By M.A. Saki

The Oslo process was a trap from which the Palestinians never escaped: ex-UN Special Rapporteur for Palestine

May 21, 2020 - 19:17

TEHRAN- Richard Anderson Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University and former UN Special Rapporteur for Palestine, says “the Oslo process was a trap from which the Palestinians never escaped”.

“Indeed, the dynamics of this Oslo period from 1993 until the start of the Trump presidency in 2017 was to raise Israeli expectations with respect to its maximal territorial ambitions,” Falk tells the Tehran Times in an exclusive interview.
Here is the full text of the exclusive interview:
Q: As a UN Special Rapporteur for Palestine your reports revealed many facts about the Israeli settlement policies, its apartheid approach, and so on. Your efforts in this regard are commendable. To what extent did these reports have a practical impact on Israeli policies?

A: My period as UN Special Rapporteur to Palestine was between 2008 and 2014. During that time Israel carried out massive attacks on Gaza in 2008-09, 2012, and 2014, while expanding the archipelago of its unlawful settlements on the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and blocking any realistic process of a political compromise in the context of the Oslo Peace Process. I mention these negative developments as background for responding to your question about whether my reports had any ‘practical impact on Israeli policies.’ I would have to acknowledge that I could not identify any positive impact on Israeli practices and policies, especially in relation to its efforts to pursue its expansionist ambitions with regard to the control of Palestinian territory and its non-Jewish inhabitants or its unabashed defiance of international law and UN authority.

A more promising Palestinian strategy, additional to continuing acts and displays of resistance, is to encourage pressures mounted by the global solidarity movement including at the UN. Such campaigns can gain inspiration from the South African worldwide anti-apartheid movement, which overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to achieve an unexpected, mostly bloodless, victory over racism in the form of a nonviolent transition to multi-racial constitutional democracy.It seems that the heightening of criticism of Israel’s behavior by myself and others did encourage Israel’s new approach, which abandoned defending itself against allegations of unlawfulness and criminality, and instead mobilizing energy and devoting resources to defaming critics, and doing its best to discredit, and even criminalize support for the BDS Campaign and other global solidarity initiatives as the Free Gaza Campaign. This Israeli pushback culminated in the widespread adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism that deliberately conflated hatred of Jews as a people with criticism of Israel as the State of the Jewish people. It is ironic that this regressive move has been most influential in countries such as the U.S., UK, and Germany that pride themselves on being the most respected constitutional democracies the world has known since ancient Athens, and yet when it comes to Israel the right of free expression and nonviolent protest are violated with official approval.

I believe my reports did have some beneficial impact on the discourse within the UN itself (including civil society NGOs), and on the understanding of the diplomatic community, with respect to four distinct aspects of Israeli behavior: 1) Understanding the settler colonial character of Israel’s domination and dispossession of the Palestinian people; 2) The de facto annexationist aspects of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem carried out in violation of international humanitarian law; 3) The unsupportable character of prolonged belligerent occupation, the abusive nature of which is not addressed by international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions and Protocols; 4) The apartheid character of Israel’s Jewish State, not only in relation to the occupation of the territory acquired in the 1967 War but in relation to the Palestinian people as a whole, including refugees and involuntary exiles, the minority living in pre-1967 Israel, and those in Gaza after Israel’s ‘disengagement’ of 2005.

I gave particular attention in my reports to the daily injustices associated with prolonged occupation of Palestinian territories, which had not attracted much prior attention, although my successor as SR, Michael Lynk, has carried my arguments further and to their logical conclusion that the occupation must be ended by judicial and political action at the international level. The legally, morally, and politically problematic character of ‘prolonged occupation,’ especially as combined in this with a denial of all civil and political rights to the residents of the occupied Palestinian territories and subversive of underlying Palestinian sovereignty as evidenced by UN recognition of Palestine in 2012 as a non-voting member State in the UN.
I believe that my reports helped in small ways to change the discourse and perceptions of civil society activists as well as of many members of the diplomatic community who privately conveyed to me their agreement with my analysis. The reports also brought up to date the lawlessness of Israel’s behavior with respect to the settlements, the separation wall, and reliance on excessive force, most pronouncedly in Gaza, which figured in the way the media and public opinion understood the competing arguments being put forward by Israel and Palestine, and seemed of some use to governments in formulating their approach to the underlying conflict.

Q: One of your reports on Israel was removed from the UN website under pressure from the United States and Israel. What was the content of the report, and why was there so much sensitivity about it?

A: My report was temporarily removed from the UN website in either 2009 or 2010, but interestingly, not at the initiative of either Israel or the United States, but by the Palestinian Authority, which represents Palestine at the UN. Their sole objection to my text was its acknowledgment of Hamas as the administering authority of Gaza, ineffective control of the governing process, reflecting both through its electoral victory in the 2006 elections in Gaza and as a result of the expulsion of Fatah forces associated with the Palestinian Authority during the following year.

What is worse (during the Oslo process), the Palestinians went along with their own entrapment, somehow thinking that they would be rewarded by their cooperative attitudes. It was the mere mention of Hamas that disturbed and agitated the PA to the point of seeking my resignation as SR, especially after I criticized aspects of the PA administration of the West Bank and their surprising controversial support of Israeli and U.S demands that the UN disregard the recommendations of the Goldstone Report that had been critical of Israel’s violation of the Laws of War during Operation Cast Lead, its devastating military attack on Gaza that started at the end of 2008 and lasted for several weeks in January 2009. After failing to oust me from my position, the PA shifted its tone and posture, and for the remaining years of my mandate was cooperative, and did not subsequently object to my reports even when the role of Hamas was discussed.

Q: You have repeatedly criticized Israel's policies and considered the peace process as a hoax. Why do you think this process is a hoax?

A: Maybe the word ‘hoax’ overstates my view, which was that the peace process as structured and implemented greatly favored Israel, discriminated against Palestine to such an extent that it was naïve to expect a sustainable and just peace to emerge from such one-sided diplomacy. This basic imbalance was evident in a number of respects. Above all, the framework for negotiations was seriously flawed by giving the United States, an overt and unconditional supporter of Israel, the inappropriate role of intermediary or ‘honest broker.’ This flaw exhibited itself by diplomats and staff representing the United States in the course of the Oslo process often being closely identified with the Zionist Movement, including being drawn from former employees of the pro-Israeli extremist lobbying group AIPAC. Such partisanship also explained the U.S. pressure on the Palestinian negotiating team not to object to settlement expansion or press other legal grievances as such objections would disrupt the peace process, insisting that such issues be left unresolved until ‘final status’ negotiations occurred at the last stage of the process, which was never reached. This pressure to mute international law objections to Israeli expansionism was perversely coupled with Washington’s acceptance of ‘facts on the ground’ as taking precedence over legal objections to the settlements, in effect, punishing Palestinians for following the advice to defer objections. This play of arguments reveals the entrapment of the Palestinians by the Oslo process—instead of insisting to Israel to freeze settlement activity to safeguard the diplomatic prospects, it exerted pressure on the Palestinians to suppress their objections to Israeli unlawful behavior, which by its nature, threatened reaching a two-state compromise. What is worse, the Palestinians went along with their own entrapment, somehow thinking that they would be rewarded by their cooperative attitudes.

The framework for negotiations was seriously flawed by giving the United States, an overt and unconditional supporter of Israel, the inappropriate role of intermediary or ‘honest broker.’The Oslo process was a trap from which the Palestinians never escaped, and ended up worsening Palestinian prospects as well as inflicting additional torments, including the frequency and viciousness of settler violence directed at Palestinian residents of the West Bank. Indeed, the dynamics of this Oslo period from 1993 until the start of the Trump presidency in 2017 was to raise Israeli expectations with respect to its maximal territorial ambitions, and to depress Palestinian hopes of reaching a political compromise in the form of the co-existence of separate sovereign states enjoying equal standing in international society. It became evident, as well, that Israeli internal politics drifted steadily to the right, partly reflecting the increasingly leverage of the settler movement. These developments made it increasingly clear that a two-state political compromise was no longer seen by the Israeli leadership as an expedient goal. In effect, it was no longer necessary to hide the Israeli belief that the West Bank, known in Israel by its biblical names of Judea and Samaria, was an integral element of the entitlement of the Jewish people to the land of Palestine as interpreted by mainstream Zionism as ‘the promised land.’ Some Zionists, attached to the ‘democratic’ claim attached to Israel’s political identity, worried that annexing the West Bank would explode a demographic bomb that would make it impossible to hide the apartheid nature of the Israeli state.

Q: U.S. President Donald Trump has now proposed a so-called Deal of the Century, and Israel is seeking to annex the West Bank. How do you evaluate this process?

A: As the occupation continued, and Israel’s annexationist moves met with only token international resistance, there was a noticeable shift in the outlook of Netanyahu, the dominant Israeli political figure of the period, from an international posture favoring political compromise to an outcome reached unilaterally in the form of an imposed Israeli one-state solution. When Trump arrived in the White House in early 2017 this shift for the first time enjoyed the explicit geopolitical support of the U.S. government, and need no longer be hidden from view. In this atmosphere Israel moved to affirm its claims to most of the promised land, and relinquished any attachment to ‘peace’ through negotiations, even negotiations biased in their favor.

The Trump Plan, whether known as ‘the deal of the century’ by its official name of ‘From Peace to Prosperity’ gives its seal of approval to the Israel vision of a one-state solution, slightly disguised by designating areas set aside for Palestinian administration as ‘a State,’ what was correctly associated with the Bantustans established by the apartheid regime in South Africa to hide the ugliest features of racist domination and exploitation.

The Trump Plan, whether known as ‘the deal of the century’ by its official name of ‘From Peace to Prosperity’ gives its seal of approval to the Israel vision of a one-state solution, slightly disguised by designating areas set aside for Palestinian administration as ‘a State,’ what was correctly associated with the Bantustans established by the apartheid regime in South Africa to hide the ugliest features of racist domination and exploitation. As is now known to the world, even the PA was unable to treat the Trump Plan as a serious negotiating proposal, correctly dismissing it as a blueprint for the Israeli one-state victory scenario. Israeli plans to annex a large portion of the West Bank by de jure enactment, on the basis of a green light from Washington, seems likely to be implemented in coming months, although opposed by some prominent security officials in Israel and even by maximalist Zionists on the grounds either of imperiling the Jewish demographic majority or provoking a surge of renewed Arab and international support for Palestinian grievances, and perhaps a trigger for a third intifada.

It should be internationally understood that the Trump Plan lacks any respectable international backing, and as such is in no way deserving of respect at the UN or elsewhere. It is an extremely partisan and arrogant set of proposals that are inconsistent with international law, the UN consensus, and elementary morality. Rather than being seriously considered, it should be summarily dismissed as an irrelevant geopolitical attempt to deny the Palestinian people of their inalienable right of self-determination.

Q: May 15 marked the 72nd anniversary of the establishment of Israel, and all through these years Israel has been supported by countries such as the United States and Britain. It is also noticeable that countries are consenting to Israel's occupation. Please explain?

A: The core rationale of support for Israel over the years has changed. Back when Israel was established in 1948 the public mood was shaped by the experience of World War II, including an acute sense of guilt on the part of liberal democracies in the West as having done so little to oppose Nazi racism toward Jews. From the start of the Zionist Project in the late 19th century anti-Semitic governments in Europe oddly shared the goal of Zionists of inducing Jews to leave their countries, and were eager to encourage emigration to Palestine. These attitudes underlay the 1917 colonialist initiative of the UK, known to the world as the Balfour Declaration, by which Britain pledged to look with favor on the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine although the Jewish minority was less than 8% and the Arab majority was never consulted. The more politically active personalities in Palestine opposed the idea of a Jewish homeland in their midst from the beginning. In that sense, Western support rested on these rather weak moral foundations that were not even consistent with regional strategic interests such as access to (Persian) Gulf oil reserves, trade routes, and leverage in the post-Ottoman Arab world. Zionism in Palestine turned against its British backer when Arab unrest in the 1930s led to some limits being imposed on Jewish immigration to Palestine, and the more militant Zionist militias started an ‘anti-colonial’ war in Palestine despite themselves being colonists. Of course, this was not so unusual in the British experience, having their earlier memories of the American Revolutionary War waged by their own colonists to gain political independence.

This hostile propaganda (against Palestinians), popularized by Hollywood movies demonizing Arabs and glorifying Israelis, bestowed on Israel the political space to impose an apartheid structure of control over the Palestinian people as a whole, and to avoid any international accountability relating to its defiance of international law beyond token expressions of disapproval from European capitals and Washington whenever Israel’s provocations could not be entirely ignored.

In Palestine, as elsewhere, British divide and rule tactics during its administration of Palestine between the two world wars suggested to the UN that partition, again without consulting the smaller, yet still Arab majority, was the solution, which in turn sparked a series of regional wars, culminating in the 1967 War. In that war Israel demonstrated its military prowess, and was no longer regarded by American policymakers as a troublesome burden of conscience for the United States, but was seen as a reliable strategic ally in a turbulent region, and Israel has remained reliable over the course of the last fifty years. All in all, Israel made this unusual transition from being a burden of conscience to becoming a geopolitical junior, often not so junior, partner of the United States. In the process of a string of military defeats of the Arab countries by Israel, especially the 1973 War, there was a gradual weakening of regional support for the liberation of Palestine, and more of an Arab elite disposition to normalize the presence of Israel, and more recently join in an implicit coalition confronting Iran with the lead role being assumed by the U.S., a result of Trump’s tightening regional alignments with Israel and Saudi Arabia during the last four years. The Jewish diaspora also provided a major source of Zionist pro-Israeli leverage around the world, first, in the post-Holocaust context, and after 1967, in the course of celebrating Israel’s military successes and modernizing record of achievement.

Throughout the process, the native Palestinian population was Orientalized, denigrated as ‘backward’ and inclined toward ‘terrorism.’ This hostile propaganda, popularized by Hollywood movies demonizing Arabs and glorifying Israelis, bestowed on Israel the political space to impose an apartheid structure of control over the Palestinian people as a whole, and to avoid any international accountability relating to its defiance of international law beyond token expressions of disapproval from European capitals and Washington whenever Israel’s provocations could not be entirely ignored. Although Israel has benefitted over the decades from American aid and support and European less blatant support, Israeli leadership has always had a Plan B. Israel, sought by every means to be self-reliant with respect to its security, highlighted by its covert acquisition and development of a nuclear weapons arsenal. In this sense, unless there are important shifts in the outlook of Arab governments (although not among the captive populations), even the withdrawal of U.S. support, which seems highly unlikely, would not make Israel much more vulnerable to external pressures.

Q: Based on the realities on the ground, it seems that the only way for the Palestinian people to get their rights is to resist the Israeli occupation. What is your opinion?

A: In view of the considerations discussed above, the most opportune Palestinian strategy would be to give up hopes under present conditions for reaching a satisfactory solution through diplomacy or at the UN. A more promising Palestinian strategy, additional to continuing acts and displays of resistance, is to encourage pressures mounted by the global solidarity movement including at the UN. Such campaigns can gain inspiration from the South African worldwide anti-apartheid movement, which overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to achieve an unexpected, mostly bloodless, victory over racism in the form of a nonviolent transition to multi-racial constitutional democracy.

The UN should not be forgotten. It remains a crucial site of struggle in waging what I have in the past referred to as ‘the legitimacy war’ fought to gain control of world public opinion, as well the high ground of public morality and international law. It should be appreciated that since 1945 the side that prevailed in the legitimacy war, rather than the side that controlled the battlefield, usually achieved political victory in the end. Gandhi appreciated the role of international public opinion in changing the balance of forces in India against the British Empire as did Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam in leading the defeat of overwhelmingly superior American military capabilities. Each conflict has unique characteristics, but the Palestinian struggle, despite present difficulties, can draw hope from the historical record of liberation and self-determination struggles of the past 75 years, and it is winning the legitimacy war, despite the Zionist defamatory pushback.
 

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