The US reaction to a UN report describing Israel as an apartheid state demonstrates its potential legal power as well as in the movement argues Nourhan Ashraf Elsayed
The question is not whether the term “apartheid” applies [to Israel]. It is why it should cause such an outcry when it is used.
This remark was made by Professor Saree Makdisi, in reference to the emotional political outrage that arose when the word “apartheid” was used to describe the Israeli state.
Makdisi recorded this observation in May 2014, as the then Secretary of State John Kerry warned that Israel risked becoming an “apartheid state” - a warning which sparked controversy on the American political scene. However, Makdisi’s statement could have easily passed as one that pertains to the recent UN report, published by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), that accused Israel of establishing an “apartheid regime that dominates the Palestinian people as a whole”.
For its definition of apartheid, the report relied not on the South African experience, but on the legal definition derived from the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and Article II of the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. The report also urged National Governments to support and respond favourably to demands for boycott, divestment and sanctions activities against the Israeli state that aim to dismantle the system of apartheid.
The ground-breaking report triggered a flurry of outrage in the US, Israel and even the UN itself. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN labelled the report “anti-Israel propaganda”, and doggedly demanded its withdrawal. Danny Danon, Israel’s envoy to the UN, stated that the report’s use of the term “apartheid” to describe Israel represents “a false analogy” and a “blatant lie”. Emannuel Nahshon, spokesman for the Israel Foreign Ministry, likened the report to Nazi propaganda, the inference being that the report was anti-Semitic.
Two days following the release of the report, the head of the ESCWA, Rima Khalaf resigned, citing pressure from the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to withdraw the report. Her resignation was celebrated by Nikki Haley and Danny Danon.
The allegation that the Israeli state resembles a system of apartheid is not a novel one. During the last several years, two former Israeli premiers and several prominent government officials have warned that Israel was, or risked becoming, an apartheid state. On the Palestinian side, the apartheid accusation constitutes a core assumption in the philosophy of the Palestinian-led, international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which enjoys the support of a plethora of Palestinian and Palestine solidarity activists, organizations, artists and scholars, and the contempt of many US politicians and pro-Israel groups.
So why the outrage at the ESCWA’s claim that Israel was an apartheid state? More specifically, why was the US so outraged that it requested the withdrawal of the UN report?
The US’s special relationship with Israel
Throughout its history, the US has demonstrated staunch support for Israel, even before the Zionist state was founded. One of the ways that the US supported its Middle Eastern ally was by vetoing UN Security Council resolutions that would contradict the Israeli government’s interests. A powerful example was the US veto, in July 2006, of Security Council Resolution 508, which would have demanded that Israel halt its two-week military offensive in the Gaza Strip, ending a bloodbath that had targeted innocent Palestinian civilians.
This unflinching support for Israel was dramatically interrupted last December during the dying days of the Obama administration, when the US abstained from voting on the now infamous Resolution 2334, which demanded an end to all Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian Territories. In response, then president-elect Donald Trump tweeted “As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th”, hinting that his administration would take a harder line against the UN in favour of the Netanyahu government.
And soon enough, the Trump administration delivered on its promise. In February 2017, the US vetoed the UN secretary-general’s appointment of a Palestinian, Salman Fayyad, a well-reputed former Palestinian Authority prime minister who enjoyed good relations with the Bush and Obama administrations, to a high position in the UN. Justifying the US’s position, Haley stated “For too long, the UN has been unfairly biased in favour of the Palestinian Authority to the detriment of our allies in Israel”, promising that “Going forward, the United States will act, not just talk, in support of our allies.”
Viewed in light of the history of the US’s history with Israel, and the Trump administration’s particularly pro-Israeli inclination, the US’s outcry against the UN report comes as no surprise. But the question remains: why did the US deem it insufficient to merely denounce the report, and went the extra mile of demanding the report’s withdrawal? Part of the answer lies in the potentially damaging implications that the report may have on Israel.
The UN report’s capacity to dismantle the Israeli apartheid system
The publication of the UN report had the potential to harm Netanyahu’s Israel in two main ways. First, the report’s definition of apartheid is strictly legal, based on the Apartheid Convention and the “scalpel” of the Rome Statute. By couching their arguments in terms of international law, the authors of the report opened the door for UN bodies, including the General Assembly, to use the report’s findings to escalate the question of Israel’s occupation further, by empowering them to request a ruling from the International Criminal Court (ICC) or the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the legality of the occupation. If Israel is found guilty of committing apartheid, which, under international law, is a crime against humanity, the UN member states would have a legal obligation to take all possible actions to dismantle Israel’s apartheid regime. If this happens, Israel’s apartheid regime would crumble the same way its South African counterpart did in the 20th century.
Second, the report endorses the BDS movement. The publication of a report endorsing BDS by the most powerful intergovernmental body on the planet has immense power to tip the balance in the Israel-Palestine conflict. That is because bolster the legitimacy of an international movement that, despite its growing support among pro-Palestine circles in Europe and the US, has faced and struggled with setbacks in both Israel and the US.
In March 2017, for example, Israel passed a law that banned foreigners who have expressed support for the movement from entering the country. And in the US, the movement faces rampant anti-BDS legislation on the local, state and federal levels. If anything, Israel and the US’s unrelenting resistance to the movement hints that BDS is anything but ineffective. In that context, a report published by an internationally respected political body such as the UN that endorses BDS would provide a useful resource for Palestinian and Palestine solidarity activists to pressure their governments to join the BDS movement.
In light of the UN report’s potential to disturb the status quo in Israel by facilitating the indictment of Israel by the ICC or ICJ, and empowering the BDS movement, it comes as no surprise that the US would strongly oppose and demand the withdrawal of the ground-breaking report. The withdrawal of the document, however, does not negate its findings. If anything, the US’s hysterical reaction to it only served to draw the media’s attention, spark public curiosity and raise global awareness of the plight of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.
It is now up to Palestinian and Palestine solidarity activists to incorporate the report’s methods and findings into their advocacy toolbox in their struggle against Israeli apartheid. In the words of Mahmoud Nawajaa, general coordinator of the Palestinian BDS National Committee:
The fact that a UN secretary-general has bowed to threats and intimidation from the Trump administration to protect Israel from accountability, yet again, is hardly news … The real news is that this time round, Israel, with all its influence in Washington, cannot put the genie back into the bottle.