December 5, 2016 - Palestine-Israel: Abbas crowns himself again; France labels settlement products

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses what's new about Fateh's long-delayed seventh conference in Ramallah and unanimous reelection of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) to head the movement; what’s wrong with Abbas remaining in power and what are the alternatives; has this at least provided an extension of peace and quiet on the West Bank; If France’s decision last week to label all goods from the West Bank and the Golan as “settlement products” rather than “made in Israel” is a blow to Israel; the "flawlessness" of the French/EU approach; and where Yossi Alpher, himself, stands on boycotting settlement goods.

NOTE: For full details of APN's policy - which advocates boycotts of settlement products and supports other activism targeting the occupation - see our dedicated policy webpage, here.

Q. Fateh just held its long-delayed seventh conference in Ramallah and unanimously reelected Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) to head the movement. So what’s new?

A. More than meets the eye. This conference was delayed for four years (the sixth conference was held in 2009) due to a broad sense of stalemate: in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, in the intra-Palestinian rivalry between Fateh and Gaza-based Hamas, in the Arab world where the principal powers are preoccupied with Iran and ISIS and fed-up with Abbas’s leadership, and in the leadership situation itself, where 81-year-old Abbas was not budging despite continual erosion in his position.

Accordingly, the very fact that Abbas convened the conference with 1,400 participants reconfirmed his leadership--of Fateh and by extension of the Palestine Liberation Organization that it dominates and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, where his term as president long ago expired--is something of an achievement. So, from Abbas’s standpoint, is the fact that he was not obliged to designate a deputy or successor for any one of these jobs.

That’s the good news for Abbas. The good news for the Israeli leadership under PM Netanyahu is that some 40 percent of the West Bank continues to be ruled by a Palestinian bureaucracy whose vested interest is in the status quo and which has minimal influence in the Arab world. Abbas will continue to condemn violence and favor an international campaign to legitimize a virtual Palestinian state and delegitimize Israel--a campaign Netanyahu seems confident he can overcome. And Netanyahu will continue expanding settlements.

 

Q. What’s wrong with Abbas remaining in power? What are the alternatives?

A. The most public challenge to Abbas’s leadership has come from Mohammad Dahlan, security chief of the Gaza Strip before the 2007 Hamas takeover there. Dahlan lives in exile in Egypt and the Gulf, where he has enriched himself doing business and giving “strategic advice” and has reportedly garnered the support of the “Arab Quartet”--Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Arab Quartet has apparently tried in vain to persuade Abbas to reconcile with Dahlan and award him a senior leadership position. Abbas for his part has accused Dahlan of a variety of crimes including planning a coup in Ramallah and, most recently if we believe the rumor, assassinating Yasser Arafat in 2004 by poisoning his medicines. Abbas prevented Dahlan’s supporters from attending the Fateh conference.

If and when Abbas leaves the scene, Dahlan is almost certain to reappear in the West Bank. He will have coordinated his moves with his Arab sponsors and possibly even with certain Hamas leaders he knows from his Gazan youth and certain Israeli leaders like Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a former business associate in the now defunct Jericho casino.

A second alternative candidate whose status was seemingly enhanced by the Fateh conference is Jibril Rajoub. When Dahlan headed security in Gaza, Rajoub was security chief under Arafat in the West Bank. Both had earlier spent time in Israeli prisons and are fluent Hebrew speakers. But Rajoub has chosen to bide his time in the West Bank and strengthen his popularity in a way that seemingly does not threaten Abbas: by heading Palestinian Olympic and other sports federations, mainly soccer, and leveraging this position to campaign against Israel in the international sports arena, albeit thus far without success in isolating it. In the voting for Fateh ruling institutions at last week’s conference, Rajoub came in second behind Marwan Barghouti, who is serving multiple life sentences in Israeli prison for intifada-linked terrorist offenses and whose election is strictly symbolic.

 

Q. Hasn’t this at least given us all an extension of peace and quiet on the West Bank?

A. Not if we believe IDF Chief of Intelligence General Hertzi Halevy. Last week he predicted chaos in the West Bank during 2017, apparently due to Abbas’s increasingly weak position of leadership. Obviously, last week’s Fateh conference was intended to dispel that assessment. Time will tell whether Abbas succeeded.

 

Q. Granted that Abbas’s principal effort, backed by people like Rajoub, is to isolate Israel internationally. So isn’t France’s decision last week to label all goods from the West Bank and the Golan as “settlement products” rather than “made in Israel” a blow to Israel?

A. It is indeed a setback, but a minor one. It stung sufficiently for Member of Knesset Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador in the US and today deputy minister of diplomacy in the Prime Minister’s Office, to issue a sharp media rebuke. But like the Fateh conference, there is a lot more here than meets the eye.

The French were the first to implement a 2015 European Union directive to label settlement products. Oren accused them of boycotting Israel. But this is not a boycott, in the sense that French consumers are not being told not to buy goods made in settlements and those goods are not being removed from Paris supermarket shelves. Rather, the French are being told the unassailable truth: these goods are not made in Israel because the West Bank is not part of Israel. For Israel to insist they be labeled as Israeli goods it would have to annex the West Bank and this it has for nearly 50 years carefully avoided doing.

The Israel Foreign Ministry, in condemning the French decision, called settlement products “Israel products originating beyond the green line”. The green line is the 1967 boundary that under international law still defines the West Bank where the settlements lie. Oren responded to the French announcement by tweeting that Israelis should now “think twice before buying French products.”

Both Israeli responses inadvertently underlined two key distinctions: first, the distinction between sovereign Israel, which is the equivalent of sovereign France, and the settlements; and second, the distinction between the French action, which is not a boycott, and the recommendation to in effect boycott French products. It did not help that Oren professed to detect anti-Semitism in France’s behavior: “France has much to atone for in its relations with Jews”. So now labeling settlement products “settlement products” is anti-Semitism. . .

 

Q. So the French/EU approach is flawless?

A. It is hard to find fault with an approach that simply recognizes the fact that the settlements are not part of sovereign Israel. Still, in responding to the French announcement Oren was able to point to two key problems with the EU approach. First, it includes the Golan Heights along with the West Bank. Israel can hardly be reproached for continuing to hold onto the Heights when there is no effective Syrian government with which to negotiate that territory’s return. Indeed, it is hard to blame Israel for not returning the Golan to Syria even when Damascus had an effective government, considering that that same government is today accused of massive crimes against humanity.

Second, as Oren points out, “there are 200 territorial disputes in the world today, and France has singled out one of them. . . for special treatment. There is no French labeling of Chinese goods from Tibet or Moroccan goods from Western Sahara.”

The problem with these arguments is that, while they point to problems in the EU approach, they don’t exonerate Israel for marketing West Bank goods as Israeli goods. A case should be made for leaving the Golan out of the EU’s 2015 resolution. A case can be made that the EU, which actually is moving to punish Morocco commercially over the Sahara issue, should do so at the same time it acts against Israel. A case can even be made that France is the first European state to implement the EU resolution due solely to domestic French political considerations--the French Muslim vote, President Hollande’s dilemma over the pointless conference on the two-state solution he has committed his government to convene before December 31, and Hollande’s newly-declared lame-duck status—rather than any altruistic belief that the French move will hasten a viable two-state solution. But taken at face value, the French/EU move is unassailable.

 

Q. So where do you stand on boycotting settlement goods?

A. I have long opposed any and all economic boycotts. Boycotts are notoriously counter-productive. In its day, the Arab boycott of Israel had no adverse effect and only strengthened the Israeli economy. The EU boycott of Russia over the Ukraine issue has only encouraged President Putin to move into Syria and mass forces on NATO’s borders while Russia makes its own Brie and Camembert cheeses and buys fruit from Israel and Lebanon. I do not believe that boycotting the settlements will have any effect on the increasingly existential need for Israel to dismantle them and leave all or most of the West Bank and East Jerusalem in order to save itself as a Jewish and democratic state. On the contrary, boycott just makes the settlers and their supporters “dig in”.

The current boycott efforts have managed to dislodge a few Israeli firms from the West Bank, like SodaStream with its far-flung international profile. But by and large the settlements are so closely integrated with the Israeli transportation and industrial infrastructure that the effect of a boycott is negligible. Even Palestinians continue to buy settlement products, and Palestinian labor continues to produce them.

Even if all settlement products sold everywhere are labeled as such, the boycott campaign is not the answer to the occupation. Indeed, the answer will only come when Israelis begin to confront the increasingly undemocratic nature of the country they live in as, after 50 years, it is efficiently internalizing the occupation: IDF occupation forces and Israel Police functions are merging; the politics of Israeli Arabs and Palestinian Arabs are merging; the settler messianic ethos is taking over the education system; and more and more underhanded legislative and judicial tricks are invoked to settle on West Bank land privately owned by Palestinians. In this context, boycott of settlement products is not even noticed by the vast majority of Israelis. Only the prime minister’s office, in its paranoia, takes affront.

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