No Room for Dissent: Get on Board or Be Pushed out of the Middle East Deal of the Century

Tuesday, May 21, 2019
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

I usually don’t write about US-Palestine relations. We are now in the 52nd year after the 1967 Six-Day War, which is the baseline for my consciousness about the issue. I was in college at the time and luckily had a Fulbright professor who had just returned from two years in Israel and decided that it was time I learned something useful about my heritage and the region.

The continued behavior of the Trump Administration towards the Palestinians is driving me crazy. However, you won’t find me sticking up for the Palestinian leadership or their role over time in destabilizing several Arab countries. On the other hand, the pettiness and unremitting disregard for the humanity of the Palestinian people makes me wonder what price Lebanon will pay in the next decade as the White House attempts to impose its will on compliant Arab allies and undermine stability in the region for yet another lifetime.

Let’s begin with the latest news. The US is calling together an economic “workshop” in Bahrain to lay out the economic dimensions of its plan for Palestinian-Israeli peace. It is no coincidence that this statelet was chosen. Beholden to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as the US, it has its own contradictions of identity that make it a pliant candidate for supporting the US lead.

As Bloomberg reports, quoting a White House statement, “The “Peace to Prosperity” event will be held in Manama June 25-26 “to convene government, civil society, and business leaders to share ideas, discuss strategies, and galvanize support for potential economic investments and initiatives that could be made possible by a peace agreement.” The plan is supposedly the work of Jared Kushner, whose experience is reflected in his deep lack of appreciation for the dynamics of the region. And there is little hope that he recalls the Builders for Peace initiative launched after the Paris Peace Accords to which Israel assented only to then block any meaningful steps to improve the Palestinian economy.

This time around, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain as well as Egypt, are being counted on by the US to weigh in on the side of economic development despite the costs in dignity and identity for Palestinians hoping for a homeland. How the US can propose economic solutions as it continues to defund support for any efforts to maintain some dignity is an amazing contradiction.

This was brought home in an article in Annahar by our colleague Ziad El Sayegh, who has worked on key issues affecting Syrian refugees in Lebanon and sees the defunding of UNWRA as an opening of the closing of an independent Palestinian homeland. He points to the right wing trope that “Some would say that the forcibly displaced, including Palestinian refugees, are the residents of the countries of refuge and they deserve full integration therein,” a reality the Lebanese confront daily. This concern in Lebanon has led to the policy of disenfranchisement of Palestinians for fear of upsetting its internal political dynamics.

El Sayegh writes that “The Palestinian Refugees cause is political; shifting it to a purely humanitarian crisis jeopardizes it. In fact, UNRWA is important insofar as it has kept a record of the individual and collective identity of this cause. Unavoidably, it has to develop a lobby that supports sustainable instead of temporary patchwork solutions. The Right of Return stands as a cornerstone in these solutions.” In this insistence, he reflects the Lebanese reaction to paying the price for Israel’s exclusion of Palestinians from their homeland.

In addition to dimming prospects for an independent homeland, the US has cut $10 million of foreign aid that was supporting coexistence programs between Israelis and Palestinians; frozen $25 million in funding to Palestinian hospitals in eastern Jerusalem; halted all funding to the United Nations refugee agency that aids Palestinians; and slashed more than $200 million for humanitarian and development assistance in the West Bank and Gaza, according to the Times of Israel.

Likewise, Palestinian leaders are facing additional pressures to conform, the most recent example being the denial of a visa to Hanan Ashrawi, a noted peace activist. She tweeted, “It is official! My US visa application has been rejected. No reason given. Choose any of the following: I’m over 70 & a grandmother; I’ve been an activist for Palestine since the late 1960’s; I’ve always been an ardent supporter of nonviolent resistance.”

The Times of Israel noted that “In February, activist Osama Iliwat was denied entry at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York and sent home. In April, Omar Barghouti, the co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement targeting Israel, was not allowed to board a flight to the United States at the direction of the US government.” He was on his way to attend his daughter’s wedding among other events.

This pettiness drew criticism from US Jews and former diplomats alike. Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and a former US Foreign Service officer in Jerusalem said, “One [denial] could be just a random happenstance, two could be a coincidence. Three, it’s reasonable to ask whether or not there hasn’t been a de facto shift in US policy that is denying visas to Palestinians to come to the US based on their political views, which would be deeply troubling.”

An Al-Monitor article quoted Aaron Miller, who worked as a peace envoy to the Middle East for both Republican and Democratic administrations, “That he kept hoping there was some technical reason Ashrawi’s visa was denied, because, “I don’t want to accept that this administration has come to a place where its desire to pressure Palestinians has become so intense that it cannot abide any criticism of US and Israeli actions and, in the process, sadly undermines not only any semblance of fairness in American policy but American values.”

Well, writing all of this won’t change minds that are already set but there is still a shred of home that King Salman will prevail over MbS and uphold a collective Arab stance that calls for recognizing legitimate conditions for Palestinian-Israeli peace that does not come at the expense of Lebanon and Jordan, among others.