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Amongst frustrated allies, patience has run out with Israel

March 20, 2015 at 9:54 pm

The British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond didn’t mince his words. Israel, he said, was guilty of “what looks and feels like a deliberate attempt to sabotage the two-state-solution.”

The diplomat went on, claiming that the “window” for a two-state agreement is “closing”, and that this was down to Israeli “settlement patterns” in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

And all this even before Netanyahu’s re-election as prime minister had been confirmed.

In fact, Hammond made the remarks in an interview conducted on the very day of the Israeli election, and just after the Likud leader had made it clear that, for as long as he was premier, he would never allow the establishment of a Palestinian state.

After Netanyahu’s victory at the ballot box, one theme dominated the international fallout, perhaps best summarised by this Associated Press headline: “Israel likely headed toward conflict, isolation.”

Most significant was the reaction of Israel’s closest allies – including the US. Angered by Netanyahu’s explicit rejection of Palestinian statehood and incitement against Palestinian citizens, Obama administration officials, on and off the record, have made it clear that “you can’t unring the bell.”

Now the talk is of a “need to re-assess [the US’s] options” in light of Israel’s lack of commitment to a two-state solution. “There are policy ramifications for what he said”, commented one official – and Netanyahu’s efforts to row-back are cutting no ice in Washington.

But it’s not just the US – as another newswire story put it, Bibi’s “comments may have reinforced a belief in many world capitals that [he] isn’t serious about peace.” A case in point, former Swedish PM and diplomat Carl Bildt presumably spoke for many when he tweeted:

Here in the UK, there were similar responses – with the notable exception of PM David Cameron – as Labour front bencher Andy Burnham tweeted that Netanyahu’s re-election “on pledge to build more settlements” meant “Palestine will need more international support.”

Which brings us back to Philip Hammond. In his interview earlier this week, the Conservative minister described his “European colleagues” as increasingly “frustrated” – in his words: “They want to support Israel but they need something back in return.”

They need some clear sense that Israel is at least willing to try to find a two-state solution. To be blunt it’s only the really robust position that Britain and Germany take that has held the line from seeing the EU questioning more the position we collectively take.

Hammond’s frank assessment resonates with what I found in Brussels almost exactly a year ago; while many EU officials want a close relationship with Israel, the latter’s ideologically-driven intransigence is exasperating, and making the case for sanctions grow ever more plausible.

Today we read of a leaked report by heads of mission of European countries in Jerusalem that recommends punitive measures be taken in response to Israel’s “systematic” settlement construction in the occupied east. The Guardian added the following:

According to well-informed European sources, the report – now being discussed in Brussels – reflects a strong desire from European governments for additional measures against Israel over its continued settlement-building, and comes at a time when Europe is confronting ‘the new reality’ of a new and potentially more rightwing Netanyahu government.

And it is precisely this kind of ‘confrontation’ that provides opportunities for the Palestinians, and their supporters. As Ali Abunimah argued, “the Israeli Jewish public’s choice to re-elect Netanyahu should make it clear to people around the world that Israel does not seek peace and does not seek justice.” Israeli NGO B’Tselem has made a similar assessment.

The election results show, loud and clear, that the voting public in Israel favors the ongoing occupation in its present form: a military rule that denies basic rights to millions of people, settlement expansion and its inverse the expropriation of Palestinian lands and the dispossession of its owners, and an entire occupation apparatus that entrenches two separate legal systems, unjust military courts, and a permit regime controlling most aspects of Palestinian life.

The recent film Selma gave cinema-goers an insight into another historical struggle against a different regime of segregation and control: the civil rights movement. A key element of Martin Luther King’s strategy that we see played out in the film was the use of protests and civil disobedience to provoke a confrontation with authorities and create a drama.

This strategy’s success depended, in part, on a brutal overreaction from law enforcement that would draw attention to the systematic injustice and violence of daily life in the segregated South. When King arrived in Selma, he wanted to know about the opposition.

Would the movement face in Selma someone as vicious and mistake-prone as the police commissioner of Birmingham, Bull Connor, who two years before had given the world the horrendous images of his attack dogs and fire hoses? Or…would they face someone politically astute like the police chief of Albany, Laurie Pritchett, who had frustrated and defused and, in most people’s minds, defeated the movement with his sensitivity to the movement’s goals and his tactic of mass arrests?

“Is [local sheriff] Jim Clark a Bull Connor or a Laurie Pritchett?” King asks. The answer was the former, and the civil rights leader knew that Selma was the place to make a stand.

The question then is this: will Netanyahu be Israel’s Bull Connor?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.