The Steal of the Century: Robbing Palestinians of Their Past and Future
The Netanyahu-Trump strategy
constitutes a real existential threat for Palestine and the
Palestinians. It is an attempt to de-politicize the Palestine issue and
reframe it as a humanitarian and economic problem that can be solved by
Arab funding and American blessing.
Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century” and Benjamin Netanyahu’s strategy on the ground constitute a real existential danger for Palestine and the Palestinians. It is a combined assault on Palestine and its people that potentially can be as destructive as the 1948 Nakba. It is an attempt to de-politicize the Palestine issue and reframe it as a humanitarian and economic problem that can be solved by Arab funding and American blessing.
In order to understand the magnitude of this danger and its acuteness, it has to be examined within two wider contexts. The first is historical and the other more prescriptive in nature, looking into the immediate future.
The “Deal of the Century” is an American affirmation to Zionism as a legitimate settler colonial movement that still, in the 21st century, is motivated by a logic which was aptly defined by Patrick Wolfe as “the elimination of the native.”
Since the so-called peace process began as a Pax Americana, somewhere in the late 1960s, the USA failed to be an honest broker.
Historically, the deal is a culmination of previous American and Israeli policies towards the Palestine question. Since the so-called peace process began as a Pax Americana, somewhere in the late 1960s, the USA failed to be an honest broker.
On paper, successive administrations and their assigned envoys were committed to guidelines based on international law and therefore acknowledged the illegitimacy of Israeli settlements and annexation attempts, and even condemned publicly the structural violation of human rights in the occupied territories. In practice, these reservations were never translated into actual policy or pressure on Israel to change its criminal behavior on the ground.
The end result of this approach – which can be defined as talking the talk, but not walking the walk – was a public adherence to the relevance of international law as a moral guide for American policy towards occupied Palestine, while at the same time providing immunity – mainly through inaction – to the deepening Israeli colonization of the West Bank and Gaza Strip (the latter until it was evicted in 2006).
Until the end of the previous century, the dominant political parties in Israel employed a similar approach and coordinated quite closely their policies with Washington.
Since the beginning of this century, and in particular in the Netanyahu era (that commenced when he was elected for the second time in 2009), the gap between the talk and the walk both in the USA and in Israel has almost disappeared. The actions on the ground were now fully endorsed publicly by both the American administration and the Israeli government. The “Deal of the Century” summarizes previous American policies and repackages them as an official blessing for Israel’s unilateral actions in historical Palestine.
The “Deal of the Century” summarizes previous American policies and repackages them as an official blessing for Israel’s unilateral actions in historical Palestine.
These American actions in the last decade included the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the transfer of the American Embassy from Tel-Aviv to West Jerusalem. This was followed by official recognition of the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights and public acknowledgement of the legality of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The “Deal of the Century” provides American immunity for Israel’s future policies within historical Palestine which are meant to draw the final political map of the country through coercion and the establishment of irreversible facts on the ground.
The nature of this future solution is quite clear. Its main features were already revealed by an aggressive and racist Israeli legislation in the Knesset that began in 2010. The legislation discriminates against Palestinians on both sides of the green line in every aspect of life be it in occupational opportunities, residence, or basic civil rights. This in addition to the already existing expropriation of land, collective punishments, and severe restriction of movement and any normal human activity in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The legislative spree culminated in the adoption of the Israeli nationality law in the summer of 2018. This apartheid law stated clearly that only the Jews can be recognized as a national group with the right for self-determination within Israel; however, what is “Israel” is defined in another clause that encourages future governments to continue Jewish colonization in the Land of Israel (that is Israel and the West Bank). The final borders are not mentioned in the law as it is expected that future Greater Israel would stretch also over parts of the West Bank – and in all these parts Israel would not allow any manifestation of Palestinian nationalism.
This law demoted the Palestinian citizens inside Israel (and potentially anyone who would be added to this community, through annexation of parts of the West Bank and Greater Jerusalem) into a group with linguistic features and not a national community—more precisely in the language of the law “Arabic speaking people” and a promise that their language will enjoy a “special status” within the state of Israel.
This law is a fundamental law, and since Israel has no constitution, it has a constitutional status. As such it legitimizes in hindsight de facto policies of apartheid and colonization and at the same time envisages the future Israel as an official apartheid state.
Large sections in the international civil society noted these actions and condemned them. In recent years, three discrete processes have eroded Israel’s international image. They included the emergence of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, the shift to the extreme right of the Israeli political system, and the rise of a new generation of pro-Palestinian politicians and civil society in the West.
Officially Israel reacted to this shift in global public opinion by targeting, already in 2016, the Palestinian collective memory and narrative. The Israeli political and strategic leadership regards historical memory and historiography as tools that can be weaponized against the further erosion of Israel’s already deteriorating public image internationally. This action, is a further attempt to manage this shifting landscape by de-politicizing the Palestine issue, much in the same way as the current US administration has done with its “Deal of the Century.”
The assault on the narrative is executed through the closure of the Israeli archives that host documents on the Nakba. As reported in a 2019 Haaretz expose, Israel’s restriction of access to archival material is part of an official operation headed by Malmab (the Hebrew acronym for Director of Security of the Defense Establishment), the Israeli Defense Ministry’s secretive security department. It is a clandestine unit, whose activities and budget are classified and whose existence was first exposed by Israeli historian Avner Cohen in an effort to shed light on Israel’s nuclear policy.
In the course of the investigation, Haaretz found that Yehiel Horev, who headed Malmab for two decades until 2007, had begun working on removing documents from the archives when he was at the helm of the secretive department, a practice continued today by his successors. Speaking to the newspaper, Horev argued that shuttering the archives was justified on the grounds that uncovering Nakba documents would, in the newspaper’s wording, “generate unrest among the country’s Arab population.”
The argument is farcical on two counts: first, Israel’s Palestinian minority, whom Israeli officials refer to as “the Israeli Arabs,” have, since the mid-1980s, been among the most active and conscious groups to engage with—and protect—the memory of the Nakba. The Association for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced (ADRID), which represents the internal Palestinian refugees inside Israel, alongside local Palestinian scholars and activists, has sustained public interest in the Palestinians’ narrative of the 1948 events.
They did not need Israeli documentation to confirm their own experience of ethnic cleansing. Secondly, as Haaretz pointed out, many of the documents now being re-classified had already been published, notably by critical Israeli historians. Horev was confident that the inability of these historians to revisit their documentation will “undermine the credibility of these [critical] studies about the history of the refugee problem.”
As noted in the beginning of this article, settler-colonial movements such as Zionism are informed by what Patrick Wolfe defined as “the elimination of the Native.” Implicit in Israel’s existence as a settler-colonial state is the expectation that it would want to hide evidence of its acts of elimination, particularly in an era that looks unfavorably on colonialism and in the context of a country that purports to be “the only democracy in the Middle East” and a “Jewish and democratic state.”
The ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 and the attempt to erase its memory are part and parcel of the same act of elimination. As Wolfe points out, settler colonialism is not an event, but a structure and therefore the elimination attempts had been there before 1948 and continued since then until today.
The vision of a de-Arabized Palestine fed the familiar violent junctures in the country’s modern history.
In more concrete terms, the vision of a de-Arabized Palestine fed the familiar violent junctures in the country’s modern history: the ethnic cleansing of 1948; the imposition of military rule on various Palestinian population groups in the last 70 years; the assault on the PLO in Lebanon in 1982; the operations in the West Bank in 2002; the siege of Gaza; and the Judaization projects everywhere inside historical Palestine, to name just a few from a rather long list.
Now we can add to this the new project of the “Deal of the Century” and the intended annexation of part or the whole of area C (roughly 60 percent of the West Bank). It is a combination of an attempt to frame the Palestinians as people with no collective political rights and at the same time expand the Judaization of the West Bank. Shuttering the archives through the removal of declassified material is part of the same strategy to “shut down” the Palestinian question altogether.
A de-politicized Palestine is not allowed to subscribe to a historical narrative that can fuel political demands for a state, self-determination, or the right of return, which the Trump administration has already advanced by closing the PLO mission in Washington, moving the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, suspending US funds to UNRWA, and portraying as legal Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.
As so many times in the past, the Israeli interpretation of the “deal” is as important as the deal itself. In the eyes of the Israeli government that “deal” legitimized in advance a future annexation of area C to Israel. In July, this year, Netanyahu declared that he would implement that part of the deal this summer.
This interpretation ignores a meaningless lip service paid in the “deal” declaring the remaining areas of the West Bank with the Gaza Strip as a future Palestinian state. The Netanyahu, or Likud, governments in the future will not accept the part referring to the Palestinian state in the “deal,” while their main rivals, the Blue-White party or any other anti-Netanyahu coalition might pay this lip service and support the idea of such a mini-state, as a matter of style but not of substance.
It is not clear whether the Trump administration until the next US election will allow a full annexation of area C or part of it. This part of the plan was stalled recently with the two peace agreements between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain. They were signed in return for an Israeli promise to postpone the annexation. However, on the ground the areas earmarked by Netanyahu for immediate official annexation this summer, have already been ethnically cleansed by the Israelis.
They include the Jordan Valley; the area around the settlement Givat Hamatos (“the Aircraft Hill” in Hebrew) that lies south of Jerusalem, which drives a wedge into the West Bank that disconnects its southern part from Jerusalem and the settlement block inside area E-1, east of Jerusalem, which cuts physically and irreversibly the West Bank into two, severed, geo-political entities. Thus, when official annexation is declared, it will be a symbolic, rather than transformative, act.
Bisecting the land, carving it into small Bantustans, and assaulting the narrative and the collective identity are part and parcel of the same steal of the century.
Bisecting the land, carving it into small Bantustans, and assaulting the narrative and the collective identity are part and parcel of the same steal of the century concocted in Washington and Tel-Aviv.
Two new developments, which may seem on the face of it as having a potential to change the course of history, might prove at the end of the day to be insignificant as far as the plight of the Palestinians is concerned. The first is growing social discontent and demonstrations in Israel against Prime Minister Netanyahu that draw weekly 10,000 to 20,000 demonstrators near his official residence and the second is the prospects of a democratic administration in Washington after the next presidential elections in November 2020.
The demonstrations are a cry of protest by the center left Zionist camp that somehow cannot resign itself to the fact that the Jewish electorate for years now prefer the right-wing coalition. The particularly corrupted character of Benjamin Netanyahu on the one hand, and his constant attempt to evade being brought to justice, is one agenda of the demonstrators. They were joined by the middle class who was not adequately compensated by the lockdowns during the Covid-19 crisis. Together they hope to bring down Netanyahu either through the legal system or in elections. It is noteworthy that most of the demonstrators have no issue with Zionism or with the oppression of the Palestinians. Even if they would have some impact on the Israeli political system, it would have very little relevance to the situation of the Palestinians.
Will a democratic administration in the USA reverse such an attitude and policy? It’s hard to tell, as previous administrations, while not adopting the same Trumpian discourse, have done very little to oppose Israeli unilateralism on the ground. If this continues to be the American policy, the current American policies constitutes a dangerous development that will affect the region as a whole. The deal conveys a clear disregard for international law and to basic universal justice.
This disregard for international law on the one hand, and the exclusion of Israel from the conversation on civil and human rights in the region, on the other, will disable the USA and the West from playing any useful part in addressing the dismal reality of these rights currently in the region. It is important to remember that past Western colonialism and imperialism as well as Western support of autocratic rule contributed as much as the local regimes and opposition groups that abuse the rights of their own people do today.
It seems the global civil society despite its past achievements and commitment to justice in Palestine needs to work even harder, in solidarity with a Palestinian national movement that desperately seeks – so far unsuccessfully – unity, to foil the next American-Israeli effort to destroy Palestine and the Palestinians.
 Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Studies 8, no. 4 (2006), pp. 387–409.
 Ilan Pappe, “he Israeli Nationality Law: a Blueprint for a Twenty Firs Century Settler-Colonial State”, Journal of Holy Land and Palestine Studies, 18/2 (October 2019), pp. 179-191.
 Wolfe, ibid.