Israel's extremist, settler-led government is on a roll. US President Donald Trump's Christmas gift of recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital and his consequent surrogate bullying in the UN General Assembly on behalf of the colonialist entity has sent its leaders into a frenzy of actions that will have far-reaching consequences. Trump has in his Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Hayley, a pro-Israeli figure that David Ben Gurion could only have dreamed of.
Haley stood alone in the UN threatening states that disagreed with the US decision – US President Donald Trump "will be watching the vote carefully" and "requested I report back on those who voted against us …" she told them. In the event the bullying had a limited effect with the General Assembly voting 128 in favour, nine against, with 35 abstentions. Not even the threat to cut US funding to some of the poorest states in the world worked on this occasion.
In her letter to the UN GA members prior to the vote Hayley attempted to play down the significance of Trump's move arguing he was simply implementing the will of Congress expressed through the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act but that "the president's announcement does not affect final status negotiations in any way, including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem", and that "the president also made sure to support the status quo of Jerusalem's holy sites, and did not advocate changes to arrangements at the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif", Haley added in her letter.
Thankfully, from a Palestinian standpoint, the threats had little impact.
The reward for those countries which voted with Israel was a reception that Nikki Hayley organised at the UN which could have been held in a broom cupboard considering that the grand total of attendees according to the vote was nine.
On its part, Israel sought to increase its influence on poor countries by establishing a $50 million fund to support development in poorer countries and establish diplomatic backing, according to Israeli media reports. Israel had been trying to increase its influence, particularly in Africa, to garner backing internationally, including at the UN. Her efforts in Africa seemed to be making some headway until a summit organised by Togo was cancelled under threat of boycotts from a number of countries and pressure from others.
For now, Israel will take what it sees as a major breakthrough in its colonial project – America's recognition of Jerusalem as its capital. It is noteworthy that rather than reiterate his UN ambassador's stance that the final status of Jerusalem – including boundaries – was still up for negotiations, Trump contradicted her in a tweet claiming: "We have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table, but Israel, for that, would have had to pay more." He did not explain how or what. However, he went on to threaten the PA saying: "But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?"
Trump and Hayley's contempt for the Palestinian leadership and people is now out in the open. Not only are they threatening to cut the PA's funding, they have now moved to target the most vulnerable Palestinians, those refugees reliant on services from the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, UNRWA. Hayley explicitly threatened to cut funds to UNRWA "unless the Palestinians went back to the negotiating table".
It is doubtful that the Trump administration really understands the potential impact of the moves they have threatened to make. Much of the funds the US passes to the PA are to ensure its security services continue to suppress Palestinian resistance against Israel's occupation and it is therefore in Israel's interest. Curtailing UNRWA's ability to provide employment and services, particularly in Gaza, is likely to lead to an uprising whose format no one can predict with certainty. An area that has been under siege for 11 years, has suffered from three Israeli wars and that is deprived of electricity and free entry and exit is at boiling point. Again, keeping the situation calm and under control is in Israel's interest.
As for Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu, he must feel that he can contain this anger as he has now called for UNRWA to be dismantled, arguing it was "an organisation that perpetuates the Palestinian problem". "It also enshrines the narrative of the so-called 'right of return'," he told a weekly cabinet meeting. His solution was that UNRWA "should pass from the world".
Netanyahu, emboldened by an irrational American president but one who has sided with Israel during the election campaign and since his installation, is calling the shots with seemingly no one is able to stop him. The Knesset recently passed a bill, which amends the Basic Law of 1980 titled "Jerusalem, Capital of Israel", in a way that would make it more difficult for future governments to return parts of Jerusalem to the Palestinians.
Netanyahu's own party, Likud, unanimously endorsed a resolution calling for the annexation of illegal Israeli West Bank settlements. This indicates the direction of travel of Netanyahu's own party, which is now not that far behind the even more extreme elements of his coalition. Education Secretary Naftali Bennett has been urging annexation of the West Bank for years claiming "the time has come to say Israel is ours". His fellow Jewish Home colleague and Justice Minister, Ayelet Shaked stated "We're here for 50 years already, and we will be here for another 5,000 years. Our policy is clear: Settlement in the entire Land of Israel and normalisation of life in Judea and Samaria".
Israel's plans to entrench the occupation are being complemented by further oppression of the Palestinians and their supporters under the pretence of democracy. The Israeli Knesset recently approved a first reading of the death penalty bill which would allow the authorities to execute Palestinian prisoners accused of taking part in "operations against Israeli targets". The claim is that the death penalty would serve as a deterrent. However, it is reasonable to assume that a Palestinian who sets out to carry out 'an operation' against heavily armed Israeli soldiers knows full well that s/he is likely to be killed and therefore the deterrence claim is illogical. It is worth noting that the death penalty would not be extended to Israelis accused of violence against Palestinians.
Israel's claim to be 'the only democracy in the Middle East' was further eroded when it released a 'blacklist' of 20 organisations whose activists would be barred from entering the country and therefore the Occupied Palestinian Territory, essentially for supporting or promoting boycotts or the BDS campaign. It is also 'investing' a further $72 million into efforts to combat the movement.
None of the moves in the past month indicate a desire for peace by Israel, but rather a misguided conclusion it has come to that it can now make rapid progress towards completing its colonialist project in the era of Trump. However, from a Palestinian perspective, the situation is as dangerous as it has ever been.
It is extremely worrying for Palestinians that their tired leadership is devoid of any ideas or a strategy for liberation. The ageing Mahmoud Abbas refuses to do the decent thing and retire. He has promised to make "important decisions in 2018", but his record shows a dearth of such decisions.
The forthcoming meeting of the PLO's Central Committee in Ramallah should produce a new strategy. However, there are reports that there have been no significant consultations with the various factions and therefore the meeting could end up with Abbas presenting them with a fait accompli, reinventing negotiations as the only way forward but under a different framework not led by the US. That would be disastrous.
What is needed is much more radical. I suggested elements of what a future strategy could include in a recent article in MEMO which has started a debate. The Palestinian people cannot afford to leave their future in the hands of those that have proved their failure. They need to take back control of their liberation movement and fast.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.