The Trump administration’s threat to close the PLO mission in Washington, DC is part of a wider US-Israel-Saudi effort to assert regional dominance, says Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies
AARON MATÉ: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. The Trump administration is threatening to close the Palestine Authority’s mission in Washington DC. The reason the White House says, is that the Palestine Authority, President Mahmoud Abbas recently called on the International Criminal Court to investigate Israel for war crimes. A 2015 law says Palestine efforts to hold Israel to account at the ICC could lead to punitive action. The US now says the mission could close unless Palestinians back down. But the Palestinian leadership says they will not be blackmailed. This move coincides with Israel and Saudi Arabia speaking openly of cooperation. And there’s reason to believe that that could be a factor here. Well, to discuss this I spoke earlier to Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies. Phyllis, welcome. Let’s start with the threat in closure of the Palestinian mission in DC. Your thoughts on what’s going on there? PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, I think we should be very clear that this is really not about punishing the Palestinians for talking about wanting the International Criminal Court to bring Israel up on charges of violating international law and war crimes. That’s the excuse that the administration is giving, saying that a 2015 US regulation says that if the Palestinians talk about going to the ICC, the US will shut down the PLOs diplomat office in Washington. But this isn’t really about that. That was a regulation from 2015, more than two years ago. And the reason they’re raising it now is because there’s a thing in the language of that regulation that says that the office will be shut down, the PLO office in Washington will be shut down under those circumstances, unless it can certified that the Palestinians are engaged in serious negotiations under US sponsorship, of course. Now, that gives them an out. It gives them a way to say, “Okay, well, they weren’t supposed to go and talk about the ICC, but we’re going to continue to let the office stay open, because they’re engaged in negotiations. The problem for the US is there’s no negotiations. There’s no talks under way. So, you can’t make the argument that we should let this go, because they’re negotiating. What I think is going on here is that the US is preparing to force the Palestinians to accept negotiations on terms that they would never accept, terms that will not be based on international law, human rights, equality, but will be based on maintaining Israeli power, Israeli apartheid, Israeli occupation all under the support of the United States. So, how is this likely to work? I think what we’re going to see is that there’s going to be an announcement before too long that Jared Kushner, the son-in-law or crowned prince, if you will, of the Trump administration, has been meeting with another crowned prince, this one Mohammed Bin Salman, the crowned prince of Saudi Arabia. The little bromance between these two guys has been going on for several months now, and Jared Kushner just came back from Saudi Arabia having spent a lot of one-on-one time with the crowned prince, apparently staying up ’til 4:00 in the morning hatching strategy at the prince’s ranch somewhere out in the desert. And he’s coming back, and I think what we’re going to see is the announcement of a new plan for new negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and if the Palestinians don’t accept those new terms that then the US will have no choice but to shut down the PLO office. So, it’s really being used as a club, as a means of pressuring the PLO to say, “We’re going to force you to accept negotiations that you would never be willing to accept,” negotiations that will not lead to an independent Palestinian state, will not lead to self determination, will not relate to sovereignty, will not be based on equality, and if you don’t accept that, we have this punishment that we’re threatening to impose, which is a symbolic one. But it would be a significant symbolic defeat for the Palestinian leadership to close down their office. So, I think that’s what’s really going on here. This isn’t really about concerns about the ICC. This is a way to punish the Palestinians if they might dare to refuse new negotiations on unacceptable terms. AARON MATÉ: Which is interesting because previously the US approach involved both carrots and sticks to Palestinians, and the carrots included during the so-called Oslo Peace process, letting Palestinian elites enrich themselves in turn for agreeing to unlimited Israeli settlement expansion and agreeing to police the territories on Israel’s behalf. What you’re suggesting here is that it’s an all stick approach, essentially, essentially forcing Palestine, trying to get them to force them to capitulate to whatever US and Israel want. PHYLLIS BENNIS: I think that’s largely true. I think that some of the carrots that you spoke of are still in place. There still is a small amount of US aid that goes to the Palestinian budget. It’s not very much, and almost all of it goes, as you say, towards implementing this security cooperation between the Palestinian leadership, the Palestinian authority under Mahmoud Abbas and the Israeli military. So, that’s continuing. That’s still going on. Now, whether that counts as a carrot for Palestinians, I think as you imply, is certainly not the case. But what we’re looking at here is a stick. It’s a threat. It’s a threat that if you don’t accept these so far non-existing terms for new negotiations, that we will punish you through the closure of this diplomatic office. Now, we should be clear here, Aaron. The PLO office in Washington has never been the primary conduit for the US to be in touch with the Palestinian leadership. The US, whether the State Department, the White House, the NSC, anybody, has always gone directly to the top levels of Palestinian leadership in Tunis when the PLO was still in exile, in Ramallah when the PA is in charge in Ramallah, even though it’s supposed to be only the PLO, it’s really the PA that is engaging with the US. And in that context, the office in Washington is a political, a symbolic office. It’s not really functioning as the diplomatic office. In fact, a member of the State Department speaking on an anonymous basis two days ago when this whole thing first broke already said that the decision to shut down the office would not mean ending communications with the Palestinians. That’s pretty much an acknowledgement that this office was not functioning as a liaison between Washington and Ramallah. This was a symbolic office that was allowed to exist. It’s not an embassy. The PLO representative here is not an ambassador, because the US does not treat Palestine as a state, despite the fact that it is a member state of certain UN agencies and for the United Nations as a whole, Palestine is a non-member state. It is recognized as a state. The US, however, does not recognize it as a state. So, this is not actually an embassy. It’s a symbolic office. So, the closure would be a symbolic closure more than one that would actually have a significant impact on US Palestinian negotiations or discussions. AARON MATÉ: So, let’s talk about the Saudi crowned prince who you mentioned, Mohammed Bin Salman. Now, there have been growing signs of a stronger link between Israel and Saudi Arabia that really crystallized last week when the head of the Israeli military gave an interview to a Saudi newspaper speaking of the need for Saudis or the cooperation in confronting Iran. So, a strong mutual interest there. And so in terms of getting the Palestinian issue sidelined, how much does that factor into that, basically, where for the Saudis to enter into an alliance with Israel, they need the Palestinians to stay quiet? PHYLLIS BENNIS: That’s very true. I think that what we’re looking at here is the emergence as we’ve been seeing since Trump was in Saudi Arabia and then Jared Kushner started going back and forth to meet with the other crowned prince in Saudi Arabia as well. We’re seeing this new consolidation of the anti-Iran coalition that the Trump administration has been trying to craft here. That means getting Israel and Saudi Arabia and the other gulf states that are the leadership of the anti-Iran governments in the region, the UAE and others, to participate in something that would have been unthinkable in the past, which is direct collaboration with Israel. If you remember, Aaron, for example, during the first Gulf War in 1991, when there were some bombs from Iraq that fell on Israeli territory, and the US had to insight that Israel not engage directly in a retaliatory strike, because they knew that that would destroy the Arab Coalition against Iraq, that was at the time led by Syria, ironically enough. It would have meant the end of that Arab coalition, and the US was not prepared for that, so they insisted that Israel keep its troops in the barracks, not fly its planes, not attack Iraq directly. Times have changed. And the position of the trump administration now in its definition of an anti-Iran coalition, requires not only close ties with the Saudi government and the Saudi military, but making sure that the Saudis are willing to engage directly, although it probably won’t be very public for a while, with the IDF, with the Israel military, both of whom, of course, are close clients of the United States. What we see the US supporting the Saudi war in Yemen, where the US planes, US pilots are flying refueling missions over Yemen so that Saudi and UAE bombers can bomb Yemeni civilians with greater efficiency. We’re seeing that kind of close collaboration militarily between the US and the Saudis, between the US and the UAE, and part of that is what’s emerging now will be this new view of how to look at the relationship between Israel and these pro-US Arab state, most particularly Saudi Arabia. And I think we are going to see that in the context of this rising anti-Iran coalition. We’re seeing that in the context of what’s going on in Lebanon where the Lebanese prime minister, who was long tied to Saudi Arabia has dual Saudi citizenship with his Lebanese citizenship. His father, a former prime minister in Lebanon, made his fortune in Saudi Arabia in a Saudi construction company. And the current prime minister, Saad Hariri was summoned to Riyadh, to the Saudi capital, and while there in this strange dynamic, issued a statement in which he said he was resigning as prime minister. Now, all of that remains very unclear, but what does seem clear when you couple that with the call from Saudi Arabia for its nationals to leave Lebanon for their own safety, the same call went out from other Arab governments for their nationals to leave Lebanon, which has been an island of relative safety in the context of all these wars, telling their nationals they should get out for their own safety. This means that there is serious threat to Lebanon, serious threat, which will again be using Lebanon as the Saudis are using Yemen to go after Iran. Because one of the main Lebanese parties, Hezbollah, has close ties with Iran. It’s a Lebanese party. It emerged in the context of opposing the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in the early 1980’s, but it’s seen by Israel and the United States as being nothing but a tool of Iran. And in that context an attack on Hezbollah that would be- AARON MATÉ: Seen as a deterrent, it’s also seen, Phyllis, as a deterrent to both Israeli and US military force, which is part of the reason why it’s so hated. PHYLLIS BENNIS: Absolutely. And in this context there is the great possibility that there could be a military attack by Israeli forces against Hezbollah supported publicly or not publicly by the Saudis as well as by the United States all in the name of going after Iran. Of course the problem is that when you go after Hezbollah in Lebanon, you’re going to be killing Lebanese. Just as going after supposedly Iran and Yemen, means you’re killing, in this case, thousands of Yemenis. The danger to people in Lebanon right now is very, very severe. AARON MATÉ: You know, Phyllis, from what I understand of Israel’s history, they only attack people who they know that they can defeat. And when they, for example, engaged in the war with Hezbollah in 2006, they suffered some surprising losses. And so that’s what makes me think that maybe they might be deterred from attacking Hezbollah again. But some analysts have pointed out there might be other ways for Saudi Arabia, especially to destabilize Lebanon. It has ties to Sunni extremists groups, and that could be used as a weapon to further destabilize the government there. PHYLLIS BENNIS: All of these things are possible. I think that what is not being taken seriously in Saudi Arabia, and probably not in Israel and probably not in the Trump administration, is the fact that the situation in Lebanon is not simply empty territory, which is a playground for going after Iran. One of the things that is different right now in terms of the politics in Lebanon, is that the sectarian basis for politics in which the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, the president is a Christian, and the speaker of the parliament is a Shia Muslim, that has not prevented the fact of large levels of political unity emerging in Lebanon. So, right now for example, the leader of Hezbollah, a Shia-dominated political party in Lebanon and political militia as well with ties to Iran, certainly, has called for the Sunni prime minister to come home from Saudi Arabia and said we need to have more unity talks. The president of Lebanon, who is a Christian, is a supporter of Hezbollah. So there has been a real shift in the ability of sectarianism to divide the people of Lebanon the way it used to in the legacy of French colonialism in Lebanon. These days, the sectarian effort doesn’t work so well. That may well be a deterrent to prevent an Israeli strike along with, as you say, the fact that the last time Israel attacked Hezbollah, they didn’t do so well. But I think that we have to also recognize that there is a far more extremist government in power in both Israel and in the United States, as well as with this new crowned prince in Saudi Arabia. There is a level of recklessness in the threats that are being made by all three of those governments, and that could lead to something very, very dangerous for the region as a whole. AARON MATÉ: So finally, Phyllis, we just had this Arab League Summit meeting in Cairo, and in the final declaration, there was a pretty strong condemnation of Hezbollah. But interestingly, according to reports, both Iraq and Lebanon objected to this language. It shows that although Saudi Arabia has huge clout amongst the Arab League, and not surprisingly given its economic power, it’s not able to influence everybody. Your thoughts on this as we wrap. PHYLLIS BENNIS: They’re oppositional indeed, partly because it’s in Iraq, potentially in Lebanon and certainly in Yemen, where these battles for regional hegemony led by the Saudis are being waged. Iran and Saudi Arabia have long had a kind of cold war relationship as they each seek regional dominance, but the militarization of that crisis that has been taking so much human life in Yemen, is a relatively new phenomenon. And I think in Iraq people know that they will pay a huge price for this, Lebanon as well. This is one of the potential venues for another wing of that battle between Saudi Arabia and in its view going after Iran, but in this case with Lebanese doing the dying. They’ve seen it in Syria as well as in Iraq. They’ve seen it in Yemen, and I think that it’s clear that not all of the Arab countries are prepared to go along with this. Those that are enthralled to Saudi Arabia, the little gulf states, other than Qatar, which the Saudi leadership has been trying to isolate there, because of its independence in foreign policy. But other than Qatar, the US and the Saudis together have been putting enormous pressure on the other Arab governments, whether in Jordan, whether in the UAE, to follow the Saudi line. And they’re winning amongst some, but not against all, because it’s becoming clearer and clearer who is going to pay the price. It’s not gonna be the Saudis who pay the price in human lives. It’s going to continue to be Yemenis. It’s going to be potentially more Syrians and more Iraqis, and it could become more Lebanese as well. AARON MATÉ: We’ll leave it there. Phyllis Bennis, director of The New Internationalism Project and Institute for Policy Studies. Thank you. PHYLLIS BENNIS: Thank you very much. AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.