The challenges ahead, with Daniel Levy and Nour Odeh

Transcript from our ‘Peace with Justice – how to get there’ Conference in London on 6th June 2024.

Daniel Levy

Confusion reigns since President Biden gave his ceasefire speech on 31 May. The White House then issued a statement signed by a number of countries, mostly those that have nationals held hostage in Gaza. It speaks to the absurdity and criminality of the way that the US and the West have managed affairs in the last months. The first paragraph calls on Hamas to accept the proposal. The second calls on Israel and Hamas. There is a place in diplomacy for constructive ambiguity. There is also something called dishonesty. We’ve crossed that line.

The US had the opportunity for months to put forward a plan that was potentially significant, making a clear linkage to a permanent ceasefire, saying this wasn’t a six-week hiatus, this was the way to a permanent ceasefire. That was the hurdle to overcome.

Predictably, the Israeli response was yes to the bits we like, and no to the bits we don’t. Within hours, Prime Minister Netanyahu clarified that Israel intends to continue the war. His coalition partners and MPs did the same. What would America do? The U.S. caved in and walked it back. The problem here was with Jerusalem West, but the U.S. stressed that the only people who had to give an answer were Hamas.

The U.S. could not have given ironclad guarantees, but could have created maximum plausibility that phase one, which would have also seen the release of the Israeli hostages, would have led to a permanent ceasefire, in the face of Netanyahu saying the opposite. If they didn’t do that, it was clear what the terrible outcome would be: back in the comfort zone of blaming Hamas, and the death, destruction, daily mass civilian killings can continue.

Whenever the choice was, do we have a sustained standoff with a recalcitrant Israeli leadership, or let them off the hook, the choice has been the latter. The image that captures everything is that seaport in Gaza. You can get in everything needed through the land crossings. But if you weren’t prepared to lever open the land crossings, then you drop food on Palestinians, sometimes causing fatalities – the worst way possible of delivering that aid. In the State of the Union address comes this fantastical announcement about a seaport that eventually collapses into the ocean.

What is the determination made by the UK government in terms of its weapons sales and transfers to Israel? What is that legal advice? When do arms transfers stop? How does the UK respond to the ICC and the ICJ? That’s not decisive for the U.S., but it helps create the environment in which the U.S. administration operates.

What are the dynamics in Israel? There is a terrible tendency to suffer from Bibi-itis, as if the only problem is this one person, and if he goes, it will all be okay. Ben-Gvir, Smotrich and much of the Likud have openly called for further ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, the displacement of the population in Gaza (even though the real prize is the West Bank) and resettling Gaza. Netanyahu has said no to resettlement – saying even though my Ministers put forward plans to relocate Palestinians in Gaza into the Sinai, that’s not what I’m for. I’m just for reoccupation, the reestablishment of a perpetual military occupation. He says deradicalization of Gaza has to happen first. He didn’t mean that about his own Israeli society.

The position of Gantz and Lapid is, let’s have an imaginary Palestinian force, or the Palestinian Authority, that can come in on the back of Israeli tanks and go back to the status quo ante. October 7th was a violation of international law. What Israel has done in response in Gaza is a violation. What was happening every day from October 6th and back for decades, denying Palestinians their freedom and rights, was a violation. The way forward cannot be to go back to the status quo ante.

The attempt of the U.S. to bring in Arab partners, succeeding with European partners, including the UK, and the supposed moderate camp in Israel and the PA is to try and return to a Potemkin peace process, a make-believe in which we continue with a reality of apartheid.

The UK government can contribute to that or can challenge that. Recognition of Palestine can do either, it’s neutral – Israel may scream and shout about it, but it is only meaningful if the next step is to say that what we just recognized is occupied. How do we respond to that? There is no real distinction between a settler economy and the Israeli economy, but if you want to go down that route, do we ban settlement trade? How to ensure that Israel is not circumventing that? What’s our position in international legal fora?

After an end to the horrors occurring every day in Gaza, here are four things we need to think about:

  1. Palestinians need a national liberation movement with a strategy to challenge the status quo.
  2. Israel can continue to act with impunity and not be held accountable as long as the cost-benefit calculation of any Israeli leader is that taking on the hardliners (who go deep into society and the establishment and the political class) is very costly, but not doing so means more goodies, means a UK Israel Roadmap 2030 to improve bilateral relations with the UK (which is what the UK government did), it means the U.S. giving the Israelis the visa waiver as a favour to this Israeli government, if it’s cost-free to carry on, and you get normalization with Arab states thrown in, don’t be surprised if things keep going in that direction. Israelis cannot be bludgeoned and sanctioned into a full change of everything, but if you want minds to be focused on the hard questions, then change the incentive structure. We could not have got to where we are without these layers of impunity which allowed Israelis to not see Palestinians. Palestinians were not on the agenda. When you don’t see people, it’s so much easier to dehumanize them.
  3. This cannot be an American monopoly. We have to welcome a different set of actors. The UK government should think hard about those in the Global South who have actually proved that they are more willing to challenge the status quo.
  4. Naturally, all of this plays out in our domestic politics, but it cannot play out in the silencing, criminalizing, culture war ways which pit one community against another. It’s a big strategic misstep that the Jewish community, in its establishment guise, has volunteered to be a battering ram with other communities in this country. That is not how you build a more tolerant society in which Jewish and other communities can flourish. If everything is anti-Semitism, if you are so expansive in your definition, and so unserious, and so willing to conflate, then nothing is anti-Semitism. People won’t take it seriously.

Nour Odeh

I am a Palestinian living in Ramallah. I’m also a diaspora Palestinian born in Damascus. I have had the privilege of living and leaving a piece of my heart in Gaza. I bring with me all of that, as a consequence of the occupation and the impunity we’ve been discussing.

The mood in the West Bank is all that Gaza is experiencing, minus the destruction and the bloodshed. We are collectively traumatised, in agony. We suffer from survivor’s guilt, fearing to receive news of losing loved ones or friends or colleagues, or simply of seeing more scenes of bloodshed that we are helpless to stop. And that sense of abandonment. People like me who have had a career in communicating, at some point in our lives – we all believed it was a matter of information. If people knew what was happening, if there was internet and social media during the Nakba, it couldn’t have happened. But the past eight months prove that it would have, and that there would have been cheerleaders for that Nakba, for that collective systematic effort to erase an entire people. Droves of politicians would swear that none of this was happening, your eyes are mistaken, children are not dying. People like Nikki Haley signing off on bombs, cheering Israel on and telling them to finish them off.

What social media has done, which is where hope comes in, is why we also see that gap between governments and the political establishment in the West and the general public and people who make an effort that we really value highly. It is so important. It is the one breath of fresh air we get when we see people marching, taking a stand, knowing how costly it is. Thank you.

In the West Bank a secret war is happening, overshadowed by Gaza. Entire communities are being displaced. All the tactics that Israel has been able to normalise in Gaza are being brought to the West Bank. When you hear of incursions in the West Bank, know that the first thing that Israeli soldiers do is block the entrances to hospitals, is plough up the streets and damage the infrastructure, is destroy homes indiscriminately and detain thousands of Palestinians, including over 80 journalists, 52 of whom remain in Israeli imprisonment. Not counting the thousands of Palestinians who have been forcibly disappeared from Gaza.

There is no comparison in the level of destruction, but that reality of pain is common between the Palestinians. Everybody in the West Bank understands that they’re next. That is the conviction, the reality that they feel, aside from losing loved ones and not having a moment to grieve. For eight months we haven’t been able to take a breath. We don’t have the luxury to break down, because you need to keep moving forward, thinking about what will happen next, knowing that nobody will come to the rescue, not even your own government.

As to discussion of the day after, it’s emblematic of how we got here, of the idea that Palestinian agency is a gift that can be given to certain token good Palestinians, that we as a people who are predominantly young, and highly educated and very opinionated, do not have what it takes to decide for ourselves who should lead our nation to freedom. Since the Hamas takeover of Gaza we have had everybody decide what will become of us and discuss who will lead us except us. The only question we get is, who do you think can do it? Well, why don’t we put it to the test? The ballot box usually does that. But there’s a risk. We don’t know who’s going to win. Isn’t that how elections are supposed to work? We’ve been denied that.

I was a candidate in elections that never happened in 2021 because nobody in the West wanted them. The Europeans didn’t send the observers. Diplomats were very apprehensive, almost certain we were going to make the wrong choice. We weren’t going to pick their guys. They were right. But then we were denied that chance. That allowed Palestinian politics to disintegrate completely. It locked us as a people, not just in the occupied West Bank including Jerusalem and Gaza – but every Palestinian in the world – in a situation where we are hostage to a divided, dysfunctional and paralysed political system. There is no discussion because we are not deciding.

There are a million vetoes on what can happen in Palestine, who can participate in our political life, who can run for elections. Nobody asks us about the domestic agenda. Where do we stand on gender equality? The economy or education? The only thing we’re asked is where do we stand on Israel? Our occupier, our oppressor. The only right answer, as far as Palestinians are concerned, is we oppose the occupation. We want to break free. But that is not the answer that everybody else is looking for. They want the Palestinians who can ensure the security of their occupier, playing the rigged game, as it has been for the past three decades – a dysfunctional, humiliating game that has not served the Palestinian cause and international law.

Fast-forward to 2023, where Israel is single-handedly unraveling the international system, courtesy of Western powers who are willing to sacrifice that system, those standards that they claim apply to everybody, to maintain Israeli exceptionalism, and a life for Palestinians perpetually under Israel’s boot. That is a dead end reality Palestinians cannot and will not endure.

How do we get out of this trap, while battered and bleeding, struggling just to survive? Since October, we learned that there are a lot of things that are worse than dying. You can still be breathing while being dead inside, with nothing left in you to fight for. That is the most dangerous state of living. We count on you to pressure the UK government to take a respectable position, to stand apart from the cowboy politics of Washington, to make sense, to be consistent. I’m not as ambitious as saying to be pro-Palestine. Just be consistent. If these rules and laws and standards are to continue being applicable to everybody, as they were so quickly and efficiently applied to Russia, then they must apply to everybody. Or what is happening in Gaza will become the new norm. And nobody can say otherwise.

The knowledge that what is happening today threatens everybody is why an unprecedented number of countries – like Spain – are joining South Africa’s case against Israel for genocide. It’s not just about what Israel is doing, and those who are enabling. It’s about what kind of crazy world we’re giving to our children – a world where nothing makes sense.

That is why young people have taken charge. They understand that Palestine matters, not just to those who share Palestinian heritage, but to everybody. It is a litmus test, a product of wilful political failure. We were thrown under the bus, sacrificed, 75 years ago. Ever since, all the promises and the mirages that were marketed as horizons for us were not meant to deliver freedom. They were to maintain the status quo of Israeli supremacy and impunity, and of Palestinians just playing along, waiting for that carrot that never comes.

That formula is untenable. This genocide means that all attempts to find another token Palestinian will fail. They may end up causing civil war in Palestine, but they will not result in a functional government. Somebody has to be accountable for what has happened to us, not just Israel. I don’t want my government thinking more about appeasing London/ Washington/ Brussels, and changing the curriculum that my children learn, to appease some white supremacist in the EU, to secure the measly salaries of civil servants. That is not how I want to live, and I’m the moderate.

Can this Palestinian government survive? I’m not sure. It’s on life support. It’s a very comfortable setting for those who want to do nothing. Keep a Palestinian government we can talk to when it pleases us but can deliver nothing unless we give it to it. That is untenable, dangerous, and a formula for disaster. Palestinian agency is not something that should be given to Palestinians. It’s not a gift. It is a right. But for us to exercise it, we have to have that space, and have all the players participate – those I like and those I don’t. That is the definition of democracy. Hamas and Islamic Jihad and Fatah and everybody, they need to be held accountable. The only way is for them to participate in political life and be accountable.

If we can put up with Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, put up with our people. Let us hold them accountable. Otherwise, the option is either civil war, or a fractured, paralysed political system where there’s no horizon for participation, for women or men, and thus endless occupation. It is untenable.

Andrew Whitley: What should happen once the fighting stops in Gaza?

Nour Odeh: In Palestinian political tradition, there can be consensus: the political actors agree on how to move forward. That is possible without the vetoes hovering over everybody’s head, using that tradition to form a body that can manage the mammoth task of reconstructing Gaza, of healing, and of reunifying the Palestinian political system. And that body should be in charge of preparing for elections when they are practical and possible. It would take some time.

Without this body being the product of consensus, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for it to have legitimacy –  practical ability to be in Gaza and work. There is a tendency, especially in Washington, to talk about Hamas as if it’s only relevant for a ceasefire. So we’ll talk to them, we’ll get the captives out, and then we’ll annihilate them, and they’ll be OK with that. It’s nonsensical. That’s not how it’s going to work. That consensus would help give us some hope of a way forward. But a Palestinian Authority that comes in, after everything that has happened, will not be able to deliver what it should. And Hamas without the world will also fail.

Andrew Whitley: What is the best case scenario for future governance?

Daniel Levy: There isn’t one. It comes down to the incentive structure on the Israeli side: what they can get away with. First, people in Gaza need to be provided for, not least the situation of scorched earth and hellscape that has been created there. It will be a muddle-through. There will be aid agencies, UN agencies, others… What’s this World Central Kitchen story? The people whose workers were killed in an Israeli strike. The story was to replace UNRWA. Jose Andres is a Washington do-gooder and the most convenient setup the Israelis could find. Friends of Israel put him up to this. He started his work providing for displaced Israelis from the October 7th attack – not a bad thing, but just so we understand what that setup was.

Governments did not have the guts to say “Israel, you’re fabricating this about UNRWA. We’re not going along with you.” And if you can’t even do that, do you think you’re going to impose an international trusteeship? We will muddle through. You create the best conditions for that. But you have to build something different.

The Western powers are willing to sacrifice the already very fragile international system to maintain Israeli exceptionalism. Hypocrisy, double standards…. Nour pointed to the inflationary cycle we are in when it comes to the cost you have to pay for that. To provide cover for something that is not good for your security, not good for anyone, not good for Israeli Jews. The inflationary cost is staggering. If we have governments willing to pay that cost, the idea that you can make a decent plan out of things that are totally flawed is not plausible. One has to keep the pressure up, but Palestinians are going to have to seize leadership, seize agency.

Nour: We do need to seize agency.

Andrew: There is an important ruling from the ICJ next month on the legality of the occupation. That could result in the world is saying this is illegal. There are consequences that flow from that. Is there a chance that we can break that exceptionalism?

Nour: There is a chance, if we keep it up. Even if this genocidal war ends tomorrow, collectively we need to continue acting as if nothing has changed. Because it wouldn’t have changed. What was happening before 7 October was also illegal and untenable and intolerable. It is not just about this war, it’s about the reality of keeping Palestinians captive in an illegal occupation. Countries like Spain, Ireland, Norway and Slovenia, that have recently joined the majority of the world in recognising Palestine, have an opportunity to take the lead in translating that recognition into action, like Spain. Recognition should also mean sanctions, an arms embargo, accountability. If the occupation and maintaining this exceptionalism don’t become costly, Israel will not feel the need to make a choice. In fact, it will be motivated to stay the course. So far it’s been a sweet deal.

Andrew: Are we wrong to pin hopes on the significance of this ruling?

Daniel: No. These are important pieces in the building blocks to challenging the impunity. The South African case on the contraventions of the Genocide Convention and the provisional measures matter –  not because they can be enforced, not because the behaviour changes the next day… Although you now see the Israelis saying, “We are opening an investigation into how…” The investigations won’t go anywhere. But this is exposing vulnerabilities. It does matter, as the basis from which to move on. Twenty five states and regional groupings, in their submissions to the case at the ICJ over the third-party responsibilities and consequences of prolonged occupation as an advisory opinion referenced apartheid in their submissions, after the reports of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch etc.

Kehlani, Macklemore…we’re in a different space now in terms of what this mobilisation is capable of. Governments are not going to change their positions at once, but as citizens, we are voters, we are consumers, we choose which products to buy. We are sometimes union members. What do union workers in a given port decide what to unload and not unload if arms are passing through your port? Look what happened in Glasgow, where a women’s European football qualifying match between the Scottish and Israeli teams had to be played behind closed doors. That’s significant, because that disrupts sport, an ungoverned space.

How does imposing sanctions on individual settlers impact the majority of Israelis? Do they lose something? Do they feel, I’ve got to rethink this? If there were disruption caused in sport, and they couldn’t play… They are violating the rules of football’s governing body by having teams in the settlements recognised as the State of Palestine that are allowed to participate in the Israeli League. But that’s not going to be a FIFA decision. That’s going to be a decision that fans take.

Question: Will the continuation of the war in the Middle East lead to a Trump presidency, and therefore lead to a world where the politics of fascism reigns supreme?

Nour:  It could very well bring Trump, but that is on Biden. A lot can still happen, but Trump’s chances became significantly better because Biden chose his ideological leanings over the demands of his constituency in the Party. He is disconnected from where his Party is. If it’sTrump, I hope that the world doesn’t deal with him the way they did last time, to cower away and not challenge and pray that they wouldn’t be the subject of his wrath. If his policies aren’t confronted, we all lose.

Question: On the prospects for Palestinian elections, and whether Hamas would dominate.

Nour: Hamas will have a considerable portion, but not a majority. It depends when and how elections are held. We have a robust independent elections commission able to carry out and monitor elections fairly, and this is why we got the wrong results in 2006 and got sanctioned for them by electing Hamas. But if we get to elections, you will see a parliament that needs to work together to form a government. Elections shouldn’t be limited to the PA, but be part of a pathway to rebuild the PLO. The Legislative Council of the PA is part of the PLO structure. Elections in the OPT would be part of a process to reimagine, redefine our liberation movement, our sole and legitimate representative as a people – our collective home, politically. But that starts with consensus, because we also can’t hold elections everywhere. Some countries in the region where there is a large Palestinian constituency are allergic to the concept of elections. We would have to figure out a way to ensure representation. But you would have a very vibrant political scene.

Andrew: Do we need to wait for President Abbas to leave the scene politically before there can be a genuine revival of Palestinian democracy?

Nour: Given all the vetoes we talked about, it is hard to imagine the President leading that process.

Daniel: The immediate tragedy, every day in Gaza, has one pathway. The question of Palestinian dispossession and denial of rights and freedoms and achieving those, and therefore having a prospect of security for Palestinians and Israelis alike, that’s a different track. On the first one, the fast track has been clear for some time: America would have to use its leverage with Israel. It refuses to do so.

There’s an additional element of shock for Israelis, not just of October 7th, but of how the deep systemic dysfunctionality of their system has been exposed subsequently, in its cruelty, but also in its failings. The resilience of Hamas on the ground, the inability to free hostages, take out leaders… When you destroy everything, it means you weren’t capable of actually getting the targets that you say matter. Add to that what’s going on in the north of Israel: on fire. People displaced.

There is a significant shift in the balance of forces on the battlefield, and so in the balance of power, eg in the exchange with Iran. This is an unprecedented humiliation for Israel. Most of the leadership of Israel’s military is now arguing for a ceasefire, because they are stretched, exhausted, running out of manpower, reservists aren’t showing up…

Many inside the Israeli system know it is not working and want to bring it to an end, but that doesn’t align with Netanyahu’s calculation. If the absence of leverage continues, you will have a different phase in Gaza: less intensity, no new areas to invade, and that will make it easier to get more of the humanitarian aid in. But I am not painting a happy picture.

This entry was posted in Misc. Bookmark the permalink.