The state visit to Bangladesh by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has underlined once again the firm commitment of our country for the people of Palestine and for Palestine achieving sovereign statehood. This was an important visit, given the recent evolution taking place in the international arena with regard to Palestine.
The latest run of events started with the dramatic vote on December 23 in the United Nations Security Council in which the United States allowed a resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction to pass. This offered a glimpse of how Trump, the then President-elect, and the Israeli Prime Minister intended to overhaul the relationship between their two countries. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder and undertook tense diplomatic maneuvering ahead of the vote -- but failed to stop the resolution being adopted by a 14-0 vote, with the US abstaining.
The vote was a blow for Israel and a censure for its settlement building in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The resolution exacerbated divisions between the outgoing Obama administration and the incoming Trump Administration. Obama’s foes in Israel and in the US Congress also remarked angrily that by failing to veto the resolution, the outgoing president had turned his back on diplomatic precedent under which Washington had shielded Israel at the UN.
The sensitivity of the situation has increased with President Trump’s expressed vow of moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, breaking with the practice of several of his predecessors who campaigned saying they would move the embassy during their campaigns but refrained from such action once they were in the White House. Trump’s nominee to become the next ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has also been an outspoken supporter of Israeli far-right settler groups and has repeatedly cast doubt on the notion of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Such a measure is being considered despite critics pointing out that moving the embassy, in all likelihood would inflame Arab opinion and make it difficult for the US to ever broker a peaceful accord between Israel and the Palestinians in future.
It needs to be remembered here that the Palestinians see Jerusalem, which is sacred to Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, as the future capital of their proposed future state. It is also generally agreed within more than 100 countries, that have recognised Palestine as an independent entity, that a decision to move the US embassy might cause outrage among Palestinians and could erupt into violence.
It would be pertinent to recall here the initial efforts of former President Obama in this regard. He had identified the expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank as the principal obstacle to the emergence of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel. In this context, Obama had subsequently confronted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu several times with a demand for a complete settlement freeze but each time the president had backed down.
Netanyahu demonstrated through his action that he was more interested in land than in peace. Between 2009 and 2014, settlements in the Palestinian occupied areas have expanded by at least 23% under Netanyahu’s leadership. Despite this flagrant abuse of international law, last September. President Obama signed an agreement to give Israel $38 billion in military aid for the period (2018-2028). This was a reflection of Israel’s degree of influence within the different corridors of US power. One commentator has observed in this regard that US gives Israel money, arms, and advice. Israel takes the money, it takes the arms, and it rejects the advice.
Despite the controversy created by Trump and Israel, the adoption of the UN Security Council Resolution of December 23 encouraged nearly 70 countries and members of different civil society groups to convene a Conference on Palestine in Paris in the third week of January, 2017. It was directed towards exploring ways to restart the long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts which has placed leaders from the two sides at odds.
Participants led by French President Francois Hollande tried to agree on measures aimed at ensuring the support of the international community for the two-state solution as a reference for future direct negotiations. The summit ended with delegates warning that neither side should take unilateral steps that could jeopardise future negotiations.
Abbas termed the effort as positive but Netanyahu dismissed the Conference and said that Israel was not bound by the outcome of the meeting. He also characteristically, assured of support from the new US administration, stated that the meeting “is not going to obligate us. It’s a relic of the past; it’s a last gasp of the past before the future sets in.” This was a reflection of the views of the settler movement which not only holds important political power in Israel as key constituents of Netanyahu’s coalition but also is pushing hard for more construction in the West Bank.
It would be significant to mention here in this regard two important data -- that since October 2015, 247 Palestinians, 40 Israelis, two Americans, a Jordanian, an Eritrean, and a Sudanese national have been killed in a wave of violence in the disputed areas, according to an AFP news agency count and that a poll conducted last year suggests that a slight majority of Palestinians (51%) and Israelis (59%) still support the two-state solution -- despite the high degree of mutual mistrust.
One commentator has observed that US gives Israel money, arms, and advice. Israel takes the money, it takes the arms, and it rejects the advice
Al-Jazeera, interestingly, on January 19 informed that Russia has been very involved in trying to build bridges between the different factions within the Palestinian community -- Fatah and the Palestinian authority, Hamas, as well as those existing within the Palestinian diaspora. This is being attempted to create a Palestinian unity government given the new global reality that is unfolding after the US Presidential election.
The re-emergence of Russia as a key player in the intra-Palestinian political domain is indicative of this new global order. The Moscow declaration in the third week of January about forming a Palestinian unity government was an outcome of intense meetings over the past month in Doha, Montreux in Switzerland, Cairo, Lebanon, and finally Moscow.
Alaa Tartir of Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network has reported that such a government would be political and not technocratic in nature, and would be responsible for fulfilling three main goals: Unifying the public-sector institutions between Gaza and Ramallah, addressing the urgent issues related to the Palestinian security sector, electricity and reconstruction of Gaza; and preparing for Palestinian National Council, Palestinian Legislative Council, local and presidential elections.
Despite all these developments the existing stakes have been raised once again by Israel on February 6 through the Israeli Knesset controversially voting and approving by 60 to 52 a contentious bill. It retroactively legalises thousands of settler homes built on privately owned Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank. This has drawn widespread anger from Palestinian leaders and rights groups.
We have an interesting year ahead.
President Abbas’s visit to Bangladesh so soon after the Moscow initiative has underlined the importance that Palestine attaches to Bangladesh and the constructive role that Bangladesh can play in upholding Palestinian interests within the United Nations, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, and other international bodies. We should also create opportunities for Palestinians to be able to share in the economic development that is taking place in our country.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador and Chief Information Commissioner of the Information Commission, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.