Palestine’s last man in the US: The Trump peace plan will create one-state apartheid

The White House’s ‘gifts’ for Israel undermine its position as an arbiter, Palestine's UN ambassador Riyad Mansour tells Arthur MacMillan in New York

Palestinian Ambassador to the United Nations Riyad Mansour speaks in the Security Council, at United Nations headquarters, Monday, April 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
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The Palestinian Mission to the United Nations shows no sign of being a diplomatic outpost. No flag flies outside. Metal shutters cover the windows. And there is no name plate, only a silver buzzer on the building's black steel security door.

It is not a fortress, but at a time when the prospects of Middle East peace fall ever further away, this nondescript office on a terraced tree-lined street east of Central Park has become something of a redoubt in the effort for a Palestinian state.

Riyad Mansour has headed the mission for the past 13-and-a-half years. His business card names him as ambassador, but his title at the UN headquarters in New York – permanent observer, rather than permanent representative – is a reminder of what seems a forlorn quest.

Asked if he feels isolated, like the last man standing up for Palestinians in the US after two-and-a-half years of President Donald Trump’s administration openly siding with Israel at the UN and elsewhere, he laughs, but in a way that suggests resilience more than anything else.

Mentioning how Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said he could not afford to be pessimistic, even during apartheid under minority white rule in South Africa, Mr Mansour says giving up on the two-state solution is not an option.

“To say I am an optimist would not be accurate. I am a prisoner of hope, like Desmond Tutu was. I cannot be a pessimist.”

Born in Ramallah in 1947, the ambassador will turn 72 later this month, his life mirroring the period of statelessness that Palestinians have experienced.

To understand the current political challenges, he says, it is necessary to consider how the past two years have gone and remember exactly how we got here.

When Mr Trump met Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September 2017 there was no hint of what was to follow.

“The atmosphere was so cordial. He was praising president Abbas left and right,” Mr Mansour recalls. “'Give us a little time, a few weeks,' his people said. 'We are talking to Benjamin Netanyahu about some things'. We said: 'Sure, take a month'.”

It was almost two months later that the president abruptly declared that the US would consider Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, breaking international neutrality over the disputed city.

The day in question, December 6, 2017, is one Mr Mansour mentions several times when outlining the distance that has grown between the US administration and the Palestinian leadership.

“That was when they dropped the big bomb on our head. From that moment it has been a downhill trip,” he says.

Since the end of the Second World War it had been the US position that no matter who was in the White House, the question of Jerusalem would be resolved through final status negotiations.

East Jerusalem has long been considered where the Palestinians would have their capital.

Mr Trump's decision – condemned by other members of the UN Security Council – meant conversations with the Palestinians stopped. Mr Abbas said the US could no longer be considered an honest broker.

Compounding the sense of partisanship towards Israel, in September 2018 Mr Trump announced the closure of the Palestinian mission to Washington. The next month Ambassador Husam Zomlot was expelled from the US.

And yet the international community continues to look towards the US.

When the Jerusalem declaration was made, Jared Kushner, the US president's son-in-law, and White House adviser Jason Greenblatt, were already almost a year into drawing up what they said was a plan for peace in the Middle East.

That long-promised document – repeatedly delayed in 2018 and currently scheduled for release in June this year – will be the “deal of all deals”, according to the US president.

Most people outside the White House, however, expect it to fall far short of anything that Israel or the Palestinians would settle for.

Regardless, it will influence the next moves on Middle East peace.

The US decision on Jerusalem, the subsequent move of the American embassy there from Tel Aviv, the US cuts to UN funding for Palestinian refugees and, latterly, Washington's endorsement of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights, represent “free gifts” for Mr Netanyahu, Mr Mansour says.

As such, he does not expect the Israeli prime minister to engage seriously in dialogue after the US releases its plan.

The bigger risk, he says, would be to fall for a false narrative he believes the Trump administration could soon set forth: that the Palestinians are to blame for the plan's failure because they did not engage with the Americans.

In fact, there were 23 meetings between President Abbas and US officials before the Jerusalem announcement. Mr Mansour was involved in many of them. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, has said he held 33 meetings with officials including Mr Kushner.

Riyad Mansour, Palestine’s UN ambassador at his office. Photo by Arthur MacMillan
Riyad Mansour, Palestine's UN ambassador at his office in New York. Photo by Arthur MacMillan

Mr Mansour says those early talks indicate how the White House has favoured Mr Netanyahu all along.

"They asked us questions and took notes. But when it came to the Israeli side they gave free gifts. In The Art of the Deal I do not believe that you could be a successful buyer or seller if you give the other party gifts for free," he says, mocking the ghostwritten book that made Mr Trump famous for how he conducted business and made money in 1980s New York.

“If I give you gifts for free what is the incentive for you to engage in negotiation? If you get Jerusalem for free, if you get the destruction of UNRWA for free, you don't call for a two-state solution for free, you don't say that settlements are illegal, for free, and the bonus on top of that, the Golan Heights, for free, then what is the benefit for you, Prime Minister Netanyahu, to come and negotiate? Even for the crumbs.”

In the past 18 months, the White House and Israel have appeared conjoined politically, with the US president helping Mr Netanyahu secure re-election last month. Few doubt the Israeli prime minister knows near all that the White House peace plan will reveal, while the Palestinians and the international community know next to nothing.

“Everybody is saying, 'We are waiting for the Americans to be serious'. But the Americans are not engaging anyone. Not the Europeans, not the Russians, not the UN. They are talking in generalities.

“Even when Kushner summoned 100 ambassadors to Blair House the other day to brief them about the 'deal of deals' he said nothing.”

At the April 17 meeting at the president's guest house in Washington, Mr Kushner reportedly urged those gathered to keep an “open mind” about the contents of the plan.

The worst case scenario envisaged from the Kushner-Greenblatt proposals, for the Palestinians, is an outcome that would all but remove the prospect of a two state solution. Recent months have seen the White House conduct an outreach campaign apparently designed to limit people's expectations. Mr Kushner has said publicly that he had not received the level of engagement from the Palestinians that he would have liked.

Add in a third official, the US ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and Mr Mansour's scepticism, along with many others, about a fair outcome only seems to deepen. Mr Friedman took up his position on May 14, 2018. While he, Mr Kushner and Mr Trump's daughter Ivanka were smiling alongside Mr Netanyahu at the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem, violence at the Gaza border fence resulted in 64 Palestinian deaths, mostly from Israeli sniper fire.

“The three of them are of a certain brand,” Mr Mansour said of the ambassador, Mr Kushner and Mr Greenblatt.

“They are more Israeli than the Israelis themselves. They are very close to Netanyahu and his extreme rightist government, so their view would be greatly influenced by the thinking of Mr Netanyahu.

“It's not arising from any pure or genuine perspective about what is in the interests of the US.”

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they pose on the West Wing colonnade in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 25, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis/File Photo
US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they pose on the West Wing colonnade in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, US, March 25, 2019. Reuters

As such he appears ready to accept the worst.

“Now we are close to the stage of blaming the Palestinians for whatever they put on the table, to say that 'they refused a fabulous deal',” Mr Mansour says of recent official US statements.

“A cynic might say the objective of that is to pave the way for further gifts for Israel, such as the annexation of the settlements and whatever parts of the West Bank that Mr Netanyahu wants.”

The prospect of annexation is real.

Not only did the Israeli premier appear to promise such a move before last month's election, his ambassador to the UN Danny Danon added to such an expectation by saying it would not happen before the US peace plan is presented.

Asked if he believes annexation will happen, the Palestinian ambassador replied: “I don't know. I am asking questions.”

That would surely break the US-authored UN resolution 181 passed by the General Assembly in 1947, which set out to partition Palestine into three pieces: a Jewish state, an Arab state (presently occupied) and Jerusalem run under an international administration until a final agreement could be reached.

Some 72 years later and referring again to the long-awaited White House plan, Mr Mansour says: “Of course they think this is going to solve the problem. It's not. It's going to prolong the problem.”

Despite the veto power of the US and the pro-Israeli policies of the Trump administration, the rest of the world has shown great friendship to the Palestinian leadership over the past two years, particularly at the UN, according to the ambassador.

“I do not feel isolated,” he says. “The state of Palestine enjoys tremendous support. If there are isolated ones they are the Israeli representative and the US, who by adopting this policy, decided to join Israel in being isolated. These are the realities of the UN.

“Before December 6, 2017, it was a battle between Israel and the international community. The US used to be a powerful cheerleader supporting Israel from the side of the field but now it has joined them on the field. The US decided to face the rest of the world. That's the shift.”

For now, the Palestinian leadership will “keep knocking on the door at the Security Council” over Israeli violations of UN resolutions, he says, despite knowing that the current US administration will use its veto power to shield Israel.

Although the US election in 2020 could change the outlook, Mr Mansour says a pivot toward more national activities is likely. One example is how South Africa and Ireland are two countries that are actively pursuing legal means to ban from import Israeli goods produced in illegal settlements.

It is in this regard that the ambassador again mentions apartheid and how international pressure against white minority rule eventually became too great to ignore.

“If we do not separate and have a two-state solution then they are pushing reality into the one-state reality. One state would be apartheid,” he says.

“Those who are pushing in that direction are planting the seeds of destruction of the state of Israel, because, morally, Jews cannot accept to be in the same position as the white minority racist past regime of South Africa. It would erode their moral fabric.

“For us. Our people are not going to leave. If they push us into one state reality our people will reproduce at a very accelerated rate.”