What Do Americans Know – and Want To Know – About Palestine?

The Palestinians have continued to refuse to just simply sit down and enter into negotiation based on President Trump’s Vision for Peace there. 

~ Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, May 20, Remarks to the Press

Pompeo was responding to a two-part question: Could he comment on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s statement the previous night ending agreements with Israel and the United States, including security arrangements; and could he comment on the process or progress of Israel annexing West Bank/Occupied Palestinian Territory by July 1 – constituting 30 percent of that land – as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had announced unilaterally in January.

Pompeo answered the first question but ducked the second; it was Netanyahu’s plan, Abbas had explained, that prompted him to end some agreements dating back to the Oslo and other accords of the 1990s.

Why would the Secretary of State portray Palestinians as refusing to negotiate peace? Why would he refer to the Palestinian leader as "Abbas," dispensing with the civility of "Mr." let alone the diplomatese of "President"? And why would Pompeo explain he had been "in communication with our teams there that very morning," and that he had been to Israel the previous week, yet demur when asked directly if he had spoken with Palestinians, "I don’t have anything to say on that."

These quotes, all from a State Department transcription, cannot be construed as "fake news." Alternatively, what term should citizens apply to Pompeo’s half-truths, insinuations, and misleading assertions, especially when repeated insistently enough by government officials to become enshrined, not simply as the party line, but as truth itself? How do we speak truth to power when power hunkers inside an echo chamber where it hears only its own truth?

I fear that what most Americans take from Pompeo’s comments is this enshrined narrative: Israel does not have a true partner for peace, which is the fault, as usual, of those %^%$# Palestinians.

But consider: Decades have passed since the US surrendered its façade as "honest broker" in the Middle East, a role it might have deserved when President Carter hosted negotiations leading to 1978’s Camp David Accords establishing a framework for peace between Israel and Egypt, a peace that has lasted ever since.

Abbas explained his decision as a direct consequence of Netanyahu’s planned annexations, the latest step by Israel expanding its territory in violation of international law: Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits an occupying power from transferring citizens from its own territory to occupied territory.

The US has formally objected only once: In 2016 we did not veto as usual the latest Security Council resolution declaring settlements in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem a "flagrant violation" of international law. Secretary of State John Kerry explained that the alternative would have given Israel license for "unfettered settlement construction" and the end of the peace process. Newly elected President Trump responded by tweet "things will be different" following his inauguration. These differences have included:

  • May 2018, after recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, US relocates its embassy there, which prompts local celebrations. Sixty miles south, in Palestinian Gaza, 58 unarmed demonstrators are killed and 2000 injured by Israeli soldiers. To Palestinians, this is state-sponsored terrorism; to the US and Israel, it is state security.
  • August 2018, US stops aid to United Nations Relief and Work Agency, established in 1949 for displaced Palestinians, and dismisses its definition of "legitimate Palestinian refugee," but offers no alternative.
  • September 2018, US closes Washington offices of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which a State Department spokesman explains is consistent with US objections to Palestinian efforts to prosecute Israel officials at the International Criminal Court, whose jurisdiction neither Israel nor the United States recognizes.
  • March 2019, US recognizes the Golan Heights, seized from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, as part of Israel. After Russia annexed Crimea from neighboring Ukraine in 2014, the US initiated sanctions that remain effect. Nevertheless, Israel considers sanctions against it – including the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement begun in 2005 to oppose its occupation and defend Palestinian rights – to be anti-Semitic. Similar nonviolent movements like the Montgomery Bus Boycott advanced civil rights in the US and sanctions against South Africa fostered the end of apartheid.
  • November 2019, Pompeo announces the US will no longer view Israeli settlements in the West Bank, occupied by Israel since the 1967 war, as being inconsistent with international law. Netanyahu’s subsequent plan to annex occupied territories led President Trump to "recognize Israeli sovereignty over the territory that my vision provides to be part of the state of Israel." Elsewhere, appropriation of land seized by military force from a minority people is named, bluntly, ethnic cleansing.

In 1947, the UN General Assembly passed the resolution calling for Palestine to be partitioned between Arabs and Jews, which led to the creation of Israel. In 1948, the United Nations adopted its historic Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Palestinians persist in aspiring to statehood and exercising their innate human rights, but it appears that American policy as represented and articulated by Secretary of State Pompeo opposes these. Instead, our government expects the Palestinian Authority to maintain its status quo regardless of changes imposed on it; Israel and the US, however, are free to change that status quo when and how they wish.

Why should Americans care? Annually, Israel is our largest recipient of foreign aid, $3.8 billion in 2019. If this seems too mercenary and inhumane a reason to rouse Americans concern, consider traditions that glorify our founding as a nation and sense of ourselves as a people: We declared independence to achieve freedom from colonial rule; we still cherish ideals like liberty and justice for all. Palestinians yearn for the same.

Russell Vandenbroucke is Founding Director of the Peace, Justice & Conflict Transformation Program at University of Louisville and is syndicated by PeaceVoice.