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Human Rights Attorney to Trump: “Israel Is Not Interested in the Golan Heights for Security”

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Just weeks before major elections in Israel that could determine the future of embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Trump declares the U.S. will recognize Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights, in defiance of international law and decades of U.S. policy. The announcement comes as he is set to host Netanyahu at the White House next week amid the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, where Vice President Mike Pence will speak, along with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, among others. A growing number of Democrats—including at least eight presidential candidates—say they will skip the summit. We get reaction from Palestinian human rights attorney Noura Erakat, author of the new book “Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Just weeks before major elections in Israel that could determine the future of the embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Trump has bowed to his pressure by declaring the U.S. will recognize Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights, in defiance of international law and decades of U.S. policy. Trump announced the move via Twitter Thursday, writing, “After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!” exclamation point.

Netanyahu responded to the news during a joint news conference with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: President Trump has just made history. I called him. I thanked him on behalf of the people of Israel. He did it again. First he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the U.S. Embassy here. Then he pulled out of the disastrous Iran treaty and reimposed sanctions. But now he did something of equal historic importance: He recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. And he did so at a time when Iran is trying to use Syria as a platform to attack and destroy Israel. And the message that President Trump has given the world is that America stands by Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: The Golan Heights area covers less than 500 square miles along Israel’s northeastern border with Syria. Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981 after capturing the territory from Syria during the 1967 war, but the international community does not recognize its sovereignty. In November, the U.S. said it planned to vote against a U.N. resolution calling for Israel to end its occupation of the Golan Heights.

The Syrian state news agency responded to Trump’s vow to overturn decades of U.S. policy by saying it showed the, quote, “blind bias” of the U.S. towards Israel and that his comments had shown “contempt” for international law and that they would not change the reality, quote, “that the Golan was and will remain Syrian, Arab,” unquote.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat tweeted Thursday, “Yesterday president Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Today for regional stability he wants to make sure that the occupied Syrian Golan Heights be under Israel’s sovereignty. What shall tomorrow bring? Certain destabilisation and bloodshed in our region,” he tweeted.

Trump’s announcement comes as he’s set to host Netanyahu at the White House next week [amid] the annual conference of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, where Vice President Mike Pence will speak, along with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and others. This comes as a growing number of Democrats, including at least eight presidential candidates, have said they will be skipping the summit, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg.

For more, we go to D.C., where we’re joined by Noura Erakat, Palestinian human rights attorney, legal scholar. She’s an assistant professor at George Mason University. Her new book, Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine.

Professor Erakat, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you respond to Trump’s tweet?

NOURA ERAKAT: I think when Netanyahu says that Trump did it again, he’s absolutely right. Trump has been moving in lockstep in an imperial policy, U.S. imperial policy, in the Middle East which seeks to establish its hegemony, undermine democratic governance and certainly continue the systematic violations of human rights.

Israel is not interested in the Golan Heights for security. If it were interested in that, then it wouldn’t be settling its civilians there. It has 34 settlements, 20,000 settlers. To put civilians into a place that’s known as a military zone is, one, either to belie that there’s actually a military threat or, two, to be using Israeli citizens as human shields. In both instances, it’s incredibly problematic and discounts the fact that there is no military threat to Israel from that border. Syria last launched a military attack on Israel in October 1973. Egypt and Jordan have established permanent peace with Israel. Iraq and Libya, which might pose a threat rhetorically, have been completely gutted and destabilized. There has been no threat. Even Hezbollah from the south of Lebanon, where Israel withdrew its forces in 2000, have not launched war against Israel. In fact, it was Israel that launched war against Lebanon in 2006. This framework of security is a cover and a veneer for Israel as an aggressor. It is not the David, it is the Goliath in the region. And Israel’s continuing warfare is what’s destabilizing the region.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who spoke at Thursday’s news conference with the Israeli prime minister, Netanyahu.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Tonight President Trump made the decision to recognize that that hard-fought real estate, that important place, is proper to be a sovereign part of the state of Israel. President Trump made a bold decision to recognize that, an important decision for the people of Israel, will truly be historic. And the people of Israel should know that the battles they fought, the lives that they lost, on that very ground, were worthy.

AMY GOODMAN: Noura Erakat, can you respond to Secretary of State Pompeo?

NOURA ERAKAT: I think it’s so irresponsible for a secretary of state to be describing occupied territory, recognized under international law, including U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 and 338, as “hard-fought real estate.” This violates a long-held principle that decries the acquisition of territory by force. And so, I would say to Pompeo, “You’re doing an incredible disservice to your job. You’re an embarrassment to yourself.”

This is not the message that we should be sending. The principle opposing the acquisition of territory by force isn’t just relevant to the Middle East but is relevant to the world. If we are going to say this in the Middle East, then we might as well tell Russia, “You can stay as long as you want in Crimea, because you also won that territory, won that real estate, by warfare.” And so, this is an embarrassment, to the United States, to Pompeo, and certainly a bad signal for the entire world.

AMY GOODMAN: And what exactly does it mean, Noura? I mean, Trump tweeted this, that he plans to do this. What would have to happen to make it real?

NOURA ERAKAT: You’re absolutely right to question: What is the value of a tweet? This is about the U.S. Now, it’s within the presidential authority to recognize territory as sovereign, even if it violates international law. What will be consequential is how the international community responds. The U.N. has already decried this. Turkey has decried this. Egypt has decried this. Jordan has. Ironically, Russia has, as well. And so, if we see the international community stand in opposition, then the U.S.’s declaration will be merely that, a declaration, where the U.S. is a lone figure in the rest of the world. Consider that when it moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, in similar contravention of long-held principles, 128 states at the U.N. voted against the U.S., and there been very few countries that have followed suit. So, in fact, what this demonstrates is the weakness of the United States and its waning influence.

And it says more about domestic concerns in the U.S. and in Israel than it does for the region. This is about Netanyahu deflecting attention from corruption charges three weeks ahead of elections. This is about the United States and Trump speaking to an evangelical base, rather, that doesn’t care for regional stability and international law, but is more concerned with seeing Israel establishing itself as a hegemon, within an Islamophobic framework that positions Israel as the easternmost front of the U.S.’s war on terror.

AMY GOODMAN: So, this clearly is something that the embattled Prime Minister Netanyahu has been pushing Trump very hard for. The Israeli attorney general has said he’s about to indict Netanyahu for corruption. The election is just weeks away in Israel. Can you talk about the significance of this, what it will mean for the Israeli elections, Noura?

NOURA ERAKAT: So, one can only speculate what it’s going to mean, but what we know about Israeli society is that it has a position in regards to the Golan Heights that signifies that the Golan Heights is part of Israel. It’s similar to the mythologies that are created. They have a slogan, ”Ramat Hagolan zeh ani,” that “the Golan Heights are me.” And so, this is speaking to a base that would be more concerned with establishing Israel’s expansionist policies than it is with the corruption of a particular politician.

It’s a deflection tactic, similar to Pompeo’s visit right now. Secretary of State Pompeo is the first U.S. official to visit the Western Wall in occupied East Jerusalem, in a similar bid to establish that if you work with Netanyahu, you will be in lockstep with an imperial power that—where might makes right in the Middle East, where there is no accountability and where Israel will be able to trample Palestinian human rights, will continue to act as an aggressor in the Middle East and continue to benefit from the U.S.’s unequivocal financial, military and diplomatic support, that frames that aggression as self-defense.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does this mean for the—if you can call it the Israel-Palestine peace process, if there even is one? But what does this mean for any kind of pursuit of peace?

NOURA ERAKAT: Well, I think if we just pay attention to what Israeli leaders have told us, they don’t want peace. They don’t want a two-state solution. What they’re offering to Palestinians is a situation of permanent subjugation and derivative sovereignty, where they don’t control Jerusalem, where they can’t access their water, where they can’t access free movement, where there is no human rights.

And now if we thought that Palestinians, who are a stateless people, had any chance of achieving some sort of equitable resolution with the U.S. as broker, we can see that the fact that the U.S. is willing to declare Israel’s sovereignty over Syrian territory, which is not—you know, in Palestine, the West Bank and Gaza has been subject to a really silly and basically indefensible legal argument that says that there is no Palestinian sovereign, and so the territories are disputed. But there is no dispute over the Golan Heights. That is Syrian sovereign territory. If the U.S. is willing to stand by Israel to declare that sovereign territory as no longer occupied, by decree, then what chances do Palestinians have of achieving any kind of equitable resolution for themselves?

This just adds more imperative to a grassroots campaign, in the form of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, in the form of legal cases, in the form of grassroots movements that are aligning in an anti-racist global movement and a global anti-fascist movement, in order to overcome diplomatic intransigence and the fact that their governments do not represent them. This is more fuel to the fire for people’s movements. And as we’ve seen, people do overcome.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, Senator Lindsey Graham visited the Golan Heights with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. He said he would lobby the Trump administration to recognize the occupied Golan Heights as Israeli territory.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: There is no construct I can imagine, now or anytime in the future, for the state of Israel to give the Golan up. … The Golan is not in dispute. The Golan is in the hands of Israel and will always remain in the hands of Israel.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I agree.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: So, we will be talking to President Trump, when I get back, about the necessity of recognizing the Golan as part of Israel, that it is inconceivable that Israel could ever give it to anyone, given the threats Israel faces.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Lindsey Graham was standing next to David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel. Friedman has no diplomatic experience, worked as a bankruptcy lawyer for Donald Trump for 15 years, longtime supporter of illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, who’s called President Barack Obama an anti-Semite. Friedman also compared liberal American Jews to Nazi collaborators. Noura Erakat?

NOURA ERAKAT: I mean, I think what we see in the Middle East is—you know, we might be saying that the Trump administration doesn’t know what it’s doing and is actually appointing these ill-qualified officials to represent them, but I think that’s precisely the plan. It’s a plan of recklessness. It’s a plan of might makes right. It’s a plan of destroying what they can as they go, in order to, one, shrink government in the United States, but also establish U.S. hegemony through military force.

What we see between the U.S. and Israel, in terms of supporting Israel at all costs, is not unique just to Israel but also in alignment with the U.S.'s policies to other authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, including its relationship to—excuse me—Sisi in Egypt, including the relationship to MBS in Saudi Arabia, as well as the UAE. This is not just about the U.S.'s relationship to Israel. This is about U.S. imperial policy in the Middle East. It’s about establishing itself as a hegemon. It’s about destabilizing the region. It’s about undermining democratic rule. It’s about being able to control access to natural resources, like gas and petrol. It’s about being able to proliferate U.S. military bases in the region, that will have access and control to the rest of the world. And we do that under the veneer of liberation and democracy and peacemaking. And so it’s really imperative upon a critical audience to understand that endless war in the Middle East cannot possibly be for the sake of stability or democracy, but is actually in pursuit of U.S. national, imperial interests.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Noura Erakat, I wanted to ask you about the elections in Israel and a campaign ad. A member of parliament seeking re-election on April 9th is under fire over a campaign advertisement depicting him shooting and killing a Palestinian colleague. In the ad, Oren Hazan, a lawmaker with the ruling Likud party, who represents a Jewish-only West Bank settlement, is depicted as a character in the Clint Eastwood film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Hazan’s face is superimposed over a character who shoots and kills Jamal Zahalka, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and member of Israel’s Knesset. Zahalka has called for police to arrest Hazan over the ad. This comes after another prominent Israeli politician, ex-General Benny Gantz, released a campaign video showing a counter marking a rising death toll of Palestinians superimposed over a video of a funeral. A second campaign ad promised that, if elected, Gantz would bomb Gaza back to the Stone Age. Your response?

NOURA ERAKAT: Yeah, welcome to Israel. Welcome to Palestinian lives, of being literally dehumanized, killed, ridiculed, accused and blamed for their own deaths, for the sake of domestic politics, for the sake of international politics, while the rest of the world watches. When Israel massacred 58 Palestinians on May 15th last year, when the embassy was moved and when Palestinians continued their Gaza Great March of Return, you know what U.S. headlines ran? They said, “How dare Hamas ruin and spoil Israeli celebrations!” The level of dehumanization that is at play is astounding, absolutely astounding.

And it’s what should make us support more forcefully brave lawmakers, like Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, like Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who are actually using—who have ridden into Congress on the power of the people who have brought them into Congress, on campaigns that support human rights and a complete anti-racist platform, who are actually calling out the U.S.’s policy for what it is.

Now, it should not be surprising that the U.S., which is a settler colony and also maintains a racial caste system, would also frame what Israel is doing as somehow forgivable. But there’s something to be said about media that fails to let Israel speak for themself and take them at face value. Here are campaign ads where they are promoting the murder and the killing and the death of Palestinians, even elected lawmakers, in order to get more votes. Can you imagine how precarious Palestinian life is? And when Zahalka called out Hazan for the ad, Hazan turned around and called him the—literally said, “This is not anti-Arab racism, you terrorist.” I mean, we’re talking about a doublespeak. And if you didn’t see it, you wouldn’t believe it.

And so, the only thing that I would encourage is for more people to pay attention, for more people to see it, for more people to take Israelis seriously when they use this racist discourse, and to understand that the people who pay the highest price are Palestinians.

AMY GOODMAN: Noura Erakat, I want to thank you for being with us, Palestinian human rights attorney, legal scholar, assistant professor at George Mason University. Her new book, Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine.

This is Democracy Now! Coming up, it has been called the worst weather event in the Southern Hemisphere. We’re going to talk about what’s happening right now in Mozambique, in Zimbabwe, in Malawi and other places. Then to Nebraska and, finally, the Lakota historian Nick Estes on Our History Is the Future. Stay with us.

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