Fiddling while Palestine burns

The animals crowded round the van. ‘Good-bye, Boxer!’ they chorused, ‘good-bye!’
‘Fools! Fools!’ shouted Benjamin, prancing round them and stamping the earth with his small hoofs. ‘Fools! Do you not see what is written on the side of that van?

George Orwell, Animal Farm

In recent years, discussion of Palestine on the Left in Western countries has shifted somewhat. Discussing what happens on the ground, discussing human rights violations and political developments has fallen somewhat out of favour.

It seems to me that, now, it is taken for granted that Israel treats the Palestinians badly in some quarters, and instead of discussing this further, trying to persuade the unconvinced, many have moved on to discussion of BDS. Public panels are often devoted to this subject, and many writers are intensely concerned about things like the cultural boycott, which had an unusually high profile victory recently in relation to Scarlett Johansson. The LA Review of Books is currently featuring eight hefty essays debating BDS. They come from a range of perspectives – one even from the point of view of a Palestinian! – but evidently, trying to discuss Israel or Palestine more directly is not considered as worthwhile.

Even if I supported BDS, I would be concerned about this trend. BDS is one tactic, which may or may not be effective in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which one would think should also warrant discussion. Indeed, the very time when Palestine solidarity activists are most excited about their BDS victories may coincide with another looming catastrophe.

In July 2013, Norman Finkelstein was interviewed at the New Left Project. He warned that, as Palestinians ‘are now the weakest they have ever been … it’s possible that the U.S. can impose a historic defeat on the Palestinians, by forcing through a settlement on terms that preclude a viable Palestinian state.’

Finkelstein argued that Israel’s ‘bottom line is the Wall, which will incorporate around 9.5% of the West Bank. And that figure has been consistent since 2000: Israel’s map presented at the Taba talks in 2001 depicted an Israeli annexation of about 9 percent of the West Bank, and the unofficial map presented by then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Abbas in 2008 envisaged 8.7%. A fraction of one percent: that’s the abyss separating the poles of Israeli elite opinion.’ This has ‘been absolutely consistent. There has been no change between the Taba talks of 2001 and the Annapolis so-called negotiations in 2008.’ Thus, for example, Olmert’s 2008 offer included the four main settlement blocs. Because of the weakness of the Palestinians, Finkelstein warned that there was a risk that this position could finally be agreed to by Palestinian negotiators.

In January this year, Finkelstein wrote that a framework agreement would be reached shortly, and predicted a final settlement would be signed towards the end of the Obama administration. Finkelstein wrote that the only issues being discussed were whether Palestinians would recognise Israel as a Jewish state, and the status of the Jordan Valley. Finkelstein concluded that this was because ‘annexing the settlement blocs is a done deal’. Finkelstein went on to argue that US Secretary of State, John Kerry, is ‘lining up all the ducks’ to impose a final settlement. This includes coordinating with the Europeans to impose sanctions on the Israelis, to pressure ‘Israeli holdouts’ in favour of the agreement Kerry was coordinating. Finkelstein concluded that such an imposed settlement would be a complete disaster for the Palestinians. He provided an update about a week later.

Finkelstein has been one of the world’s leading scholars on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with endorsements from such luminaries as late Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling, and Oxford historian Avi Shlaim. Besides his meticulous scholarship, he also has an impressive record of shrewd political analysis, and was among the isolated critics of the Oslo agreements during the 1990s. However, in recent years, Finkelstein has alienated many Palestine solidarity activists through his strident and intemperate criticisms of the BDS movement. He has also frustrated others who advocate a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, through his advocacy of a two-state settlement.

Finkelstein noted that he was completely isolated when he first made his predictions that this round of negotiations may get somewhere. By January this year, many agreed with him. And there are increasing signs that Finkelstein’s predictions and analysis is being vindicated.

In January, the Economist claimed that soon, Kerry would probably present a signed ‘framework agreement’. The Times of Israel reported that Israeli diplomats ‘say US Secretary of State John Kerry is behind the recent wave of European threats to boycott settlement products, and intends to use these threats against Israel should the current series of peace talks fail.’ Similarly, Ben Caspit wrote that ‘the European move to start forging a boycott against Israel isn’t purely a European one. This is a well-orchestrated and minutely planned Euro-American move.’ There have been numerous reports of such European moves. Meanwhile, it was reported that outside the settlement blocs, Israel has ‘introduced a de facto construction freeze’ in the West Bank. A poll showed that 76 percent of ‘Hebrew speaking Israelis’ supported the ‘likely details’ of a peace agreement with the Palestinians, and that 56 percent would vote for Netanyahu if he started a new party.

This is a sample of relevant evidence of what may be coming in Palestine: a supposedly final peace agreement, granting deep swathes of the West Bank to Israel, refusing a right of return to the Palestinians, and signed by Palestinian representatives.
Israeli liberal Larry Derfner has noted that Kerry’s plan looks deeply unfair to the Palestinians. No Palestinian refugees would return to Israel, the capital of Palestine would be somewhere in ‘metropolitan Jerusalem’, and Netanyahu gets to keep the large settlement blocs, and perhaps a long military presence in the Jordan Valley, among other provisions. Derfner noted that ‘the U.S. framework agreement is shaping up to be easily the worst deal the Palestinians have ever been offered in negotiations with Israel.’ He claims that ‘the Palestinians would never sign a final peace treaty based on such terms.’

Yet they just might.

Meanwhile, Finkelstein has mocked BDS activists who have claimed the increased movement of European boycotts as a triumph of BDS. He has argued that this is simply naïveté, from those who do not understand the real underlying actors pushing these developments. They are celebrating victories that, if anything, may well be victories against Palestine.

Even if Finkelstein is not right, there is significant evidence that his predictions and analysis deserve to be taken seriously. An utter disaster in Palestine looms, and it deserves attention.

Michael Brull

Michael Brull is a columnist at New Matilda. He’s written for other publications including Fairfax, the Guardian, Crikey, Tracker and the Indigenous Law Bulletin.

More by Michael Brull ›

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