It looks like the Trump Administration has come to agree with the conclusion reached by every US President and Central Command Chief since the Gulf War of 1991—that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is necessary to promote regional security and US strategic interests in the Middle East.
When viewed this way, the struggle for justice for Palestinians becomes not an end in itself; rather it is the price to be paid so that the US can successfully consolidate its regional allies in order to confront threats to stability, whether from Saddam’s Iraq, revolutionary Iran, or non-state terrorist entities.
This new appreciation for the functional role of Israeli-Palestinian peace has caused President Trump to appear to “backtrack” on some of candidate Trump’s more provocative positions on the issue. He’s stalling on moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; he’s expressed reservations about Israel’s settlement expansion program; and while he refused to publicly pressure Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the need for a “two-state solution”, leading Cabinet members have been emphatic the Administration is committed to that goal.
All of these “signals”, coupled with Special Envoy Jason Greenblatt’s recent visit to Israel/Palestine have raised expectations that the Trump Administration may be serious about achieving a “great deal”—involving an Israeli-Palestinian peace and a regional peace arrangement between Israel and US allies in the Arab World. Expectations were further fuelled by reports that Greenblatt’s visit left Netanyahu unsettled and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reassured.
I can’t share this upbeat assessment because, for several reasons, I remain pessimistic about the prospects of this entire undertaking.
In the first place, Israel’s leadership has no interest in any reasonable solution that meets minimum Palestinian requirements. When he was in Washington, Netanyahu, who often states that he wants “negotiations without preconditions”, made it clear that this demand applies only to the Palestinian, since he follows this statement by presenting his own non-negotiable terms: Palestinian recognition of Israel as a “Jewish State” and full Israeli security control over the land west of the Jordan River. These preconditions ask Palestinians to accept second class citizenship for their brethren in Israel, while leaving the West Bank under permanent Israeli military control.
Then, there is the issue of settlements. It has been reported that Netanyahu is seeking to secure from the Trump Administration a better agreement than the one then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon obtained from President George W. Bush. The Israelis want US permission to continue settlement growth even beyond what they term “settlement blocs” that house the majority of settlers in the West Bank. Netanyahu will not accept limits in what the Israelis have unilaterally termed “East Jerusalem”—but which is, in fact, an extensive swatch of land encompassing about 10% of the West Bank and 22 Palestinian villages. Nor will he accept any restrictions in the Jordan Valley—where the Israelis have seized and are exploiting that region’s most fertile land. Given these preconditions, what is left for Palestinians are a series of disconnected cantons that can never form a viable entity?
Netanyahu believes in retaining control over Eretz Israel and has expanded settlements toward achieving that end. He has, however, learned to feint in the direction of supporting two states in order to ease international pressure, all the while continuing to build more settlements and consolidating control over more Palestinian land.
Another tactic Netanyahu has used is to argue that he can’t make too many concessions on the issue of settlements for fear of losing his governing coalition. This argument is, at best, disingenuous since on a number of occasions it has been clear that if Netanyahu truly wanted peace, he could have shed some of his current partners in favour of forming a more centrist coalition – something he has always been loath to do.
Even beyond settlement expansion, another reason to be pessimistic is the 600,000 settlers who currently populate the West Bank and “East Jerusalem”. The very position of the settlements and the disposition of the settlers who reside in them have created a near irreversible situation in the occupied lands. Any reasonable resolution guaranteeing Palestinian sovereignty and viability will require the removal of a large number of these occupiers. Given the state of Israeli politics today, it is impossible to imagine a scenario where any Israeli government will or even can make such a move.
Finally, the demand made by Israel and accepted by the White House that any peace arrangement must come from direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations without external intervention means that the process is doomed from the start. The asymmetry of power between the two parties and the fact that Israel is the occupier with total control, while the Palestinian Authority is a dependency with no leverage means that instead of negotiations we will have Israel dictating terms which Palestinians can only accept or reject. As has been the case in the past, this is a recipe for disaster.
Arab States may be willing to give President Trump a chance to convene an international conference since, given the current unsettling state of affairs in the region, they may not want to alienate the US Administration. But unless the White House is willing to get tough and get smart and present a bold new challenge to Israel laying down the law on settlements and the just requirements for peace, it doesn’t stand “a snowball chance in hell” of succeeding. Since I don’t expect bold, just, or smart, I’m not expecting any “great deal” or the formation of any overt regional alliance—any time soon.