Jeff Halper - 29 October 2020
As an Israeli, I should feel happy and more secure after Trump’s brokered “normalization” between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain and now Sudan. But his brand of transactional diplomacy leaves one feeling uncomfortable that such an achievement happened without resolving any of the underlying issues.
Now all diplomacy is transactional, it always involves some kind of a “deal.” But traditional diplomacy is “thick”: that is, the deal represents only a part of the equation. In fact, what the deal even is depends on many different and often contradictory considerations. Take US policy towards the Palestinians. One immediate question is: can the Palestine issue be detached from wider regional and even global politics? Does normalization between Israel and the Arab world mean mutual recognition between governments – in many cases, autocratic governments that repress rather than represent their people – or must genuine people-to-people relations based on resolving the grievances among them be part of the deal?
To what degree, we must ask, can a straightforward “deal” – say, political recognition for financial support or weapons – accomplish a complex goal, whether its peace-making, ending a conflict or realigning a region’s political alliances? Should specific deals be detached from their wider political contexts? “Peace” between the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Israel seems like a worthwhile achievement on its own, but what are the peripheral costs? Does seeming normalization between Israel and Arab states stand on its own merits or, by relieving Israel of the necessity in resolving its issues with the Palestinians, does it only lock Israel into a long-term repressive conflict and occupation that will threaten its well-being in the long-term.
Indeed, in simplistic transactional deals such as a Trump/US-brokered one, we must ask: whose interests are actually served? The Israel and the Muslim states involved, or the US itself, now able to use those countries as buyers of expensive weapons (since the deal did not attempt to address the actual sources of conflict) or, more cynically, was the prospect of financial gain and weapons that might keep unpopular dictators in power “worth” selling their people’s long-term well-being, security and sovereignty to a powerful player interested in only pursing its own ends?
These sorts of transactional deals between “us” and “them” also tend to ignore the impact such unilateral transactions have on wider international relations. Beyond Israel, the Palestinians and the Muslim countries immediately involved, the so-called “peace deal” mediated (or dictated) by Trump in fact signified a strengthening of the alliance between Sunni Muslims, represented primarily by Saudi Arabia (hardly a model of a democracy’s ideal ally), and the Shi’ite world, led by Iran. Not only does that have significance for the Middle East region itself, embroiled in sectarian-related conflicts that need genuine diplomatic care rather than superficial transactional “deals,” but Iran is connected to Russia and China, all of which affects India and Pakistan, creating a house of cards. What happens, as in transactional diplomacy, when one card is removed?
And what about the “softer, liberal” issues that tend to get lost in foreign policy, be it transactional or realpolitik? Human rights, for example, the ability of a people to decide its own future and to fully participate in the community of nationals, especially small and weaker peoples like the Palestinians? What is the impact of a foreign policy with tremendous power to realign national and international relations, but which evinces no interest whatsoever in the well-being of the peoples whose lives it controls?
As in business, where under Trump it originates, transactional diplomacy sets out a clear and specific set of terms: if you do this we will respond thus. Period. So, in its deals with autocratic states, if improving human rights or strengthening democracy or resolving regional conflicts (Yemen, for example) are not part of terms laid out, then they play no role whatsoever. In transactional diplomacy there is no expectation that a part will go beyond the minimal terms delineated. And, as in business, if one party does not accept the terms, no matter how unjust or disadvantageous they may be, the deal is off. If the Palestinians do not accept life in enclaves on 15% of their homeland, despite Jared Kushner’s attempt to buy them off, if they don’t accept Trump’s “Deal of the Century” in its entirety, then they are no longer part of the transaction. We have no more responsibility to even consider them.
Such was the choice facing Sudan: either you normalize with Israel (allowing Israel to repatriate thousands of Sudanese asylum-seekers) or remain on the list of terrorist countries – despite your change of regime – thus doomed to perpetual marginality and poverty. Blackmail as foreign policy.
These are some of the “thick” considerations that international relations must take into account. To be sure, traditional diplomacy, based on realpolitik, also did not deal well with these complexities. But it did deal with them. That is why diplomacy moved so maddingly slow. It also dealt in trade-offs, but not always immediate and completely self-serving. “Constructive engagement” towards Israel, Iran or Russia meant making concessions today for a change of policy later down the road, often accompanied, it is true, by sanctions and demonstrations of power.
“America First,” by contrast, is a narrow form of transactional relations much simpler in its conduct and easier to grasp, like a business deal. No bigger picture, no ethical or human rights concerns, no ideology or set of values, no long-term goals or strategies, no friends or enemies, no commitments to allies. Just the self-serving “deal” based on our – or rather my, because US foreign policy has become frighteningly personalized – immediate interests and raw power, financial, political or military.
Taken to its logical conclusion, such an approach would destroy whatever global community exists. International agreements that serve the wider good even if each individual country must make certain concessions become impossible to broker; a narrow national (and nationalistic) policy renders international institutions moot, thus crippling their ability to regulate a complex global reality.
Business may offer certain skills, strategies or practices useful in the conduct of foreign affairs, but unlike business foreign relations are more about processes of living together in the long-term than making deals. They require alliances and the ability to trust friends and institutions, not the immediate self-serving transaction of the deal to the exclusion of relationships and, often, morality. As an Israeli, I should be feeling more secure after Trump’s deals. I don’t. Not only does my peace and security come at the expense of that of the Palestinians, the Arab peoples and Sudanese asylum-seekers, but in that such deals don’t resolve underlying grievances, my peace and security, and that of my country, is likely to be short-lived and illusionary.
The problematics do not end here, however. Legitimate or not, self-serving or not, transactional deals can have an impact far more jarring, far-reaching and unpredictable than slower, process-oriented, more inclusive and thought-out “traditional” diplomatic initiatives. Sprung upon us suddenly, confronting us with a radically new set of relations we had no hand in producing, how should we – the victims? the objects acted upon? the actors excluded from the deal – react? This is an especially urgent question facing the Palestinians and their allies, critical Israeli Jews and international supporters alike.
Needless to say, we must roll with the punch. Not to give in to the heightened pressures generated by the shift of power and relations, of course, but also not to satisfy ourselves with merely condemning whatever betrayal just took place, as Palestinian leaders have (justifiably) done. As some Asian businesspeople and strategists must do, we must scramble to avoid being paralyzed as in the game of Go, and shift the larger gameboard to our advantage through effective countermoves.
What would those countermoves be?
First, we must clearly lay out our own program for a resolution of the Palestine issue, mobilize our allies at home and abroad around it, organize and formulate an effective strategy. While “rolling with the punches” means adjusting our political program and actions to a constantly changing reality – a reality that changes abruptly and in unpredictable ways in an era of transactional diplomacy – it requires us to articulate a vision of where we want to go. “Vision” does not consist merely of some vague idealistic dream, although envisioning or thinking through where you want to go is important; it means adopting in as much detail as possible a long-term set of goals that help keep the struggle’s focus through all political vicissitudes. It also means jettisoning programs that the political reality has overtaken. Continuing to debate the two-state solution, for example, when the political reality within Israel, the region and internationally has moved on, not to mention Israel’s “facts on the ground,” simply deflects attention from more just and do-able programs and drains our energies. And, of course, a principled vision protects us from falling into traps like Trump and Netanyahu’s Deal of the Century, a form of transactional apartheid.
In my view, only one vision and program meets these requirements, the 10-point program set out by the One Democratic State Campaign (ODSC). Though still in a bare outline form and needing a great deal of collective fleshing-out, it represents the first attempt to “think through” the entire process of decolonization. Indeed, its very grounding in decolonizing a settler colonial state rather than on technically addressing a “conflict” gives such a program a cogency lacking in any previous one. Building on earlier ODS programs, it consists of the following elements:
- The historic land of Palestine belongs to all who live in it and to those who were expelled or exiled from it since 1948, regardless of religion, ethnicity, national origin or current citizenship status.
- The implementation of the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants in accordance with UN Resolution 194 is a fundamental requirement for justice, and a benchmark of equality. It also signifies Palestinian national sovereignty, the ability to address one’s peoples’ needs with a significant measure of self-determination.
- Any system of government must be founded on the principle of equality in civil, political, social and cultural rights for all citizens. The regime of ethno-religious nationalism should be replaced by a constitutional democracy based on common citizenship, thus enabling and fostering the emergence of a shared civil society.
- The recognition of the diverse character of the society, encompassing distinct religious, linguistic and cultural traditions, and national experiences. Constitutional guarantees will protect the country’s national, ethnic, religious and other communities.
- There must be just redress for the devastating effects of decades of Zionist colonization in the pre- and post-state period, including the abrogation of all laws, and ending all policies, practices and systems of military and civil control that oppress and discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, religion or national origin.
- The creation of a non-sectarian state that does not privilege the rights of one ethnic or religious group over another and that respects the separation of state from all organized religion.
- In articulating the specific contours of such a solution, those who have been historically excluded from decision-making – especially the Palestinian Diaspora and its refugees, and Palestinians inside Israel – must play a central role.
- Putting into place an inclusive economy offering economic security, sustainability, meaningful employment and just compensation.
- Acknowledging a connectedness to the wider Middle Eastern and global community that requires engagement in creating new regional and global structures of equality and sustainability upon which the success of local decolonization ultimately depends.
(For a fuller discussion of the ODSC program, visit the site: onestatecampaign.org.)
The second countermove would blindside Israel and its governmental allies by effectively mobilizing a key player that they ignore and downplay, the international civil society, the Palestinians’ only true and reliable ally. Now this has already been done to a degree. A robust international movement of support for the Palestinian cause exists throughout the world. Trade unions, religious denominations, intellectuals, academics and students, political and human rights organizations, activist groups, alternative media outlets and social media, general public opinion, even government officials and parliamentarians – all have been mobilized into a movement that rivals in scale the anti-apartheid movement.
What is lacking is precisely the vision and political program around which all these groups can unite, around which focused and effective mobilization is possible. The Palestinians are a people with diverse views, of course, and any attempt to incorporate Israeli Jews into a program of decolonization complicates matters even more. Efforts to forge an agreed-upon vision based on decolonization and progressively solidified by hammering out a fairly detailed political program will provide the required focus, direction, leadership and organization that the Palestinian movement currently lacks. This is urgent. There are many worthwhile issues competing for attention. If nothing happens on the Palestinian issue for years, if activists and supports continue to feel at drift, not knowing what to do, they will start to drift away – and, indeed, that seems to be happening. Campaigns based on applying international law and human rights to the Palestinian cause are an important component, but by themselves do not amount to a political program. The same can be said of the BDS campaign. We can only effectively mobilize our forces if we give them a clear program, a place to go, and the feeling that we are moving forward. Mobilized, civil society can be powerful political actor, as the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid forces proved. But we have to become political actors, not merely protestors or commentators.
Third, we must begin to forge ties with progressive civil society allies in Arab and Muslim countries, penetrate into those very places where transactional diplomacy has coopted the governments and ruling classes. In a sense this is an extension of the last countermove, but in a direction we have not exploited. The reasons we haven’t are clear. For the most part, our Arab and Muslim allies live under cruel, autocratic governments whose own transactional interests – political and military, internal as well as external – have placed them on the side of (de facto if not openly) normalizing relations with Israel at the expense of the Palestinians. To make matters more difficult, any association with Israelis is unacceptable to, and often dangerous for, many civil society groups in Muslim countries, although any movement of decolonization in Palestine will have to involve Israeli Jews.
Article 9 of the ODSC program reflects the understanding that decolonization and the construction of a post-colonial democracy cannot happen in one country isolated from its region. This process must be a regional one, albeit expressed differently in different countries of the region. The Palestinians might be in a unique position to advance this grassroots mobilization. They possess an emblematic stature in the struggle for self-determination, democracy and human rights, and are able to communicate through Palestinian communities spread throughout the Middle East. To be sure, they are suspect in many Arab regimes, but working through them and their own struggle for sovereignty connects by definition with the aspirations of the Arab and Muslim peoples. Concretely, Sudan might be the place to start, since its own movement towards national democratic renewal creates spaces for progressive forces to establish ties.
Trump’s transactional diplomacy has, for better or worse, fundamentally altered the political landscape. Its time for us to be political, see ourselves as political actors, formulate a guiding vision and program, and begin to strategize. Two can play Go.
Jeff Halper is an Israeli anthropologist, the head of the Israel Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) and a member of the ODSC. His forthcoming book is Decolonizing Israel, Liberating Palestine: Zionism, Settler Colonialism and the Case for One Democratic State (London: Pluto Press, 2021).