Perhaps the most important statement on modern politics is found in George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” in which the subtleties of ambiguous language are revealed to be the politician’s most powerful and clandestine tool to manufacture public opinion. The second to last sentence reads: “Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Orwell’s essay should serve as a litmus test to journalists and dissidents who read through political writing, legislation, and, especially, international agreements. In doing so, they would no doubt end up flagging innumerable instances of truthful sounding lies and “pure wind” with “solid” appearances throughout their careful examinations. The former offence—lying—is a commonplace complaint. “All governments lie,” famously declared journalist I.F. Stone, and we all know it. But the latter offence, to make empty statements sound prophetic, is much more insidious, and people from across the political spectrum commit it routinely.
“In our time,” states Orwell a few paragraphs earlier:
political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.
The history of the “Israel-Palestine conflict” is rife with such euphemisms and “cloudy vagueness.” In Edward Said’s last book, From Oslo to Iraq, he reminds us that it is “little short of miraculous that, despite its years of military occupation, Israel is never identified with colonialism or colonial practices.” Indeed, to state the simple fact that Israel is a colonial project—just like Canada—is still controversial.
In common parlance, it is rare to read or even hear the term “colonial” being associated with “Israeli settlements” in the occupied West Bank, even though international law has repeatedly ruled them to be illegal. In 2016, the UN Security Council reaffirmed that “Israel’s establishment of settlements in Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, had no legal validity.” To no one’s surprise, the United States abstained from that vote. Three years later, the US decided, as if from divine ordinance, to no longer consider them illegal.
This kind of linguistic juggling is a much more powerful tool for long-term domination than conventional weaponry. When intellectuals spend most of their time grappling with terms and definitions, even if these are equivocal in the first place, material oppression will metastasize in the shadows of thought. It is absurd to consider Israeli settlements on occupied land as “legitimate” yet also widely agree, by definition, that colonialism entails “society gradually expanding by incorporating adjacent territory and settling its people on newly conquered territory.” Colonialism is a moral outrage first and an illegal practice second. The law enshrines the ethics, not the other way around.
The “Abraham Accords” thus constitute the latest offence in the Orwellian deception of US-Israeli international relations. Signed by Israel, the US, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on September 15, the international agreement seeks to “recognize the importance of maintaining and strengthening peace in the Middle East and around the world based on mutual understanding and coexistence, as well as respect for human dignity and freedom, including religious freedom.” Laudable goals. We may as well add the second coming of Christ to this list.
Turning to the agreement itself, it is worth quoting certain commitments in their entirety just to underscore its egregious imposture:
Aspiring to realize the vision of a Middle East region that is stable, peaceful and prosperous for the benefit of all States and peoples in the region.
What does it mean to “aspire to realize” a vision? Aspiration refers to the hope of achieving an end. This statement speaks solely to a mutual recognition of hope that the result of stability, peace, and prosperity in the Middle East will be achieved. The reader is left hoping that it entails something more substantial.
Desiring to establish peace, diplomatic and friendly relations, co-operation and full normalization of ties between them and their peoples, in accordance with this Treaty, and to chart together a new oath to unlock the vast potential of their countries and of the region;
Here, we find a commitment to “desire to establish peace.” To commit to a desire may sound profound and uplifting, but it is nothing short of empty rhetoric. Desires are personal manifestations. They can barely be mutually recognized and agreed upon, especially given the subjective interpretation of what “establishing peace” requires of different parties.
The crux of this duplicity is that Israel and the UAE are not at war, do not display any growing military tensions, and have never been at war. But what they do share in common are security ties, specifically toward Iran, as both nations “have secretly cooperated with each other against their common enemy, the Islamic Republic of Iran, for more than a decade.” A peace treaty between two nations already at peace with each other is not only redundant but an act of theatrical showmanship. What peace, then, are these Abraham Accords aspiring toward?
And so we are led to the key statement:
Recalling the reception held on January 28, 2020, at which President Trump presented his Vision for Peace, and committing to continuing their efforts to achieve a just, comprehensive, realistic and enduring solution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict;
This is the first out of two instances in which a specific Middle Eastern conflict is mentioned throughout the treaty (the second comes a few sentences later). Unsurprisingly, it is Israel-Palestine. But an international commitment to achieve an “enduring solution” to an ongoing conflict which excludes any representative from one of the only two parties directly involved is not so different, in gesture, than colonial rulers agreeing on ceasefires between subjugated colonies.
Concerning colonial possessions, the Treaty of Versailles called for “the prevention of the establishment of fortifications or military and naval bases and of military training of the natives for other than police purposes and the defence of territory, and will also secure equal opportunities for the trade and commerce of other Members of the League.” These “natives,” of course, were deemed too uncivilized to have a say in their own fate.
Similarly, the Abraham Accords overlook the autonomy of the Palestinians. Calling this a “conflict” without admitting to the legitimate duality of perspectives is disingenuous. The document does mention a commitment to “working together to realize a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that meets the legitimate needs and aspirations of both peoples,” but this “collaborative effort” would not, apparently, include any Palestinian representation.
Of course, between corrupt and bickering political organizations and in virtue of avoiding broad strokes, the Palestinian people do not hold a singular opinion. Nevertheless, the intent of this omission is itself an act of duplicity. At least the imperial signatories of the Treaty of Versailles were clear that “the tutelage of [colonized] peoples should be entrusted to advanced nations.” Their reasoning to preserve control over colonial lands—and hence omit their colonies from any international representation—went “according to the stage of the development of the people, the geographical situation of the territory, its economic conditions.”
However, the Abraham Accords mention neither Israel’s annexation plans nor the occupation. In this regard, the treaty is not only more pathetic, but much more devious than the Treaty of Versailles. The consequences of this strategic omission were quickly felt: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already stated, in a television address, that the proposed annexation of the West Bank was “still on the table” and would merely be “delayed.”
There is no reason not to take him at his word. The commitments to “achieve a just, comprehensive, realistic and enduring solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” are worded in such an abstract sense as to allow a plethora of unverifiable interpretations, including—at least to the morally confused mind—the illegal annexation of Palestinian territory.
Ambiguous wording has been one of Israel’s most useful instruments in claiming the permissibility of its illegal occupation since the 1967 UN Security Council Resolution 242 was adopted following the Six-Day War. In a sense, the entire future of Palestinian freedom and autonomy was densely packed into the (non-)employment of a definite article in its infamous “withdrawal clause,” which calls for the “Withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” Indeed, there is no definite article to be found in front of the word “territories,” and along with that omission went the hopes for Palestinian self-determination (in Orwell’s words) to “pure wind.”
There is a reason why the provision did not include a definite article, even though representatives from non-aligned (India, Nigeria, Mali) and Latin American nations were adamant to convey the explicit “total withdrawal by Israeli forces from all the territories they had occupied” (emphasis mine). In the subsequent and final draft, Lord Caradon, the United Kingdom’s then Permanent Representative to the UN Security Council, in realizing that compromise between Israel and the Arab nations would not be achieved by opting for either of the three previous drafts (American, Latin American, non-aligned), decided on the final wording, which would not include the definite article before “territories occupied.”
Although the Arab nations were clear that their fundamental objective was to mandate a total withdrawal of Israeli forces from all occupied territories, Lord Caradon conceded to the US-Israeli insistence on excluding the definite article. As a bargaining tool, Arab anxieties were assuaged by adding the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” clause. In order to reach a consensus, Lord Caradon’s guiding notion was, in part, the “strict adherence to what were deemed necessary principles, while rigorously avoiding any practical details.” This would prove to be a stab in the back of the Palestinians.
Since the signing of UN Resolution 242, a dominant legal opinion has continuously interpreted that “the resolution does not request Israel to withdraw from all the territories occupied in the 1967 Six-Day war,” while others have stated the opposite: “the omission of the article does not exclude the possibility that the reference is to all territories.” Naturally, given current American hegemonic support for the right-wing Israeli narrative, the former interpretation has vanquished in guiding material conditions—the West Bank is being colonized and Gaza is an open-air prison—even though, at the time of the resolution’s signing, most nations believed that the clause referred to all territories.
Regardless of interpretative accuracy, the very fact of Resolution 242’s ambiguous official English wording has provided the Israeli occupation with a status-quo legal cushion ever since (it should be remarked that the French version presents no such ambiguity). If experts cannot agree on a valid interpretation, then what calls upon Israel to withdraw from Palestinian territories?
Even though Lord Caradon was aware that interpretations differed across the international community, he still opted for vague phrasing premised on political “principle” rather than practical provision with the intent of reaching mutual agreement. This was a farce. No actual agreement ever emerged from signing UN Resolution 242, only its empty, symbolic equivalent, and, hence, the more powerful end of the global balance was granted a legal excuse to maintain its oppression over the Palestinians.
The same swindle is deployed in these Abraham Accords—allusion to abstract principles over “practical details”—except in this case the deception is even more flagrant. Terms like “peace,” “cooperation,” “coexistence,” “mutual understanding,” “mutual respect,” and, especially when used in reference to the “Israel-Palestine conflict,” “just,” “comprehensive,” “realistic,” and “enduring,” do not bind anyone to anything. Rather, these are values which may justify political action. But without a call to action, they are more biblical in essence than they are legal.
The aphoristic language of the Abraham Accords will be used to justify just about anything that, even to the common person, would seem antithetical to the grand principles the treaty sets out to protect. These will include the ongoing occupation, settlement colonialism, annexation plans, and—as we have already witnessed when Israel responded to Hamas’ impulsive rocket-firing with an equally impulsive aerial missile bombing—outright violence.
When it comes to economic trade between the parties involved, however, the Abraham Accords provide clear, illustrative, and action-oriented language. There is an obvious reason for this comparative lucidity. According to the Financial Times, “Ofir Akunis, Israel’s minister of regional co-operation, said the accords would expand into bilateral trade and investments reaching ‘billions of dollars for each side.’”
The treaty’s economic benefits are properly laid out in the document’s three-page annex, whose commitments “form an integral part” of the accords. These include cooperation in “Finance and Investment,” among other sectors, which calls to “expeditiously deepen and broaden bilateral investment, and give high priority to concluding agreements in the sphere of finance and investment” (emphasis mine). Weapons manufacturers, too, are expecting a piece of the pie.
Conversely, the language of peace peppered throughout the Abraham Accords acts as a moralistic veneer to poeticize its geo-political and economic motivations, providing nothing of concrete substance—like the story of Abraham itself—but only the groundwork for some free-for-all hermeneutic interpretation. But we should not give in to wrestling over the semantics of ambiguous clauses. We should call them what they are: hot air—hot air that will supply endless oxygen to the theatrical showmanship of two of the western world’s most authoritarian leaders, Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, to remind voters that they brokered the “deal of the century” in order to manufacture positive public opinion.
In terms of achieving peace, the Abraham Accords are clear about one thing: terrorism. The document states that the “Parties shall work together to counter extremism, which promotes hatred and division, and terrorism and its justifications, including by preventing radicalization and recruitment and by combating incitement and discrimination.”
Fair enough, all forms of violent terrorism ought to be opposed. But will the parties address the terror which Israel has time and time again inflicted on the Palestinians? Will they ensure that the mass killings of innocent civilians do not reoccur? Will they promise not to repeat another Operation Protective Edge, during which more than 2,000 Palestinian deaths (including more than 500 children) occurred and more than 10,000 people were injured?
Doubtful. The term “terrorism” rarely, if ever, applies to state-sponsored terror. Different actors are blessed with different standards of moral conduct, apparently. But the morality of the situation is not as convoluted as it would seem. To quote Avi Shlaim, “an enlightened occupation is a contradiction in terms, like a quadrilateral triangle.”
There is too little time for the dignity of the Palestinian people to be wasted on bickering over the semantics of meaningless language, and so we ought to send the treaty’s prophetic proclamation for peace “into the dustbin where it belongs,” as Orwell so eloquently put it.
Emmanuel Adams is a writer and journalist, as well as a community-involved activist and medical student at McGill University. Emmanuel holds a BA in English Literature and Philosophy from McGill University.