Why the Caribbean Community Backs Palestinian Statehood

With foreign ministers of the 14 mostly Anglophone sovereign member states of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) bloc scheduled to meet later this month—as they regularly do—to “settle … positions on issues on the regional and international agenda,” there is an air of renewed optimism about the co-ordination of foreign policies among the regional grouping’s countries.

The meeting will take place just days after they proudly joined with the rest of the international community in resoundingly (albeit, largely symbolically) lending support to Palestine’s bid for full United Nations (UN) membership. (In the 193-member UN General Assembly—the Organization’s principal “deliberative, policymaking and representative organ”—the United States was the notable exception to this diplomatic positioning.) By extension, against the backdrop of the war in Gaza and amid the scrutiny the conflict has attracted on humanitarian grounds, the notion of a Palestinian state also received overwhelming support.

This is a diplomatic development that must be placed in context: The UN Security Council recently failed to adopt a draft resolution to that effect. (In effect, the General Assembly urged the Security Council to give “favourable consideration” to Palestine’s request for full UN membership.) The U.S. stood in the way—in a context where that “council must recommend a potential member’s application to the General Assembly for final approval and admission.”

Barbados responded by announcing its official recognition of Palestine as a State. Shortly thereafter, Jamaica followed.

Earlier this month, coming on the heels of a high-profile visit to the country of a delegation from the Bureau of the UN Committee for the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, Trinidad and Tobago followed suit. So, too, did The Bahamas.

They picked up where other CARICOM members, comprising small states, left off some years ago.

Since 2019, up until last month, there was a broken line of recognition. In the 2010s, 10 CARICOM member states successively threw their weight behind Palestinian statehood.

Today, all CARICOM member states speak with one voice on Palestinian statehood.  (Not only do they view this approach as lending to the two-state solution, but as righting a situation where diplomatic relations with Israel have long been in place.) In all, these states have also backed the international community’s (with some exceptions) multiple attempts in the UN to stop the carnage in Gaza.

This is yet another, momentous period in international politics when they have diplomatically stood their ground and stood apart from the United States. Other moments also come to mind. The Iraq War is one that is especially consequential; in that, notwithstanding intense diplomatic pressure to do otherwise, CARICOM leaned on a matter of principle. The wider region and the Middle East also stand out as recent examples of such moments.

As post-colonial states, which are all too familiar with occupying powers and hegemony qua hierarchy, CARICOM members have traditionally used recognition of the State of Palestine to amplify their interests regarding self-determination of the West’s ‘others’.

Yet it also provides a window into the United States’ diplomatic isolation on the Gaza war relative to the Caribbean, stemming from Washington’s all-out support for an Israel Gaza policy that has been widely criticized. It has brought about unprecedented suffering to Gazans, threatening regional escalation and undermining international security. And it has attracted widespread criticism from foreign policy establishment insiders and third parties, alike.

The wider context is that seven-plus months since Israel and Hamas have been at war, the Israeli side has also lost international standing. Condemned for its military conduct during the conflict, Israel has found itself in legal crosshairs in more ways than one.

While Caribbean leaders and policymakers are keenly aware that the Biden administration has tried to turn the screws on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it is also not lost on them that there has not been any letup in U.S. support for Israel’s conduct of its war in Gaza.

The tide may finally be turning—somewhat. This is as Netanyahu is digging his heels in vis-à-vis his stance on the conflict, but also as a cross-section of Israeli-aligned groups have railed against President Biden for such messaging. In addition, Biden’s Gaza war-related stance has cost him support among his progressive base.

Biden’s re-election prospects are at an all-time low because of Washington’s Israel policy, which is unfurling with unforced errors.

Not only has the United States stopped short of exercising real leverage over Israel to get it to dial back on or outright stop actions in the battle space which exacerbate the disastrous effects of the conflict, as noted (above), it has scuttled the international community’s diplomatic efforts to halt Israel’s excesses.

Moreover, notwithstanding the fact that the United States and the Caribbean enjoy strong security and economic ties, that policy and associated posturing have emerged as wedge issues.

The view in CARICOM capitals is that Washington has seemingly paid lip service to the bloc’s concerns, taking the shine off the upswing of Biden administration era U.S.-Caribbean relations.

The resulting CARICOM diplomatic reaction in respect of UN-anchored multilateralism cannot have come as a surprise to Washington, which increasingly is on the back foot regarding its support for Israeli positioning vis-à-vis the Gaza war.

That the United States has historically had a fraught relationship with the Caribbean adds to existing sensitivities on the part of the latter, whose foreign policy establishment wonders how Washington could be so tone-deaf to such realities.

Be that as it may, CARICOM will have no part of geopolitical power plays that enable those who (would) wield the power-related ‘stick’ in international politics to have their way.

The United States has lost important international prestige in the view of CARICOM, which supports that great power’s foreign policy response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Yet again, then, CARICOM has to diplomatically contend with a major international crisis in which the United States became embroiled. If history is a guide, when realpolitik in respect of the United States’ shaping geopolitics conflicts with CARICOM’s normative interests, the regional grouping’s foreign policy-related patience with Washington can reach its limits.

A case in point: The last set of CARICOM member states to diplomatically move to back Palestinian statehood did exactly that with the current crisis in the Middle East and multilateralism in mind.

That CARICOM member states fell into step on Palestinian statehood when they did is illustrative of their prioritization of the spirit of normative foreign policy and the letter of international cooperation—at a time when they are sorely needed. This is the case, too, regarding those states lending their respective voices to attempts by the international community (by and large) to arrest the long-running Israel-Hamas conflict.

More importantly, such steps are geared towards the defence of their interests.

But that doesn’t mean that, even as additional pressure is brought to bear on the United States’ foreign policy posture relative to Israel, this diplomatic approach will deal a significant blow to U.S.-Caribbean relations. Indeed, for CARICOM, it comes with limited risks. As long as the two sides’ interests remain aligned in some other foreign policy theatres—for example, in the Southern Caribbean regarding energy—they can agree to disagree on the making and execution of foreign policy regarding Palestine.

In sum, CARICOM member states have come to believe that current developments in international politics as enunciated in the foregoing analysis broadly contradict their interests. The bloc grew ever more voluble in inter alia lending support to Palestinian statehood, having determined it has little to gain and much to lose by holding back on requisite diplomatic repositioning.

[Makbula Nassar, via Wikimedia Commons]

Dr. Nand C. Bardouille is Manager of The Diplomatic Academy of the Caribbean in the Institute of International Relations (IIR), The University of the West Indies (The UWI), St. Augustine Campus, Trinidad and Tobago. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of The UWI.

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