Aisling Byrne interviews Abdel Bari Atwan
Donald Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ (DoC) - whether in its actual or conceptual form - is ushering in a new strategic era, providing cover for an imposed strategic realignment that lays the foundations for the establishment of Greater Israel. The components already been implemented by the USA and Israel, plus those expected to be implemented (annexation and cancelling the right of return with settlement of refugees in neighbouring states), aim to create a new strategic reality that will fundamentally change the question of Palestine and the geostrategic politics of the region.
Strategically, the DoC amounts to the construction of a ‘neo Sykes-Picot’ redrawing of the Middle East according to the shared ‘Likud-Republican’ agenda that, with Greater Israel at its epicentre, could well be as destabilising as its original 1916 then-secret counterpart.
The core components of ‘Palestine’ have already been taken off the table, and what will be left for ‘New Palestine’ will be nothing more than a collection of semi-autonomous mini-states on about twelve per cent of historic Palestine. These will be connected by a land route, but will effectively be statelets with little more than the impotency of a bantustan. Demilitarised with only a lightly-armed police force, these statelets would have to pay Israel for providing military security. Lacking any aspect of sovereignty, this ‘New Palestine’ will be no more than an aid-dependent humanitarian macro-project couched in the framework of ‘better standards of living’ for Palestinians. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his colleagues have been explicit: the DoC addresses Israel’s security needs.
This new strategic architecture aims to strengthen the foundations of the Israel-Saudi Arabia-UAE axis. Largely paid for by the Gulf states (with the US and EU contributing), the UN would likely co-ordinate much of the funding (as it has done during the Oslo decades) – all of which will further cement Israel’s political control and its divide-and-rule objectives. The extent to which the DoC is actively resisted remains to be seen: Jordan, Hizbullah (Lebanon), Iran, Syria (to the extent it can) and Turkey will resist rhetorically; although Russia and China said they will not attend the upcoming Bahrain workshop, their position will likely be similar to their position on Oslo and the regime change interventions in the region since 2003 – strategic patience: waiting for these western-led initiatives to collapse.
Crucially, however, inthe wider context, regional strategic developments are not going Israel’s way, and it is likely that this macro-strategic context will determine the fate of the DoC more than the micro mini-wins. The Gulf states are weak; the northern tier in the region (Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hizbullah) is strengthening and has greater missile capabilities. Across the northern front, air defences are slowly being put in place that reduce Israel’s air superiority and its ability to operate. Strategically, these countries - as well as Russia and China - can afford to wait. So, while we might see a ‘twilight decade’ for Palestinians (perhaps not that different to the twenty-five-year Oslo period) at the micro level, the political landscape is changing rapidly in the region more widely.
The DoC reflects the excessive confidence of Netanyahu and the Israeli right, but it also, to an extent, reflects an acknowledgment of Israel’s greater vulnerability; hence this push to strengthen Israel’s strategic depth. It remains to be seen, however, whether the DoC results in and is reflective of overreach.
If a wider regional conflict erupts, this too would change the strategic circumstances for Palestinians, most likely with them being involved in wider resistance against the key DoC states (Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE). A wider regional conflict may also change Israel’s circumstances dramatically in Galilee and the northern parts of historic Palestine; Hizbullah has warned that the next war will be fought inside Israel.
I asked leading Arab political commentator, Abdel Bari Atwan, about the key strategic and geopolitical aspects and implications of the DoC.
The DoC appears to be more about cementing Israel into the regional polity and security architecture, and less about the micro context with the Palestinians. What are the key regional pillars underpinning this ‘Greater Israel’ project?
It remains unclear even to what extent the DoC will be officially unveiled as a coherent plan or to what extent it has even been formulated with any coherence. Nevertheless, the concept behind the DoC is to turn the Israeli status quo into a permanent fait accompli, and secure regional and international legitimacy and political acceptance of that reality, or at least resigned acquiescence. We have already seen the ground being prepared: with the US recognition of the annexation of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights; with the financial pressure exerted on the Palestinians to force them – and bribes offered to induce them – to accept the DoC; and with the new Israeli nationality law that rules out any Palestinian state or right to return.
Even if the deal is officially presented, there are no guarantees that any of its clauses will be implemented, even those related to so-called ‘economic peace’. Oslo was not implemented, nor the decisions of the Gaza reconstruction conference, nor even the Paris economic protocol. At best, the implementation of these agreements was partial and selective. Nor will anyone believe any funding pledges made by the Gulf states in support of the DoC. They have a long and consistent record of making promises of aid and investment to various countries or multilateral bodies and then failing to deliver.
The Gulf states – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait – are supposed to fund the economic side of the DoC in exchange for guarantees of American protection and support for their regimes. There are reports that a total of $70 billion is to be pledged at the upcoming Bahrain workshop. This is a paltry price to pay for Palestine; Trump managed to get $450 billion out of Saudi Arabia in a single visit that lasted barely 24 hours. Today, the US is demanding the Gulf states pay more and more for American military protection, and tomorrow Israel will be demanding the same as the price for safeguarding them against Iran and other threats.
The DoC not only targets the Palestinians as a people – it is an updated version of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which, in conjunction with US policies elsewhere – Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya etc. – aims at redrawing the geopolitical map of the region, eliminating anything called Arab nationalism, and establishing the foundations for a Greater Israel. The Palestinians are to be softened up by being starved into submission and denied funding, jut as Iraq was before it was invaded, and the PLO was before Oslo. The same scenario is being played out here.
This ‘deal’ will be the prelude to further chaos. The Gulf regimes it depends on – Saudi Arabia and UAE – rule states that are more fragile than they seem. The idea was to also co-opt Arab countries that host Palestinian refugees – Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt – which are due to receive most of the funding to be pledged at the ‘prosperity workshop’ in Bahrain, in lieu of compensationfor Palestinian refugees and the complete renunciation of their right of return. It is noteworthy that all these countries are in severe financial difficulty and have astronomical levels of debt. Syria too – though out of the picture at present – is just emerging from a devastating civil war and has a massive job of reconstruction facing it.
A specific role is earmarked for Jordan: While Israel is to annex much of the West Bank, the perceived solution for the areas of high population density – Hebron, Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarem, etc. – is to annex them to Jordan, either directly or by means of a nominal confederation. Palestinian security forces are to be replaced by Jordanian forces, and we will be given a new version of the Village Leagues in the guise of municipal councils with lightly-armed local police. Israel trusts no-one but the Jordanian army and security forces to do the job of policing the Palestinians, while Israel’s own forces will be responsible for the 600-kilometre border with Jordan.
Having worked with Israel on security co-ordination (crushing resistance) for twenty years, the PA and the Fatah elite now find themselves in financial crisis and bankrupt. Do you see this as part of an intentional process of weakening and getting rid of the PA as a national political body altogether?
If the DoC is applied, the PA will have outlived its usefulness to Israel and the US as a means of sustaining the status quo under the guise of a token national entity engaged in an illusory peace process. But irrespective of the DoC, the PA is approaching the end of its shelf life, and the PLO has become increasingly debilitated and is virtually moribund. I foresee a period of turmoil in the West Bank, which will, in turn, generate new forms of spontaneous and organised resistance, including armed resistance using home-made weapons as in the Gaza Strip, South Lebanon and Yemen. In Gaza, the resistance-based model espoused by Hamas has been more successful; the model has stood fast in the face of a suffocating blockade, every coercive and punitive measure imaginable, and four wars.
Under the DoC, Hamas will effectively govern a mini-state. They will have to disarm; if not, they will face a full Israeli invasion, most likely with full US and Gulf backing. They are already dependent on Egyptian mediation and Israeli security gestures and humanitarian sweeteners (salaries for 36 000 Hamas civil servants, for example, are dependent on Israeli approval, each month, once and if Gulf donors – currently Qatar – agree to provide funds). Hamas and Gaza’s other factions are resisting tactically. We’ve seen the Return Marches, balloons, even Hamas’s improved military capabilities; but to what end? These are little more than a pinprick of resistance against Israel’s strategic hegemony. Hamas recently signed a ceasefire agreement with Israel, cemented by Qatari funds. Given these strategic realities, is Hamas too compromised to resist? Or will the Hamas enclave eventually effectively become an Egyptian ‘province’?
I was myself born in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. We were ten children and my father was ill, so we were dependent on UNRWA’s rations and went to its schools. Poverty and need did not diminish our commitment to our national aspirations for return and just peace at the time, and this has been demonstrated time and again by people in the Gaza Strip in the decades since then, including at present.
The West Bank-Gaza Strip separation and division is clear on the ground and appears intractable at present, but it could soon come to an end, even if geographical separation is maintained, especially with the impending collapse of the PA. There are simply no other national options or alternative solutions. That is the main reason for the policy of starving the Palestinian people into submission. But harsh and vicious as this starvation policy has been, it has not succeeded and has backfired in political terms: the besieged and bankrupt Hamas – for all its many faults and shortcomings – remains more popular than the donor- and aid-dependent PA.
Hamas will not abandon its weapons. It has developed an effective missile arsenal that gives it deterrent power, and it has learned from the mistakes of the PLO. The culture of resistance has deep roots, and Hamas has nurtured them. It has also created a generation of weapons-making experts. This know-how will survive. Gaza is different to the West Bank: eighty per cent of its inhabitants are refugees and only twenty per cent are Gazans – though all are equal in their crushing poverty, while the ratios are roughly reversed in the West Bank. But the direct reoccupation of either would generate fierce resistance. In both places the younger generation has shown that it has freed itself of fear of the occupying power.
How do you see the wider strategic context of an ascendant Resistance Axis impacting the DoC; this will presumably constitute the core of the strategic resistance to the DoC?Where do you think forceful resistance to the DoC will come from? Resistance from Iran and Hizbullah will be strong (perhaps this is one reason we are seeing the current US-Israeli offensive posturing towards Iran); Turkey and Jordan are clearly opposed; a much weakened and divided PA and Hamas are already skirmishing over who will lead the Palestinian opposition. Europe will likely be cautious in its response, unwilling to directly confront or contradict the US; it may highlight a few ‘positive aspects’ to the DoC, but coordinated collective opposition by the EU is unlikely (it has, after all, been the major funder of the outsourced occupation implemented during more than years of the Oslo period). Likewise, Russia and China will likely not intervene directly beyond reaffirmation of international law and existing UN resolutions. Ironically, some opposition is coming from a polarised US.
A key feature of this wider strategic context is the growing regional strength and influence of this Resistance Axis – thus far comprising Iran, Hizbullah, Syria, Iraq and Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The formidable military capability it has developed, especially in terms of missiles, has achieved a measure of strategic deterrence with Israel, and to a lesser extent the US, despite the latter’s hugely more sophisticated military hardware and prowess.
Gulf money destroyed the original Palestinian resistance. It came close to destroying the Hamas movement too. But the Saudi-UAE embrace of Israel will backfire; they are not capable of performing the task set for them. The interventions of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Syria, Sudan, Libya and Yemen have united a large segment of the Arab public against them. You can see this everywhere in the Arab world, and this will negatively impact not only their regional and international image, but also their domestic security and stability.
Israel’s military and economic supremacy is being threatened. Its Gulf allies are in decline, both in terms of regional influence and domestic control, while the Resistance Axis is on the ascendance. This Axis has been bolstered by being joined by Iraq, by its deterrent missile capability, and by its military successes in Syria, Yemen and Gaza. All of this is relative, of course. But the resistance’s missile capacity – however ‘asymmetric’ – has overturned previous assumptions about air power being the decisive factor that Israel could rely on. Israel used to have military dominance both in the air and on land, but it has lost both. Its Iron Dome has proved to be a failure in facing Gaza’s rudimentary, but steadily improving, missiles, and the economies and cities of its allies in Saudi Arabia and the UAE have become vulnerable to Houthi drones (costing only a few hundred dollars each), and more recently, Houthi cruise missiles.
Israel’s ally and protector, the United States, is no longer the sole superpower. China and Russia are there and India is on its way. All are being subjected to economic warfare by the US, which may well intensify. The Europeans are the main financial donors to the Palestinians. It is they who encouraged the PLO to sign the Oslo accords, renounce armed resistance and agree to the two-state solution, on the grounds that this would bring peace and justice. But now the two-state solution is unattainable and justice and peace have never been more elusive. Europe will be a major loser if the PA and the peace process collapse.
So, the strategic outlook is changing to the advantage of the Palestinians and the Resistance Axis in the near term. It is Israel that is afraid and fretting about the prospect of being bombarded with missiles from north, south and east. The DoC could cause significant disturbances in Jordan, which Israel currently counts on as a reliable neighbour. The DoC effectively posits Jordan as an alternative homeland for the Palestinians, and all Jordanians – regardless of their other divisions – are united in opposing this.
War on Iran would open the gates of hell to Israel and its Arab allies, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It could be the last all-out war in the region, just as World War II was in Europe. Every last missile left in the arsenals of Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Iraq would be launched against Israel and these states. And if nuclear weapons were used, chemical weapons could be employed in retaliation, with Israel being the main target.
Trump’s team has been clear that this is a ‘take it or leave it deal’; if it is rejected, the US has said, it will ‘walk away’. Palestinian rejection of the deal is guaranteed, as is a tentative ‘Yes in principle, but…’ from Netanyahu. This will likely result in the selective unilateral implementation of aspects of the DoC by the US and Israel – as is currently happening – with little opposition other than rhetorical from Europe, Russia, China and others. In the event of the DoC’s ‘failure’ or its being ‘dead on arrival’, what do you see happening?
Israel cannot impose the DoC unilaterally. Its annexation of Palestinian and Arab land lacks any legal validity and does not strengthen its hand. Take the issue of the US endorsement of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. This favours the Palestinians because it closes down any prospect of negotiations between Israel and Syria, whatever the future may hold for that country, and ensures that Syria remains a confrontation state forever.
The death of the DoC would mean the termination of the last major US political venture in the Middle East, the final demise of the two-state solution, the burial of the Arab Peace initiative, and the region’s return to square one: the pre-Oslo and pre-Camp David stage of resistance against occupation. Israel and the US, and not the Arabs or Palestinians, would be held responsible for this, for violating signed agreements that were heavily loaded in favour of Israel, not to mention UN resolutions and international law. The biggest winners from the collapse of the DoC will be the culture and policies of the Resistance Axis, and the biggest losers will be Israel, its Arab allies and US policy in the region.
* Abdel Bari Atwan is editor of Al-Rai Al-Youm, former editor of Al-Quds Al-Arabi, a leading Arab political commentator, and author of numerous books, including Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate(2015) and The Secret History of Al-Qa'ida(2006).
* Aisling Byrne is Director of Projects and Partnerships at Conflicts Forum. She was formerly a Social Policy Adviser with UNRWA in Syria, Jordan and the West Bank, and an organisational development consultant with a number of public bodies in the UK. She has degrees from Balliol College, University of Oxford, an MA from SOAS, University of London, and was a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.