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Monday, 19 August 2019

INTERVIEW: Trump’s dubious 'Deal of the Century'

The soon-to-be-announced US peace initiative known as the 'Deal of the Century' is already being implemented, Hassan Asfour tells Ahmed Eleiba

Ahmed Eleiba , Friday 14 Jun 2019
Hassan Asfour
Hassan Asfour, former Palestinian minister and member of the Palestinian delegation in the Oslo negotiations
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The planned economic workshop in Bahrain, the forum that is supposed to launch the “Deal of the Century”, as the anticipated US Middle East peace initiative has been called, is expected to take place without any Palestinian representation.

If it does, it will mark a precedent in over a quarter of a century of peace-making efforts. The Palestinian Authority (PA) is firm in its refusal to attend the Manama workshop scheduled for 25-26 June. During the recent emergency Arab summit in Mecca, PA President Mahmoud Abbas said: “The Palestinian government, which has announced its absolute refusal to substitute prosperity for peace for the principle of land for peace, affirms that we will not participate in the workshop the US administration has called for in Manama.”

Al-Ahram Weekly asked Hassan Asfour, former Palestinian minister and member of the Palestinian delegation in the Oslo negotiations, how he assesses the US plan and the developments and interplay surrounding it.

He said: “For the first time in the last history of the Palestinian/Arab conflict with the occupying entity there is a move to discuss ‘economic peace’ prior to and independently of ‘political peace’. This is not out of ignorance of reality or the facts, but an intensification of a firm position the current US administration has towards Palestinian independence.”

On the Palestinian government’s refusal to attend the Manama conference, Asfour explained that the upshot of the reactions and interplay surrounding that event is that there is little concern for the Palestinian position.

“The most salient message in advance of the ‘workshop’ is that official Palestinian participation is not required for the implementation of the regional dimension of the ‘Trump deal’ and that this implementation will proceed in accordance with calculations that are radically different to what some believe.”

The message overturns all previously accepted political premises, he added. “It is an official Arab endorsement that the Palestinian cause and battle is no longer the central cause of the Arab region.

This will have critical political consequences and a profound effect on all equations as the US plan proceeds through subsequent phases of implementation by means of which Washington and Tel Aviv score immense historical gains.

Never before had it been politically conceivable for Arab states — or at least the absolute majority of them — along with the Arab League to attend a conference to discuss the Palestinian cause and its future without the participation of its sole legitimate representative.”

Still, the PA appears uncertain over what steps to take. It has hinted at the possibility of disengagement, for example, with regard to which Asfour said: “There are three main elements that determine the substance of whether or not to disengage. The central question, however, is whether it is truly possible to undertake that national step under the current degradation and deterioration that characterise the Palestinian condition.”

Asfour does not believe that disengagement or other such escalatory steps are possible at this stage. “Most likely officials will continue to talk about [such steps] while hiding behind the rhetoric of rejecting the US plan even as they take practical measures to reduce tensions. Given the political division and fragmentation, it will never be possible to devise an effective plan for confrontation. To truly disengage, it is necessary to devise a plan for confrontation that begins with setting the national house in order from Gaza in the south to Jenin in the north. Before this it will be necessary to abandon all the excuses for perpetuating the inter-Palestinian rift, and there are dozens of ideas that will help.”

Economic circumstances are certainly not favourable. Asfour points out how many Palestinians are in debt, reeling under financial pressures and yearning for a way out of their economic straits. It will not be as easy as it was in the past to depend on the grassroots response to unacceptable alternatives, he said.

In Asfour’s opinion, before discussing the dimensions and repercussions of the agenda in Manama, it is necessary to address what he termed the “pre-emptive steps” that Washington took in favour of Israel, such as the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the suspension of funding for UNRWA.

“The plan is already being carried out. The most salient examples are US positions on the questions of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. What remains is the regional framework since the ‘deal’ has been cast as a regional one.”

The US stance on Jerusalem has several ramifications. One is political and seeks to alter the official status of that city as occupied territory. Another affects the religious character of the city and will have repercussions on Islamic holy sites.

“There is a plan to build a new temple. Perhaps some action was taken to test the pulse on this regard and they didn’t find a reaction that might obstruct such a scheme. For example, Hamas saw it as a victory when 50,000 people prayed in Jerusalem in Ramadan. But the question to ask, here, is how was this possible? They had to pass through Israel, in accordance with Israeli conditions and the Israeli framework for its effective sovereignty over Jerusalem at present.”

Where would a Palestinian entity have its capital under the Trump plan?

Asfour said that according to leaked information, space would be allocated for an “autonomous government” administration in Abu Dis, on the outskirts of East Jerusalem, with some access to Arab quarters in Jerusalem such as Issawiya and Eizariya.

As an autonomous government it would host foreign consulates, not embassies, as is currently the case in the West Bank.

Washington’s stance on UNRWA was a tangible expression of its view on the question of Palestinian refugees. By cutting its contribution, which accounted for a third of the UNRWA budget, the US signalled its desire to eliminate that agency and along with it the internationally recognised rights of Palestinian refugees.

“As for the solution Washington has in mind, it is naturalisation, meaning giving Palestinian refugees citizenship in the countries in which they currently reside. Practical steps have already been taken in this regard, in Lebanon for example. Some political forces in Lebanon have responded favourably to this outlook.”

To what extent is there a departure from the outputs of previous agreements, such as Oslo?

Asfour stressed two points. Firstly, “The envisaged regional solution is that the current process is not the product of this plan, for the Madrid Conference proposed a regional solution.”

Secondly, “According to Oslo, the PA was a temporary entity that would exist until final status issues were settled. The interim period was set for five years. That period has nearly quintupled as the PA is now 24 years old.”

Not only did Washington disregard the PA in its calculations, it disregarded other international powers. “Not even the members of the Quartet were put into the picture according to official statements. Russia announced, as did China, that it had not received an invitation to Manama.”

Asfour sees the US plan, as a whole, as part of a project aimed at effacing anything to do with Palestinian identity. “This project has recently picked up pace in the framework of the US-Israeli strategic embrace. The Judaisation project has picked up pace. The attempt to demolish Al-Aqsa Mosque through excavations persists. Israel law has legitimised settlement expansion in the West Bank and it is likely that Israel will annex large chunks of that territory with US support. US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said, ‘Israel has a right to annex territory in the West Bank.’”

Previous peacemaking projects and plans regarded the West Bank and Gaza as something that needed to be treated as a contiguous whole. The US plan, as Asfour put it, is to reduce the “remnants of a homeland” into a formula for a civil administration not much different from the situation that currently exists in Palestinian self-rule areas.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 13 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Trump’s dubious deal

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