US legislation may hasten Palestine-Israel conflict

US legislation may hasten Palestine-Israel conflict

If only members of the US Congress had listened to the incisive observation of 19th century President Andrew Johnson, who warned that: “Legislation can neither be wise nor just which seeks the welfare of a single interest at the expense and to the injury of many and varied interests.” If they had, they would have refrained from passing the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act (ATCA), which came into effect early this month.

This piece of legislation, which was passed by Congress late last year, stipulates that foreign organizations that receive US funding be subject to American counterterrorism laws. Or, in other words, open to be sued in the American courts on suspicion of direct involvement in terrorist acts or aiding and abetting terrorism. 

On the face it, it would make little sense for the US to provide financial aid to entities that were involved in terrorism, or to not enable its citizens to pursue the course of justice against perpetrators of terrorism. However, this legislation is mainly aimed at the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority (PA). One doesn’t have to be an avid fan of Israeli TV’s political thriller “Fauda” to understand the importance of coordination between the Israeli and Palestinian security forces and how many Israeli lives have been spared as a consequence of this. Dragging the PLO and the PA through the American courts would only weaken such coordination, to the detriment of both Israel and the US.

Not surprisingly, the PA has informed US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that it will no longer accept any American aid. 

Despite the peace process fizzling out and with no resumption in sight, not to mention any agreement to bring closure to this 100-year-plus conflict, the security coordination remains as almost the only notable achievement left from the Oslo years, which mainly benefited Israel. Nevertheless, many Palestinians continue to ask if and how it serves their interests. The more generous view argues that preventing militancy makes the occupation almost cost-free for the Israelis: They have free hand to oppress the Palestinian population, to confiscate its land and build settlements on it — rendering the two-state solution, and thus an independent and viable Palestinian state, impossible.

The harsher view accuses the PA, its President Mahmoud Abbas and its lieutenants of collaborating with the enemy, of betraying their people merely to maintain their privileged positions, which would be under threat if they ended the security coordination with Israel. To put it plainly, the PA and its leaders are accused of being Israel’s security subcontractors with no apparent benefits for the Palestinian people, who are stuck between an oppressive occupation and a version of self-rule that doesn’t serve their interests, respect their human rights or give them any chance of fulfilling their aspirations of self-determination. 

Security coordination remains as almost the only notable achievement left from the Oslo years.

Yossi Mekelberg

An alternative argument is that, unless the PA continues to prevent militant actions against Israel and its citizens, including the settlers who above all epitomize the occupation, Israel’s security forces will take over and this will make life even worse for Palestinians. But, increasingly, this argument is losing its validity and its attraction. There is growing support for those who advocate out of despair that, whether or not they support a return to the armed struggle, no Palestinian should be involved in preventing it.

Worse, America’s misguided attack on aid to the Palestinians questions whatever remains of the logic of cooperating with the Israelis on any level. The cruel and foolish ending of all support to UNWRA, targeting the most vulnerable among the Palestinian population — the refugees in the Occupied Territories, blockaded Gaza and elsewhere — was the opening shot in a strategy to cripple Abbas’ PA, or what is left of it. Then came Donald Trump’s decision to cut $25m earmarked for the care of Palestinians in East Jerusalem hospitals, and the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem. The political consensus on ATCA is the latest, crucial evidence of a collective loss of judgement on DC’s Pennsylvania Avenue over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Bit by bit, the harmful impact of Benjamin Netanyahu’s influence in Washington, combined with the competition in the US political system to demonstrate support for Israel, is becoming self-defeating. That is, unless the aim is to completely destroy any remnants of Palestinian self-rule, provoke the Palestinians to embark on a third intifada, and thereby justify the misconceived idea of a decisive war against the Palestinians and the annexing of parts or all of the West Bank. 

There is also an element, represented in its support for ATCA, which varies between deterrence and revenge against Abbas for his decision to join the International Criminal Court with the stated intention of pursuing war crimes charges against Israeli officials and soldiers. That decision, as he himself admitted, was part of a serious attempt to apply pressure on Israel, one which included ending security coordination with Tel Aviv. For Abbas, these measures add up to a last-ditch move that might bring his leadership to an end, hence they are more declarations and threats made in hope rather than with any conviction that they might change Israeli (or American) behavior. 

However, the ATCA, and the other measures aimed at weakening the PA and the PLO, are pushing both into a corner from which, in order to regain any credibility among their people, they might have to resort to the very means that the US and Israel are apparently trying to prevent. This won’t serve the US, and most definitely not Israel. Such a short-term victory in Washington might well end up hastening a conflict that is becoming more and more inevitable.


•    Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg

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