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Palestine and the West: A century of betrayal

For the Israeli right, the Trump plan is a diplomatic triumph akin to the Balfour Declaration. For Palestinians, it is just the latest act of western treachery 
A Palestinian man prays in front of the Dome of the Rock mosque in the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem on 24 May, 2019 (AFP)

Noam Chomsky described settler-colonialism as the most extreme and sadistic form of imperialism. The Palestinian people have suffered the unique misfortune of being at the receiving end of both Zionist settler-colonialism and western imperialism for the last century. 

The first and most crucial betrayal was the Balfour Declaration of 1917. It committed the British government to support the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, provided nothing was done to “prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.

In 1917, Jews constituted less than 10 percent of the population of Palestine, while Arabs were 90 percent. Yet Britain chose to recognise the right to national self-determination of the tiny minority and deny it to the undisputed majority. In the words of Jewish writer Arthur Koestler: “One nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third.” 

A colossal blunder

The Balfour Declaration was a classic European colonial document. Its author, then-Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour, personified the colonial mindset: the national rights of the inhabitants of the country were not of the slightest interest to him. 

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“Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad,” he subsequently wrote, “is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.” There could hardly be a more striking illustration of what Edward Said called “the moral epistemology of imperialism”.

Palestine was not lost in the late 1940s, as is commonly believed, but in the late 1930s. Britain played a crucial, but still unacknowledged, role in the Palestinian tragedy

From the point of view of British interests, the Balfour Declaration was a colossal blunder - one of the worst strategic errors in its imperial history. From the Zionist perspective, however, it represented a dramatic breakthrough on the road to statehood. It paved the way for the systematic Zionist takeover of the country, a process that has continued relentlessly to the present day. 

From 1920 to 1948, Britain held the mandate over Palestine. The cornerstone of mandatory policy was to deny representative institutions until the Jews became a majority. When an Arab revolt broke out in 1936, the British army suppressed it with the utmost brutality.

Palestine was not lost in the late 1940s, as is commonly believed, but in the late 1930s. Britain played a crucial, but still unacknowledged, role in the Palestinian tragedy.

Winners and losers

US President Donald Trump neatly fits into this old colonial pattern of advancing Zionist interests at the expense of Palestinians. In his simplistic worldview, there are only winners and losers - and to him, Israelis are winners while Palestinians are perennial losers. He has thus abandoned any pretence to even-handedness or serving as an honest broker. 

The role Trump has embraced instead is that of Israel’s lawyer. His administration abruptly reversed US policy by declaring that Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory are not illegal, nor are they an obstacle to peace. Trump does not simply support the state of Israel; he has aligned himself with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the ultra-right-wing settlers who aim to incorporate much of the occupied West Bank into Greater Israel.

Palestinian demonstrators burn images of US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Rafah, Gaza, on 29 January (AFP)
Palestinian demonstrators burn images of US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Rafah, Gaza, on 29 January (AFP)

Since coming to power, Trump has inflicted a series of body blows on the Palestinian people: he recognised the whole of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; he moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; he ended US funding for UNRWA, the UN agency that looks after Palestinian refugees; he withdrew financial aid to the Palestinian Authority; he recognised Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan Heights; and he shut down the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington. 

Then, on 28 January, Trump unveiled his much trumpeted and repeatedly delayed “deal of the century”, describing it as “a win-win opportunity” that was “overly good” to Palestinians.

The plan recognises Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel and gives Israel a free hand to annex the illegal Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank and the fertile Jordan Valley, the breadbasket of the Palestinian community. Israel would also retain sole control over security for the West Bank and its elaborate matrix of highways, tunnels and military bases. 

Devoid of morality

Palestinians, meanwhile, are required to recognise Israel as a “Jewish state” and stop seeking justice for its war crimes.

The Palestinian “state” envisaged in the plan would be demilitarised, have a capital on the outskirts of East Jerusalem and be confined to the Gaza Strip and a few disconnected West Bank enclaves. Palestine would have no borders with neighbouring Arab states, and no control over airspace, water and other vital resources. 

From Balfour to Trump: Denying Palestine, one dirty deal at a time
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Essentially, this is a plan for a collection of barren bantustans, surrounded by the Israeli army and an ever-growing number of Jewish settlers. It looks more like a prison than a state. In return for accepting this grotesquely unfair and unlawful plan, Palestinians are promised $50bn over five years, to be sourced not from the US treasury but from Gulf states. 

Small wonder that Netanyahu embraced the Trump plan with alacrity. It was essentially his plan, fulfilling his entire wish list. Above all, as both proponents and opponents of the plan agree, it would be the last nail in the coffin of the two-state solution and the dream of an independent Palestinian state. 

Small wonder as well that all Palestinian factions have vehemently rejected the offer. What Trump is proposing is not a peace plan, but a blueprint for apartheid. It is a blatant attempt to legalise the illegal occupation, subjecting millions of Palestinians to permanent Israeli control. Redolent of a colonial mindset, it is utterly devoid of any sense of morality or even basic human decency. 

For the Israeli right, the Trump plan is a spectacular diplomatic triumph, comparable to the Balfour Declaration. For Palestinians, it is just the latest chapter in a century-old saga of duplicity and betrayal by western powers.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Avi Shlaim is an Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Oxford University and the author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (2014) and Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations (2009).
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