What the Caribbean Community's Diplomatic Reset on Palestinian Statehood Means for the Bloc

Nand C. Bardouille

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

23 May 2024   |  #24.04 |    The views expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and may not reflect those of UNU-CRIS. 

Hamas' October 7, 2023 surprise attacks against Israel from the Gaza Strip elicited a fiery Israeli response, both militarily and diplomatically. It has been polarising in the context of Middle East politics, but also international politics.                 

This response had the opposite effect in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), which has since coalesced on Palestinian statehood.           

In keeping with CARICOM's constituent treaty, it falls on the 14 mostly Anglophone sovereign small states of the regional grouping to inter alia co-ordinate their foreign policies. Up until recently, and oft-viewed as a microcosm of how foreign policy alignment can be elusive in the context of the grouping, the recognition of Palestinian statehood has not traditionally attracted a unified diplomatic strategy. Indeed, some have been critical of this state of affairs.

Today, CARICOM comprises like-minded states in respect of the conduct of foreign policy vis-à-vis Palestinian statehood. And this foreign policy-related shift is a tangible expression of the bloc's thinking about Israel's war on Gaza, which (with no end in sight and heavily criticized) looms large as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's forever war.

Fundamentally, the picture Israel is trying to paint regarding its continued prosecution of the war in the way that it has thus far undermines CARICOM's interests in at least three ways.

First, as CARICOM notes, the conflict "pose[s] significant threats to regional stability and international peace." Comparatively, small states are understood to have a "greater vested interest in international peace."

If (in)security is the prism through which small and large states alike view international politics, the United Nations (UN) is vitally important in putting the anarchic global system on an international peace and security footing.   

Given the role of international organizations in facilitating "peaceful change" in international politics, but also the degree to which the Gaza war has pushed the UN towards its tipping point, CARICOM is dead set on a resolution to the conflict—without further delay.

After all, its members' security is riding on a well-functioning UN.

Second, the bloc is at odds with the United States, which is embroiled in the conflict as Israel's principal backer. CARICOM and the United States—which are bound together by historically strong and wide-ranging ties—are now more divided than ever on the latter's unflinching foreign policy support of Israel's military offensive in Gaza. (This is in spite of Washington's rhetorically nuanced pronouncements throughout that campaign.) This raises questions about U.S.-Caribbean relations, which have not come away unscathed.  

The bone of contention for CARICOM member states is that, principally in the UN, the Biden administration's Israel policy has compounded the international community's efforts to flex its diplomatic muscle to contain Israeli excesses—now in their eighth month—in war-torn Gaza.     

The unintended consequences of the conflict for U.S.-Caribbean relations is that, as they have come under increased strain, the underlying politics have gotten more difficult. 

It is now clear that for these countries a long-lasting war will likely become more of a constraining issue in (albeit, not determinative of) those relations. CARICOM member states have no interest in that at all, considering all that an unobstructed partnersip with the United States means for them.  

Third, they will not walk away from their principled stand on the Gaza war. Their uniform stance on Palestinian statehood suggests as much. Not only is it a high profile win for CARICOM foreign policy coordination, but also the normative character of CARICOM's foreign policymaking in a geopolitical moment with manifold realpolitik-related risks for them. (That a handful of European countries—among which Spain stands out—are positioning themselves to soon recognize the Palestinian State has only strengthened their resolve in this.) That kind of foreign policymaking has served CARICOM member states well, having raised their profile and status on the international stage. 

Israel's shrill diplomacy, in which the United States is caught up, collides with that principled stance.

All told, though, these states' bloc-based foreign policy establishment is planning ahead. The reality is, come November 2024, it will likely be a toss-up as to whether Biden or Donald Trump is elected in the presidential race to call the shots on U.S. foreign policy.

The domestic political winds suggest that the Biden administration ought to meaningfully course correct. Put differently, foreign policy does not stop at the water's edge. The risks to President Joe Biden's re-election notwithstanding, it is far from certain whether his administration will change up its approach. And if it does not do so, this portends more of the same as regards associated U.S. power plays on the international stage.   

Even if Trump is victorious, it is not immediately clear that there will be a break from the United States' current Middle East-related foreign policy line. That said, providing he has the political legs to stay in elective office that long, Netanyahu may yet wait it out for Trump to possibly return to the U.S. presidency. He is perhaps hoping for the best in that regard, against a backdrop where the Israeli government is seemingly careening from one coalition crisis to the next. In so doing, the Israeli military is bearing down on its war effort.

For its "besieged population," who have to contend with Israel's war machine, Gaza is now "on the brink." CARICOM member states have repeatedly decried the unfolding humanitarian situation in the enclave. In its capacity as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC), Guyana (a founding member of CARICOM) is integrally involved in debates in that UN body on the Gaza war.   

At a Security Council briefing held on May 20th in respect of 'The Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question', Guyana characterized the situation in Gaza as a "catastrophe." The statement delivered at the said Council meeting on behalf of Guyana underscored that "the occupying power continues to devise and execute increasingly horrendous punishment on innocent civilians in Gaza."  

Apart from considering CARICOM interests in the terms set out in the foregoing, then, one would do well to also look upon them from the vantage point of how CARICOM member states have sought to call out Israel's war-related missteps. This is because CARICOM member states' respective diplomatic ties with Israel, which are long-standing, have also been impacted. 

By virtue of the scope and indiscriminate effect of its own actions in the Gaza battle space, which CARICOM vehemently opposes, Israel has stoked tensions with CARICOM member states. In short, CARICOM and Israel are increasingly at odds.

To start, relatively early on in the war, Belize suspended diplomatic ties with Israel. This elicited a stinging response from Israel. 

Yet it is also worth noting that Belmopan felt its appeals (along with those of other UN members) to Israel to effect an immediate ceasefire were falling on deaf ears. Belmopan was adamant that associated Israeli military action violates international humanitarian law, contending that an immediate ceasefire in Gaza was urgently needed on humanitarian grounds. It placed emphasis on the need for the unimpeded access of humanitarian aid into Gaza, along with the release of all hostages. 

Israel has repeatedly come under intense scrutiny for apparently weaponizing famine.

Moreover, Belmopan was mindful that the longer the war drags on the devastation of the enclave of Gaza will become ever more apocalyptic. (Not least because of the scale of civilian casualties arising, then, the United States and Israel are being undone by their maximalist positioning on the war.) This position is consistent with what a cross-section of diplomats manoeuvring in the UN sought to advance for months on end, keeping the focus of the UNSC on the same.   

Certain quarters in CARICOM pushed back on Israel's Gaza war-related narrative, too. They were emboldened by the United States' narrative shifts over time, including its most damning criticism yet of Israeli military conduct in Gaza.

It is also noteworthy that Belize's Israeli-directed backlash cannot be viewed in isolation from that Central American country's own territorial woes with coercion and aggression, which if its western neighbour were ever to unleash at full throttle would likely cost Belize its sovereignty.   

On a different plane than inter-state diplomacy, civil society in CARICOM countries has also voiced concern regarding the war in Gaza. For instance, groups in Trinidad and Tobago are calling for regional leaders to cut ties with Israel. Guyanese citizens have also consistently lent their voices to such calls, which have primarily (although not exclusively) come from regional countries with large Muslim populations and/or with segments of the population who can trace their lineage to the Middle East.   

Beyond this, in spurning Israel's sweeping aggression in Gaza, segments of the Caribbean public's deep affinity with the right to self-determination and the question of Palestine can be linked to their countries' colonial past à la the "plantation economy" and its painful legacies—which cast a long shadow.

It is not hard to sense that sentiment in official circles, too. Merely weeks into the war, there was a certain empathy with Belize's line of thinking on Israel—albeit, not expressed in multilateral diplomacy in the same manner as that Central American country—by other CARICOM states.  

Indeed, that thinking had already caught on in several quarters of the international community. By that time, having regard to the Israeli military's onslaught and the  "collective punishment" of Palestinians, they were seized of the imperative of allowing for the unimpeded flow of humanitarian aid into the enclave. All the while, they also called for the release of all hostages held by Hamas.   

Yet four member states of CARICOM went further still, falling in line with 10 of their sister states which had already done so throughout the 2010s, joining with many other states in the international community to throw their (diplomatic) weight behind Palestinian statehood.    

In sum, the bloc's reset on Palestinian statehood was but one of many decisive steps which its members took to shore up their interests during an especially tumultuous time in international relations. In the prevailing circumstances, they continue to do so.   

To be sure, CARICOM member states routinely stand up to geopolitical trends which work against their respective national interests. That a final set of CARICOM members has diplomatically pivoted to button up the bloc's support for Palestinian statehood in the last two months alone is one example of this.