminating European reliance upon Russian gas. This pipeline necessarily transits Iraq and Syria. The hybrid war waged on Iran since 1979, and most recently including the unilateral withdrawal of United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is also part of this wider geopolitical framework.

Iran and Syria are also key elements in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a transformative infrastructure program that the US and some of its key allies are seeking to undermine.

The Australian government is very fond of proclaiming its belief in and support for the “international rules based order.” The disjunction between the rhetoric and the reality is again something that is ignored by the mainstream media. By its continuing failure to fully and accurately inform its readership of Middle Eastern realities, the risk of a wider war is measurably increased.

What the Priti Patel Scandal tells us about the Dark Operations of UK’s Powerful Israel Lobby

The scandal surrounding Priti Patel, who was forced to resign as Britain’s international aid minister last week after secret meetings with Israeli officials during a “family holiday”, offers a small, opaque window on the UK’s powerful Israel lobby.

Ms Patel’s off-the-books meetings with 12 Israelis, including prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, were organised by a British lobbyist in violation of government rules requiring careful documentation of official meetings. That is to prevent conflicts of interest and illicit lobbying by foreign powers.

Government protocol was flouted again when Ms Patel headed to the Golan Heights, occupied Syrian territory, escorted by the Israeli army. There she was shown an Israeli military field hospital that patches up Syrians, including Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters, wounded in Syria’s civil war.

Afterwards, Ms Patel pressed for the Israeli army, one of the most powerful in the world, to receive a chunk of Britain’s overseas aid. Meanwhile, she has sought to cut aid to the Palestinians, including to vital projects in Gaza. A clue as to how she reached such absurd “humanitarian” priorities is provided in the figure of Stuart Polak, mentor on her Israel “holiday”.

The honorary president of Conservative Friends of Israel, Lord Polak has recruited four-fifths of Conservative MPs, and almost every government minister, to a group whose explicit goal is to advance Israeli interests in Britain. The prime minister, Theresa May, is regarded as one of Israel’s most fervent supporters in Europe.

That should be a cause for public indignation – no other foreign state enjoys such unabashed, high-level political support.

Another window on Israel’s meddling opened briefly last week. The BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, took to Twitter to relay a damning comment from an unnamed “senior” member of Ms Patel’s party. In a clear reference to Israel, the source observed: “The entire apparatus has turned a blind eye to a corrupt relationship that allows a country to buy access”.

A short time later, presumably under pressure, Ms Kuenssberg deleted the tweet. The BBC has not reported the comment elsewhere and the senior Conservative has not dared go public. Such, it seems, is the intimidating and corrupting influence of the lobby.

More than a decade ago, two leading American academics wrote a study of the Israel lobby’s role in the United States, Israel’s chief patron for half a century. It was a sign of the lobby’s influence that John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt could not find a publisher at home. They had to turn to a British journal instead.

The Israel lobby’s strength in western capitals has depended precisely on its ability to remain out of view. Simply to talk about the lobby risks being accused of perpetuating anti-Semitic tropes of Jewish cabals.

But professors Mearsheimer and Walt described a type of pressure group familiar in the US – and increasingly in European capitals. Everyone from Cuba to health insurers and arms manufacturers operate aggressive lobbyists in Washington to secure their interests.

What is special about the Israel lobby in the US – an amalgam of hawkish Jewish leadership organisations and messianic Christian evangelicals – is the fear it exploits to silence critics. No one wants to be labelled an anti-Semite.

Rarely identified or held to account, the lobby has entrenched its power.

That is under threat, however. Social media and Palestinians with camera phones have exposed a global audience to systematic abuses by the Israeli army the western media largely ignored. For the first time, Israel supporters sound evasive and dissembling.

Meanwhile, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strident efforts in the US Congress through 2014 and 2015 to prevent a nuclear accord with Iran dragged the lobby even farther out of the shadows.

The Israel lobby’s dirty tricks in the UK were exposed earlier this year too. An Al Jazeera TV documentary showed Conservative party officials colluding with the Israeli embassy to “take down” Alan Duncan, a foreign office minister who supports the Palestinian cause.

It is noteworthy that Ms Patel’s downfall came about because of social media. Israeli officials like police minister Gilad Erdan were so unused to scrutiny or accountability themselves that they happily tweeted photos with Ms Patel. Mr Erdan is a key player in the lobby, running a “smear unit” to target overseas critics of Israel.

We may never know why Ms Patel so grossly flouted ministerial rules or what she quietly promised in those meetings in Israel. Colleagues have hinted that, in a pattern familiar from US politics, she hoped to win over the lobby and its wealthy donors for a future leadership bid.

There is no way to know, given the lobby’s penchant for secrecy, whether Ms Patel simply proved less adept at treading a path marked out by former Conservative and Labour party leadership hopefuls.

There is growing hysteria about foreign interference in US and European politics. Is it not time for western states to show as much concern about the malign influence of Israel’s lobbyists as they do about Russian hackers?

First published in The National, Abu Dhabi.