On Dec. 18, the Australian chided Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas’ “ill-judged refusal” to meet US Vice-President Mike Pence during a planned but ultimately postponed December visit to the Middle East because of US President Trump’s Jerusalem recognition statement.
It encouraged Abbas to heed the “subdued response” by Palestinians and the Arab states and “seize every opportunity for talks. Arguing that the US has no role to play in the Middle East peace process is delusional.”
Following Pence’s eventual visit in January, the Australian (Jan. 25) said, “Pence’s announcement that Washington is expediting the relocation of its embassy to Jerusalem should help Palestinian leaders understand the speed with which they are being outpaced by events. Their refusal even to meet Mr Pence during his just-completed visit to Israel showed political ineptitude and ossified thinking that undermined their cause and the cause of restarting negotiations on a two-state solution.”
As part of an ABC News Radio (Jan. 23) introduction of a report on Pence’s speech to the Knesset, the newsreader claimed that “The European Union’s foreign policy chief says the EU will recognise East Jerusalem as the capital of any future Palestinian state.”
Actually, the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who made the remarks in a joint press conference with Abbas, had only reaffirmed “the firm commitment of the European Union to the two-state solution, with Jerusalem as shared capital of the two states” – a softer choice of words significantly different in diplomatic terms.
AIJAC’s Colin Rubenstein explained predictions of mass violence and protest over US President Trump’s statement recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital proved to be in error “due to the actual content of the statement itself and to the changing state of international affairs, particularly priorities in the Arab world.”
Trump’s speech, he said, “made it clear that he wasn’t pre-empting its final boundaries or precluding a Palestinian capital in the city’s east, or a two-state outcome, and also that he respected the importance of the city to Christianity and Islam.”
But, he wrote, PA President Mahmoud Abbas not only responded as if Trump had not included those qualifications, he “descended into outright anti-Semitism, accusing Jews of being ‘really excellent in faking and counterfeiting history and religion’. If Abbas can’t even bring himself to accept the Jewish connection to Jerusalem and Israel, it casts real doubt over whether he will ever be prepared to negotiate peace,” Australian (Dec. 26).
Aid that the truth
AIJAC’s Jamie Hyams explained to ABC Radio “PM” host Linda Mottram (Jan. 3) that Trump’s Jerusalem statement did not “predetermine the ultimate borders of Jerusalem” or “preclude the possibility of the Palestinians having a capital there. All he was stating was the obvious, that is, since 1949 Israel’s capital has been in the west of Jerusalem.”
Asked how Trump’s threat to cut funding to the Palestinians could aid peace, Hyams detailed the PA’s history of avoiding peace talks since 2008 and said a cut could “motivate them in the right way.”
He downplayed concerns over the threat to humanitarian aid, explaining that US$315 million of the PA’s annual US$4 billion budget goes to “paying off terrorists or their families” which is “very controversial” in the US, not just with Trump.
Interviewed afterwards, Izzat Abdulhadi, head of the Palestinian delegation in Australia, denied that the PA uses aid to assist terrorists. He said the PA uses its own money to help the families of “political prisoners in Israeli jails.”
Behind the Scenes
Analyst Jonathan Spyer argued that the relatively muted response to Trump’s Jerusalem announcement was a reflection of a Palestinian reluctance to scare off tourists during the Christmas period and the “searing experience of the second intifada” when 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis died.
Looking further afield, Spyer said in the “decidedly non-symbolic world of Middle Eastern strategy and politics… the Trump declaration seems of secondary significance.”
He pointed to a development that received little media coverage outside the Middle East but which was seized on in Israel and Saudi Arabia.
“An Iran-supported Iraqi Shia militia leader, Qais al-Khazaleh, in a video released on Saturday, was shown visiting the Lebanese-Israeli border in the company of members of Hezbollah. ‘I’m here with my brothers from Hezbollah, the Islamic Resistance,’ Khazaleh says in the video. ‘We announce our full preparedness to stand as one with the Lebanese people with the Palestinian cause in the face of the unjust Israeli occupation…'”
Spyer noted that the visit “became a major subject in media discussion in both countries. Prominent Saudi journalist Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed, whose columns tend to reflect official Saudi thinking, noted Khazaleh’s status as a servant of Iran, and wrote in Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat: ‘Now that Iran dominates Syria, Lebanon’s situation became annexed to the war’s results and agreements. Teheran’s domination increased to an extent that it now dares to send its militias and their leaders to demarcation lines with Israel attempting to drag it into a new war.’ This statement, from a Saudi journalist close to the corridors of power in Riyadh, reflects the real and non-symbolic nature of power politics in the Middle East.”
The lesson he said was that “outside the region, far from danger, pure symbolism can be indulged at no potential cost. So ideas and maximal aspirations continue to run free, unfettered by the bonds of reality. In the meantime, Iran patiently is continuing to advance its cause in the collapsed states of the Arab Middle East,” Australian (Dec. 16).
Elsewhere (Jan. 21), News Ltd veteran Paul Toohey quoted Australian Defence Association Executive Director Neil James’ view that in 2018 Iran will “continue to cause regional and wider instability in four ways… That is its pursuit of nuclear weapons, particularly to threaten Israel existentially; its rivalry with Saudi Arabia and confrontations with Sunni Islam in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain; its support for terrorist organisations such as Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon; and the authoritarian nature of the Islamic Republican regime itself.”
The times they are a’ changing
Another voice grasping contemporary Middle East undercurrents was New York Times columnist Ross Douthat who suggested that Trump’s Jerusalem announcement was “not so crazy”.
He wrote, “The relatively mild reaction to recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital may be a case study in expert consensus falling behind the facts; the Arab world has different concerns than it did in 1995, and Trump’s move has helped clarify that change. Likewise, getting the Saudis to lean hard on the Palestinians, to float radical ideas for a supersized Gaza and a very Israel-friendly solution elsewhere, is as plausible an attempt to break the logjam as was the pressure Obama put on Israel. The truth is that the specific two-state vision of the late 1990s was overtaken by events a while ago, and demonstrating that some Arab states are more amenable to accommodating Israel is a useful step toward diplomatic clarity,” Australian Financial Review (Dec. 21).
Muddying the refugee issue
ABC Middle East correspondent Sophie McNeill’s report on announced US cuts to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) gave an incomplete picture of the unique nature of Palestinian refugee status.
The report implied that the US and Israel would be responsible for any suffering that arises from a funding cut and focused on the Ghanams, a Palestinian family who fled from Syria to Lebanon where, McNeill said, “they are unable to legally work.” McNeill did not focus on why Lebanon should not be asked or pressured to allow refugees to work.
UNRWA West Bank director Scott Anderson was quoted explaining that “you are a refugee until there is a resolution to the action that caused you to be a refugee.”
That is misleading, as is presenting the Ghanam family as representative. It isn’t, unlike the majority of Palestinian “refugees” who are either Jordanian citizens or live under Palestinian rule in either Gaza or the West Bank. The report failed to explain how the Palestinians are unique in the world in being able to hold citizenship and still be considered refugees by UNRWA. Or that Palestinian refugee status is uniquely inheritable, so that refugees from the 1948 war have miraculously multiplied from 700,000 to five million, ABC TV News 24 “The World” (Jan. 22).
Coverage of the historic visit by Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu to India in January was somewhat eclectic in focus.
SBS Radio’s Hindi language program (Jan. 12) covered the visit and quoted Indian academic Dr. Sreeram Chaulia, saying that the strategic partnership between these two countries is based on common interests and that “Israel and India have a mature understanding that each will not prejudge the strategic choices of the other.”
ABC TV News24 “The World” (Jan. 19) focused on Netanyahu’s invitation to India’s famed Bollywood film industry to make movies in Israel using a fund set up for just such a purpose.
The Courier Mail (Jan. 22) covered the visit using a pointer to an article on the Al Jazeera website by Marxist, pro-BDS academic Vijay Prashad whose views reflected the Qatari-owned, Hamas-supporting media organisation’s long standing animus to the Jewish state.
The pointer quoted Prashad claiming, “The people didn’t universally welcome… Netanyahu to India. Weapons are at the heart of the relationship between India and Israel. All else is secondary.”
Questioning our priorities
The Spectator Australia (Jan. 6) said Australia’s decision to abstain on a United Nations General Assembly resolution that attacked Trump’s embassy announcement was “cowardly”.
The editorial questioned why Foreign Minister Julie Bishop would “mak[e] the ludicrous and ghoulish claim that the future of Jerusalem could only be decided with the approval of the world’s Muslim nations…. Why on earth should the status of the ancient religious and cultural capital of the Jewish people be beholden to the medieval whims of murderous tyrants of the Muslim world?”
The Australian (Dec. 22) saw merit in US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley’s warning that member states backing the resolution would face consequences.
The paper said, “Mr Trump is right to serve notice that time is up for countries that are so quick to condemn the US but forever have their begging bowls outstretched. Ramshackle Egypt, the main sponsor of the resolution condemning Mr Trump’s decision, receives $US1.5bn a year in US help. Turkey, which has condemned the US as ‘a partner in bloodshed’ over the Jerusalem decision, pockets $US155 million plus additional aid under the NATO umbrella. Pakistan, despite its double-dealing with the Taliban, gets $US777m. The West Bank and Gaza, including the bitterly anti-US Palestinian Authority, get $US357m, while another $US355m is earmarked for Palestinian refugees. As Mr Trump says, ‘we’ll save a lot… we don’t care.’ He is also right to wonder why close allies Britain and France joined in condemning the US in a vote in the Security Council.”
ABC and SBS reports covered the UN General Assembly votes on radio and TV but none gave any space to explaining the reality that Trump’s announcement did not preclude a future Palestinian state also having its capital in Jerusalem.
Wollongong University international law academic Greg Rose backed Israeli control over Jerusalem, noting the attacks on non-Muslim religious holy sites that have come under Palestinian Authority control over the past 25 years.
According to Rose, “Judaism’s tombs of Joseph, Rachel and the Patriarchs have been desecrated repeatedly, Christianity’s Church of the Nativity has been besieged, and most Christians have left. This is consistent with conduct under the Jordanian occupation of Jerusalem 1949-67, when 57 synagogues were destroyed, the 2000-year-old Mount of Olives Jewish cemetery was desecrated extensively, all Jews were expelled and one-third of the Christian population left.”
In contrast, “Israel recognises Jerusalem’s sacred sensitivity under its Protection of Holy Places Law, which guarantees freedom of access and protection from desecration of the holy places of all religions. Control over mosques has been handed to Jordanian royal trusteeship. Christian holy places are managed by their respective churches. More than 1.5 million Christian tourists visit annually, Christian boys volunteer to join the Israel Defence Forces at a rate of 30 per cent, joined by Druze and some Bedouin, and Israel is the only country in the Middle East where the Christian population is growing in absolute terms,” Australian (Dec. 29).
An AFP report dealing with the announcement of 1,100 new West Bank settlement homes relied on the exaggerations of the Israeli NGO Peace Now, which has a long track record of using its own arbitrary parameters to promote a political agenda divorced from reality.
According to the story, Peace Now spokesperson Hagit Ofran “said the majority of the approvals are for settlements deep in the West Bank that Israel would likely need to evacuate as part of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. ‘It’s a part of the general trend that the government is doing, which is to build all over the West Bank, even more in places that Israel would need to evict, and in this way torpedo the possibility for a two-state solution,’ she said.”
What the story omits to define is what Ofran considers to be “deep in the West Bank”. As AIJAC has pointed out on many occasions, Peace Now uses the maps endorsed by the 2003 Geneva Initiative, which no Israeli government has ever endorsed or accepted as the basis for negotiation with the Palestinians and which would require Israel to relocate the majority of settlers, unlike most other peace proposals.
In fact, of the so-called “majority of the approvals” claimed by Ofran, only 218 units, or 16.4%, involved settlements that could be considered to be deep in the West Bank according to more mainstream peace plans. Moreover, all 218 appeared to be “approvals” in very early stages that would require several subsequent stages of approval in order for construction to begin – a process that would take years and often doesn’t happen at all.
The rest of the announcements all dealt with settlements in what are widely accepted to be settlement blocs to be retained by Israel in any two-state agreement. Furthermore, settlement housing starts in 2017 were at the lowest levels since 2011, Australian (Jan. 12).
Columnist Rita Panahi condemned increasing levels of global antisemitism, accusing media and politicians of applying a different standard when hate crimes happen against Muslims and when they are committed against Jews.
Citing two recent examples, (one where the Canadian Muslim victim actually made up the attack) Panahi wrote, “why was a Jewish girl with a cut face not as compelling a story as a Muslim girl with a cut hijab? One reason is that crimes against Jews in the West are increasingly perpetrated by Muslim migrants, and that doesn’t fit the narrative pushed by activists in the media class… The statistics provide a stark reality check for the deliberately blind who don’t want to acknowledge the cause of the violence. Just over half of all anti-Semitic attacks in Sweden are committed by Islamists, about a quarter by Left-wing extremists, and 5 per cent by neo-Nazis or Right-wing extremists,” Herald Sun (Jan. 22).
On the nose
Commenting on widespread domestic protests in Iran, ANU Professor Amin Saikal advised the United States “to keep [its] nose out of the evolving Iranian situation and let the Iranians sort out their own problems.”
According to Saikal, “the US has burned its fingers in Iran before with the CIA-led overthrow of the elected and reformist government of prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953, and America’s subsequent support of the Shah’s autocratic rule, which resulted in the loss of Iran as a vital strategic partner.”
On both points Saikal is mispresenting the historical record.
Contrary to a widespread narrative, the overthrow of Mossadeq – who was elected but governing unconstitutionally – was actually undertaken mainly by indigenous Iranian forces with only minimal support from the CIA, as recent scholarship has shown.
During the Shah’s rule the US repeatedly tried to convince him to democratise and be less authoritarian.
Moreover, in the lead up to the popular uprising that overthrew the Shah in 1979, then US President Jimmy Carter not only reached out to Ayatollah Khomeini but prevented Iran’s military from launching its own counter-coup, Australian Financial Review (Jan. 5).