How Netanyahu's cynical quest for legitimising Israeli occupation lured the likes of Serbia and Kosovo

How Netanyahu's cynical quest for legitimising Israeli occupation lured the likes of Serbia and Kosovo
7 min read
11 Sep, 2020
Comment: Netanyahu and his right-wing government know full well that states will ultimately act in their own interests, even if it means leaving Palestinians by the wayside, writes Mitchell Plitnick.
Serbia will move its embassy to Jerusalem, and Kosovo will open an embassy there [Getty]
For decades, conventional wisdom dictated that Israel cannot achieve peace or the global status it wants without ending its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. But right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has prioritised a challenge to that notion, and he is proving it false, at least in the short term. 

He is doing so slowly and gradually, and not without some setbacks, but he is making progress. The latest example is
the deal the United States brokered between Serbia and Kosovo, the small state that broke away from Serbia and declared its independence in 2008.

According to the agreements signed in Washington on September 4, Serbia will move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and Kosovo will open an embassy there. Israel has, until now, refused to recognise Kosovo as an independent state, out of concern that it would create a precedent between Kosovo's statehood and a potential Palestinian state. Kosovo, a Muslim country, had repeatedly made it clear that it wanted normal relations with Israel.

For Serbia and Kosovo, the agreements have some symbolic significance, but aren't enormously impactful. They represent a foreign policy win for Donald Trump, as more embassies in Jerusalem will certainly please his evangelical Christian base.

The real importance of these deals for Israel, for the Palestinians, and for the Middle East, like the Israel-UAE agreement last month, depends largely on how many other countries follow Serbia's and Kosovo's example.

The next phase for Israel

Netanyahu has always been adamantly opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state. What has been less clear over the years is what he planned to do instead. Permanent apartheid is certain to fail eventually as long as there is a Palestinian national body under occupation. But the strategy for what the late sociologist Baruch Kimmerling called "politicide" - the effort to eliminate the Palestinians as a political body - has not been apparent.

Kosovo will become the first Muslim state with an embassy in Jerusalem, as Serbia will be the first European one

That's changed. Trump has his own reasons for pursuing these deals on Israel's behalf, but Netanyahu has not survived this long by being a passive observer. He is a keen student of global politics and is prepared to seize opportunities when they arise. That's what Trump has provided.

Kosovo will become the first Muslim state with an embassy in Jerusalem, as Serbia will be the first European one. Those may seem like trivial breakthroughs, but they increase, however slightly, the potential for Israel to maintain its occupation of the Palestinians and still increase its already notable global standing.

As the UAE hypothesised, their agreement with Israel has not caused a major reaction in the Arab world, at least not yet, and neither Serbia nor Kosovo expect any serious backlash for their decisions. A combination of increased repression in the Arab world and the apathy of elites around the globe toward the Palestinian cause is proving the Israeli right wing correct in their assertions that Israel need not make peace with the Palestinians in order to expand its reach.

What Netanyahu understands - sadly, better than most peace advocates - is that for much of the world, including the dictators in the Arab world, leaders have no reason to care about the fate of the Palestinians. Flowery rhetoric about equality and rights pales before Israel's economic, technological, and strategic offerings to the global marketplace.

Read more: Beware the US-Israel-UAE strategic agenda for the Arab region

Palestinians offer none of this. On the contrary, the Palestinian cause is a direct threat to those in power, well beyond the Arab world. A Palestinian victory would be evidence that resistance works, that persistence in the face of great power can succeed. Palestinian liberation would be an inspiration to people around the world, in countries great and small.

The importance of Palestine

People ask activists in support of Palestinian rights why they devote themselves to this cause above others, especially when it seems so often to be a quixotic battle. This framing of justice against more tangible interests is the reason for many. In the self-interested, cynical view of any state in the Hobbesian field of international affairs, there is an enormous gulf between the assets Israel brings, and the Palestinians' striving for freedom and justice. Israel inspires world leaders, Palestine, the world's people.  

What's more, the Palestinian cause flies in the face of well-meaning attempts to find a resolution to Israel's occupation which also serves the interests of either the regional power, Israel, and the global superpower, the United States. For decades, American, European, and Israeli approaches to this issue have taken Israeli concerns--security, demographic, and political--as the primary issue. Once those are satisfied, the best of those diplomats then look for ways to address Palestinian rights. It is this set of priorities that must be reversed, not only for Palestinians, but for people all over the world.

That is not to say that allowing Palestinians to exercise the same rights so many of us enjoy as a matter of course would not, in the end, also be to the benefit of Americans and Israelis. Indeed, I and many others think it would. But that point is purely an educated guess at best. There is no material calculation that leads to that conclusion because, by definition, the triumph of justice cannot serve the interest of a hegemon in the international system as currently constituted. It can, conceivably, serve the interest of the people in the hegemonic countries, but that is uncertain.

As the UAE hypothesised, their agreement with Israel has not caused a major reaction in the Arab world

We can dispel the romantic but self-defeating notion that the quixotic nature of the Palestinian cause is what draws so many to it. We can also dispense immediately with the ethnocentric notion that antipathy toward Jews is the lure; that is belied not only by the large number of Jews around the world supporting Palestinian rights, but by the strong stance the overwhelming majority of Palestinians and pro-Palestinian activists have taken against antisemitism.

The Palestinian cause is, sadly, far from the only one that merits a global movement to free people from oppression. But it holds a special place because it is not primarily a struggle over resources, or even ancient history. In 2020, it is a struggle between one national movement that attained its goals and a people who ultimately paid the price for that success.

This is what Netanyahu's strategic shift has laid bare. He reaches out to the UAE, to Serbia, to Saudi Arabia, and to other countries not with the righteousness of the Israeli cause, but with the very real, tangible gains an alliance with Israel has to offer.

Supporting the Palestinians is in no ruler's interest unless the people they rule demand it. The Palestinian cause is attractive precisely because of this framing: a call for justice vs. naked state interest. Movements like the one for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel have been as effective as they are because they call for justice and ally themselves with other rights-based movements.

But a just cause still needs good strategy, especially when the scales of power are so lopsided. It is time to start listening to Palestinians and supporters who have said for years that the Oslo peace process was fatally flawed, and that Israel had killed any hope it might ever have had for success. It is time to understand those voices, not the ones who sit more comfortably than most Palestinians in Gaza and Ramallah, as the Palestinian leaders who must inspire in the West and be promoted by us in turn.

It is long past time to understand that Israel, like any other state, will not give up its power and authority unless it is in its interest to do so. Without strong political pressure, it will have no such interest.

This is what Netanyahu and the Israeli right wing understand, and it is a lesson that many who support the Palestinians have failed to grasp so far. Now that Netanyahu is making it so clear, hopefully we can respond accordingly, with movements that are more focused and which put greater emphasis on the potential avenues for sanctions. International structures are, ironically, far more vulnerable to such appeals than the state structures that they consist of. 

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. He is the former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and former director of the US Office of B'Tselem.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.