Palestinian Solidarity at the World Cup and the Bankruptcy of U.S. … – Democracy for the Arab World Now

Joel Beinin is the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Professor of Middle East History, Emeritus at Stanford University, and a non-resident fellow at DAWN.
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The World Cup in Qatar and the annual conference in Washington of J Street, the liberal Zionist lobbying group, occurred half a world apart. Their global significance is hugely disparate. Yet, together, they highlighted both the extent to which the Biden administration is out of touch with popular sentiment internationally and the bankruptcy of its policy on Israel/Palestine.
Palestine has been ubiquitous at the World Cup. Despite the exceptional political repression Qatar imposed on the world’s most widely watched sporting event, teams and fans repeatedly demonstrated their support for the Palestinian people—most of all in Morocco’s remarkable run, with its players unfurling the flag of Palestine after each thrilling victory. Palestine has become a global symbol of resistance to unjust rule.
At the J Street conference on Dec. 3, the organization’s executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, took some baby steps away from its previous dogmatic insistence that the two-state solution is the only acceptable resolution to the question of Palestine. In contrast, in his own speech to J Street the next day, Secretary of State Antony Blinken robotically repeated the Biden administration’s commitment to an elusive two-state solution, while offering not a hint of how it might be achieved.
After their stunning upset over Spain in the World Cup Round of 16, the Moroccan team posed for a triumphal photo with the flag of Palestine, while their most ardent supporters waved both the Moroccan and Palestinian flags. Palestinian flags were again prominent in the stands during Morocco’s sensational win over Portugal to advance to the semi-finals. Before Morocco’s win over Belgium in the group stage, their fans sang, “To our beloved Palestine, the most beautiful of all countries.” That anthem, usually sung by fans of the leading Moroccan football club Raja Casablanca, has resounded throughout the tournament. After defeating Canada, Moroccan players marched on the field carrying a Palestinian flag, as fans in Doha’s al-Thumama Stadium did the same.
The outpouring of solidarity with Palestine carried over into other matches by Arab teams. During Tunisia’s game against Australia, fans in the stadium displayed a huge Palestinian flag emblazoned with “Free Palestine.” In the middle of the Tunisia-France contest, a man ran onto the field carrying a Palestinian flag. “Palestine is the 33rd country in the World Cup,” one Moroccan fan told The New York Times. “Palestine is our cause, our struggle in the Arab world, in all the Arab world.”
Under U.S. pressure during the waning days of the Trump administration, Morocco and Sudan normalized relations with Israel, following the lead of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in the Abraham Accords. As part of the Morocco-Israel deal, the Trump administration recognized Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara, which it invaded and occupied in 1975. It was a natural sequel to Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, including annexed East Jerusalem, and recognition of the occupied Golan Heights as Israeli territory. But Morocco’s World Cup accomplishments belong to the Moroccan people, not the regime.
Journalists were among the 5,000 Israelis who Qatar permitted to fly directly into the country for the tournament. Many of these Israeli journalists woefully reported that Arab fans either refused to speak to them or injected the cause of Palestine into their broadcasts, despite the recent conclusion of peace agreements with Arab countries that were never at war with Israel.
Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979. Nonetheless, an Egyptian fan interviewed on live TV responded to an Israeli reporter’s claim that their presence at the World Cup was an expression of co-existence with “Viva Palestine.” A British fan did the same after his team’s easy win over Senegal, shouting “Free Palestine” into the microphone, to the dismay of the Israeli reporter who only wanted to “talk football.”
The Biden administration, like most Israelis and the Washington foreign policy blob, persists in promoting the illusory notion that diplomatic agreements between Israel and Arab autocracies advance the cause of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Biden has rhetorically distanced his administration from its predecessor, but on Israel/Palestine—as on several other foreign policy matters involving international law and human rights, like the treatment of Haitian refugees and the expulsion of asylum-seekers under Title 42—Biden has only partially and under great pressure departed from Trump-era policies.
Biden has not reversed U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital or moved the American Embassy back to Tel Aviv, where it had been since 1966. Nor has he reversed Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Biden’s administration has not halted the construction of a U.S. embassy located in Jerusalem on land claimed by the Khalidis, a prominent Palestinian family, and annexed by Israel during the 1967 war. It has not reopened the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem. Biden also reneged on his promise to allow the Palestinian Authority to reopen its office in Washington, which was shuttered under the Trump administration, and only partially restored financial aid to the Palestinians that Trump terminated.
In his J Street conference remarks, Ben-Ami said that Israel’s incoming, hard-right government is “committed to policies that will likely aim to cement permanent, undemocratic control of millions of Palestinians.” Yet he did not acknowledge that Israel has, except for a brief interlude in early 1967, exerted undemocratic control over Palestinians since it established a military government over its Palestinian citizens in 1949. Nor did he suggest that dominating the Palestinian people since the state came into existence undermined Israel’s claims to be a democracy. Of course, those are enormously difficult issues for anyone who has been intensely committed to Israel to raise. But increasing numbers of Jews and non-Jews are raising them.
But not the Biden administration. And not the leadership of the Democratic Party. In his own remarks to J Street, Blinken celebrated the annual provision of $3.8 billion in U.S. military aid to Israel and the array of joint military exercises, research and weapons development, as if that contributes to a peaceful Middle East. He fleetingly expressed concern about the escalating violence of Israeli settlers against Palestinians and the ceaseless expansion of settlements. But Blinken proposed nothing to impede them, even as he admitted that they “undermine the prospects of a two-state solution.”
The settler population surged during the Trump administration, reaching 475,000 in the West Bank, plus over 200,000 in East Jerusalem by the time of Biden’s inauguration. The incoming Israeli government includes religio-fascist elements hell-bent on annexing those territories. Consequently, a growing number of knowledgeable observers have concluded that support for the traditional two-state solution has become comparable to a belief in the coming of the Messiah.
The Biden administration is less willing than J Street to acknowledge, as Ben-Ami said, that “we are mired in permanent occupation and the undemocratic and unjust one-state reality is upon us.” That is to say, the failure of the Oslo process has resulted in the elimination of Israel and Palestine as separate and viable political entities. Ben-Ami was ready to speculate about Congress finally imposing some costs on Israel: “Maybe it’s time for some serious oversight and accountability for how our aid to Israel is actually being used.” But Blinken mechanically intoned that “our security assistance to Israel is sacrosanct.”
Palestine’s presence at the World Cup has demonstrated that while Arab autocrats are willing to continue to buy U.S. armaments and to conclude security and investment deals with Israel, there is little popular support in the region for perpetual denial of Palestinian lives and rights. Biden’s stubborn stance on maintaining military support for Israel and its permanent occupation of Palestine indicates that, while support of the American Jewish community is an important facilitator, the main driver of the U.S.-Israeli alliance is a common commitment to U.S. hegemony in the Middle East.
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