First published by the Middle East Monitor on 7/2/2017
The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States appears to have emboldened Israeli politicians. Many clearly feel that their strongest ally will henceforth provide them with the chance to complete their colonial project and in the process end any hope of freedom or independence for the Palestinians.
In a major policy shift prior to Trump’s election, a Republican platform removed reference to the long held outcome of a two-state solution to the conflict and deferred to Israel to determine whether it is interested in negotiating a deal with the Palestinians; it omitted any reference to a solution that would establish an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. “The US seeks to assist in the establishment of comprehensive and lasting peace in the Middle East, to be negotiated among those living in the region,” the Republican platform said. “We oppose any measures intended to impose an agreement or to dictate borders or other terms, and call for the immediate termination of all US funding of any entity that attempts to do so. Our party is proud to stand with Israel now and always.”
During his election campaign, Trump was explicit in his promise to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem when he addressed the pro-Israel AIPAC conference: “We will move the US Embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.” This would give de facto recognition to Jerusalem, which Israel claims to be a united city, as the state capital. It would also break with longstanding US policy that the status of the holy city would be confirmed through a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, a position shared by the international community.
The direction of travel of the new administration has been so blatantly pro-Israel pre- and post-election that it was reasonable for Israel’s extremist government to conclude that once in the White House Trump and his people would provide it with unlimited support and cover for its ongoing illegal policies. Right-wing Education Minister Naftali Bennett was quick to declare that, “Trump’s victory is an opportunity for Israel to immediately retract the notion of a Palestinian state in the centre of the country, which would hurt our security and just cause.” This, Bennett concluded, is the position of the president-elect, as written in his platform. “It should be our policy, plain and simple. The era of a Palestinian state is over.”
Trump’s choice for US Ambassador in Israel, David Freedman, is a well-known supporter of Israel; his appointment seemed to be a means of facilitating the embassy move. Freedman vowed to “strengthen the bond between our two countries and advance the cause of peace within the region, and [I] look forward to doing this from the US embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.” He also let it be known that he would live in his private apartment in Jerusalem and would work out of Jerusalem rather than Tel Aviv.
Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, reflected on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first call with President Trump, saying that Israel has a “true friend in the White House” and that the government is “very happy about the new administration.”
However, since his inauguration, Trump seems to have rolled back on his commitment to move the embassy, much to the surprise of many. His spokesman Sean Spicer told journalists at a recent daily press conference, “We are at the very beginning stages of even discussing this subject.” His response was to a question from Sky News, which Spicer dodged and whose correspondent asked, “What is the strategic interest for the US in the embassy move?”
Furthermore, at his press conference on 2 February, the spokesman reacted more strongly to the recent escalation of new illegal settlement announcements than perhaps Israel expected. While making no specific mention of the two-state solution when talking about peace, he said: “The American desire for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians has remained unchanged for 50 years. While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal.”
The omission of the “two-state solution” is in line with the Republican Party’s revised platform. It is now all about “peace”. How that is achieved is presumably in line with what the platform suggested, leaving it to Israel to determine what it will look like.
During the election campaign, Donald Trump talked of potentially winning the presidency and then brokering a lasting peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. “Let me be sort of a neutral guy,” he added. “I have friends of mine that are tremendous businesspeople, that are really great negotiators, [and] they say it’s not doable.” Acknowledging how difficult the task would be, he said: “That’s probably the toughest deal in the world right now to make. I will give it one hell of a shot. I would say if you can do that deal, you can do any deal.”
Perhaps Trump is now realising that he cannot broker a deal between the two main protagonists while taking sides with one of them. He may even see the danger of escalating settlement construction but is surrounded by so many pro-Israel advisers — including his son-in-law Jared Kushner and his nominee for US Ambassador to Israel — that he cannot bring himself to act against this in order to maintain his self-proclaimed ‘neutrality’.
However, the other essential, missing ingredient in any negotiating strategy he may develop on this issue is discussion with the Palestinians; he refuses to speak to them. The Palestinians are reduced to sending messages via other friends, including Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and King Abdullah of Jordan, both of whom seem to have access to Trump. No successful negotiator can speak to one side while completely blocking the other and hope to come up with a deal acceptable to both. Trump could have opened dialogue with the Palestinians prior to Netanyahu’s forthcoming visit to Washington, to give himself a new card to play with the Israeli leader, but there are no signs of this happening. The reality is, therefore, that Netanyahu does not know what to expect from the unpredictable US president.
By rolling back on the US Embassy move to Jerusalem and issuing an implicit criticism of settlements it may be that the Trump administration is realising that the status quo is not that bad after all. While the president turns his attention to job creation in the US, the Palestine-Israel conflict can be shuffled down the list of priorities. He can live with his spokesman mentioning “peace” every now and again, and warning about the unhelpfulness of settlements while maintaining that they are not the problem.
So Trump will create jobs and Israel will continue to build illegal settlements. The US Embassy move will continue to be on hold and the Palestinians will continue to suffer under Israel’s brutal military occupation. The status quo really isn’t that bad after all, unless you are a Palestinian.