A session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva underway.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The publication of the US State Department’s Human Rights Report, officially entitled “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices For 2017,” is cause for elation among Israelis and lovers of Israel.
The headline for Israel is that, for the first time, the word “occupied” has been removed from the text. The section heading referring to Israel and the Palestinians reads “Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza.” The words “Israel and the Occupied Territories” are gone. There is no question about it – this change is a direct result of the Trump administration’s Middle East policy.
One incontrovertible fact of US politics is that foreign policy is totally in the hands of the president. The president sets the tone, sets the tenor and chooses terminology. And President Donald Trump and his administration have made some significant changes in US foreign policy regarding Israel. This change in the report is not a standalone issue, but one of a long list of examples.
Naturally, people are asking if dropping the word “occupied” from the Human Rights Report will have a ripple effect on other countries. That is, after all, what is happening since President Trump announced that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and the US embassy will be moving there.
The answer goes far deeper than the embassy move.
The State Department’s Human Rights Report is the bedrock of the philosophy of United States foreign policy and assistance. It draws light to oppression and injustice and helps direct and inform foreign policy.
The preface of the report begins with this grandiose mission: “We are a nation founded on the belief that every person is endowed with inalienable rights. Promoting and defending these rights is central to who we are as a country.”
The report, which is required by US law, discusses nearly 200 countries and areas. It reads, in part: “The 2017 US. National Security Strategy recognizes that corrupt and weak governance threatens global stability and US interests. Some governments are unable to maintain security and meet the basic needs of their people, while others are simply unwilling. States that restrict freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly; that allow and commit violence against members of religious, ethnic, and other minority groups; or that undermine the fundamental dignity of persons are morally reprehensible and undermine our interests. The Governments of China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, for example, violate the human rights of those within their borders on a daily basis and are forces of instability as a result.”
China, North Korea, Iran and Russia are obvious and significant targets of the report. They are solidly in the crosshairs of US policy, as significant abusers of human rights.
The West Bank and Gaza are in the same section as Israel. They receive their own sub-section, warranting their own consideration.
By losing the word “occupied” the report is able to focus on the misdeeds and corruption of Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza – i.e. on the Palestinians themselves. The removal of the word removes Israel from blame, from responsibility, from culpability for Palestinian human rights woes.
For the first time in an official US report, Palestinians are being held accountable for their misdeeds.
The report lays the responsibility for corruption clearly at the feet of the Palestinian leadership. It describes nepotism and injustice. It cites, for example, the fact that there is no Palestinian law prohibiting domestic violence. That education is not compulsory in Gaza.
Israel is not totally ignored. The report takes Israel to task, too, but also explains how Israel is handling the charges against it. On charges of torture and false imprisonment the report says that each charge was independently investigated by two different Israeli units, the police and the attorney general’s office.
There is also critique of Israel suggesting that the national laws of kashrut and the Shabbat observance are abusive to the sector of society that does not eat kosher or observe Shabbat. That critique, misguided as it may be, is best understood in the context of the Blue Laws of many US states which force all but food stores to be closed on Sunday, the official day of rest. There are similar laws across parts of Europe.
For decades the word “occupied” fed into the narrative that the problems of the Palestinian world existed because of Israel. Removing “occupied” means a change in paradigm. The Palestinians are being told to stand up and take charge and stop blaming Israel. Whether they do or not is to be seen. That they are being asked to do so is a positive step forward.
The preface of the human rights report concludes by explaining that US foreign policy is predicated on respect for human rights and that the US wants to lead by example. “Our foreign policy reflects who we are and promotes freedom as a matter of principle and interest. We seek to lead other nations by example in promoting just and effective governance based on the rule of law and respect for human rights. The United States will continue to support those around the world struggling for human dignity and liberty.”
The world “occupied” has been eliminated. Now it remains for human rights violations to be eliminated.The author is a political commentator. He hosts the TV show Thinking Out Loud on JBS TV. Follow him on Twitter @MicahHalpern.