Donald Trump’s Jerusalem decision revived an interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, after seven years of Arab revolutions and armed conflicts taking centre-stage.
There is something about the Palestinian people’s predicament that still deeply moves Arab hearts and minds, as well as global supporters of justice. As Palestinian-American historian Rashid Khalidi wrote, “whatever Arab dictators and absolute monarchs may tell the Americans they depend on, the Arab peoples are unanimous in supporting the Palestinian position on Jerusalem.”
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Consensus on Jerusalem and Palestine makes the Israeli governments uncomfortable. And what does a successful strategist and “public relations expert” like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu do in an uncomfortable situation?
He changes the subject.
The Iran obsession
Netanyahu has no interest in a peace process that brings about an independent and fully sovereign Palestinian state. This is why he loves to talk about Iran.
Iran is, in a sense, an easy target. The Islamic Republic has a dire record when it comes to human rights violations, and its intervention in the Syrian civil war in support of the Assad regime did not serve in bolstering its image in the Arab world and beyond.
If now is not the time to have an enhanced, united focus on Palestine, when is?
Despite the nuclear deal signed in 2015, Iran has not yet fully normalised its relations with the international community and is still subject to US and EU sanctions. Furthermore, Iran has long been seen as an aggressive meddler in Arab internal affairs. Israel is thus exploiting this common hostility with Iran to push for further collaboration with Arab states.
In short, focusing on Iran leads to common ground with some Arab states. In stark contrast, if the discussion is solely focused on Palestine – as we have seen in the last three weeks – Israel is exposed for what it is: an occupying, oppressive state imposing an apartheid regime and disregarding Palestinian lives within its settler-colonial enterprise.
Now, Netanyahu understands the importance of presenting complex issues in neat and consumable bundles for the media. As Colin Shindler, Emeritus Professor at the University of London, wrote in his book, The Land Beyond Promise: “Netanyahu was the long-awaited answer to Israeli problems in this area, since he was both presenter and spin-doctor. Netanyahu believed that language and ideas in the media circus shaped foreign policy – and particularly in America.”
Netanyahu is thus very comfortable discussing Iran. However, it is much harder to be a successful “presenter and spin-doctor” when it comes to oppressing Palestinians.
This is why a sustained refocus on Jerusalem and Palestine is necessary.
In other words, if the iconic image of the 16-year old boy – bruised face, blindfolded and surrounded by Israeli armed soldiers – becomes the focus of the world, where can Netanyahu hide his face when Israel’s disproportionate violence is on wide display for the world to see?
And if news about the extrajudicial killing of a young man – who lost his legs in the Israeli bombing of Gaza in 2014 – by an Israeli sniper captures the interest of the world, how can the Israeli government divert attention in order to avoid a discussion about their utter disdain for Palestinian lives?
Enter Iran – and enter Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the United Nations.
Iran and the Yemen crisis
On December 14, Haley tried to convince the world that Iran, not Jerusalem, should be under the international media spotlight once again.
Less than two weeks after Trump’s decision, Haley presented “evidence” that Iran transferred weapons to the Houthis in Yemen, including missiles. A lot of doubt was cast on Haley’s allegations, and not just by Iranian media and officials.
But let’s proceed, for the sake of argument, on the assumption that her claims are true.
When it comes to the Yemen crisis, are we really supposed to go along with Haley and agree that the Houthi missiles should be the main focus of the discussion?
Should we forget the calls of Amnesty International just one month ago for the US, UK, and France to “immediately cease supplying arms to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting in Yemen, which is impeding humanitarian assistance, including items indispensable to the survival of civilians”?
Or should we ignore Human Right Watch’s call for an international inquiry last September and its demand for the UN to “immediately return the [Saudi-led] coalition to its annual ‘list of shame’ for violations against children in armed conflict”?
None of the above is in defence of Iran and its aggressive actions in the region. Two wrongs will never make one right.
The point here is clear and simple. The obsession with Iran suits Saudi Arabia and Israel, each for different reasons: the former in relation to the armed conflict in Yemen, and the latter to deflect attention from Palestine. And US President Donald Trump seems happy to oblige, in order to be seen as the “anti-Obama”.
However, the obsession with Iran does not make sense for those who are genuinely interested in reaching an end to the Yemen crisis, as well as a just resolution for the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
In the case of the latter, Iran is not the main impediment to peace with the Palestinians. It suffices to recall John Kerry’s remarks that Israeli leaders don’t want peace with the Palestinians, who “have done an extraordinary job of remaining committed to nonviolence”.
Keep talking about Palestine
Media attention on Jerusalem and Palestine is now as important as ever.
Indeed, Israel has always been at least three steps ahead of the Palestinians and Arabs in advocating for its cause, especially in the West. It has enjoyed the aid and complicity of governments and media giants who like to focus on Palestinian “violence” to further the Israeli narrative that Israelis are living in a region where “self-defence” (an all-encapsulating term used by the Israelis to justify their violence, oppression, apartheid regime, violations of international law, illegal settlements, etc) is necessary to survive.
Against this backdrop, it was extremely saddening to read Robert Satloff’s account of his visit to Saudi Arabia, which he titled “Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) does not want to talk about Jerusalem.”
Satloff wrote: “on Israel itself, he [MBS] struck an unusually positive note. Unlike what I heard from Saudi leaders on past visits, he said nothing about Israeli expansionism, Israeli arrogance, Israeli unfairness, or Israeli encroachment on Muslim rights in Jerusalem. Instead, he spoke of the promising future that awaited Saudi-Israeli relations once peace was reached and, operationally, he committed himself to bringing that about”.
To be fair, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman condemned Trump’s announcement, although with legitimate questions remaining about the extent of Saudi coordination with the Trump administration prior to the announcement.
Ultimately, the Palestinian people should decide on the best ways to resist the occupation – bearing in mind their right to use “all available means” as UN resolutions state.
In this regard, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) is widely seen as an effective tool of resistance, in that it draws attention to the Israeli occupation and provides concerned individuals with a way to express solidarity with the Palestinian people.
Until the time when there is a united Arab hasbara devoting all its media and intellectual efforts to support Palestine, we should keep talking about Jerusalem and Palestine, each according to his or her means.
As simple as it sounds, its importance cannot be overstated, especially at a time when the interests of the Trump administration, Israel and Saudi Arabia seem to be perfectly aligned when it comes to the Iran obsession.
If now is not the time to have an enhanced, united focus on Palestine, when is it?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.