The Slatest

Trump and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. What Could Go Wrong?

Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Images via Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; PeterHermesFurian/iStock.

This is the sixth in a series of posts looking at how Donald Trump’s presidency could impact countries and regions around the world.

Donald Trump has described Israeli-Palestinian peace as the “ultimate deal,” suggesting that he may be tempted to take on the challenge that has bedeviled and defeated his predecessors for more than half a century. It’s pretty unclear, however, where Trump stands on the longstanding and complicated conflict, if anywhere at all.

While the Israeli right has reacted gleefully to his win, Trump’s views aren’t as one-note as you might think. Though he’s expressed his fondness for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and refers frequently to the fact that he was once Grand Marshal of New York’s Israel Day parade, Trump said during the Republican primary that he planned to be “sort of a neutral guy” in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. He told the AP last December that a peace deal would depend on “whether or not Israel’s willing to sacrifice certain things.” He gave a speech to Jewish-American Republicans laden with Jewish stereotypes, saying “you’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money.” And last year he canceled a planned trip to Israel after Netanyahu criticized his proposal to bar Muslims from entering the United States. But by March, Trump was on message, promising the American Israel Public Affairs Conference, “When I become president, the days of treating Israel like a second-class citizen will end on day one.”

Under Trump, the Republican party is already shifting even further to the right on Israel. The GOP platform adopted at this year’s convention broke precedent by not calling for a two-state solution and also included language explicitly rejecting the notion that Israel is occupying the West Bank.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone on the Trump team is on the same page. Trump’s Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner has crafted some of Trump’s statements on Israel and Trump has suggested that he would make a good Middle East peace envoy as he “knows the region, knows the people, knows the players.” Kushner has made few public statements about his views on the conflict, but the Washington Post recently reported that the family foundation he runs has donated to West Bank settlements. Trump’s pick for Secretary of Defense James Mattis, however, said in a 2013 interview with Wolf Blitzer at the Aspen Security Forum that Israel was heading toward “apartheid”—a word that has touched a nerve, to put it mildly, when U.S. officials have used it in the past—and that “I paid a military-security price every day as the commander of CentCom because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel.”

Still, it seems safe to predict that Trump’s relationship with Netanyahu’s government will at least be more overtly friendly than Obama’s. For one thing, Trump and Netanyahu both view the Iran deal as a disaster. That deal has been a huge source of tension between Netanyahu and Obama. Aaron David Miller, a former State Department Middle East negotiator who served under multiple U.S. administrations between 1978 and 2003 and is now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, describes the Obama-Netanyahu years as “the most dysfunctional relationship that I’ve witnessed between Israeli presidents and American presidents.” He predicted that under Trump, “the chemistry is going to improve, partly through inattention.” He says he suspects that Trump is unlikely to be deeply involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unless there’s a major escalation in the level of violence—certainly not out of the question. Even during the worst days of the Obama-Netanyahu relationship, the U.S. provided Israel with billions in military aid and vetoed Palestinian statehood bids at the United Nations on its behalf. None of that is going to change now.

Under this “leave Israel alone” scenario, not that much is likely to change on the ground. “The Israelis don’t exactly quake in their boots when the State Department does the ritual condemnation of the latest settlement expansion,” says Daniel Levy, president of the U.S./Middle East Project.

Palestinians are also skeptical that much will change under the new administration, says Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. “In the view from occupied Palestine, there’s not a huge difference in terms of what they expected Washington to do or not do based on the outcome of this election,” he says. “The leaders there, even those that have been invested in the Washington-led peace process, have come to the conclusion that Washington is not capable of mediating this process and have tried to find other ways to move the situation forward.”

But the Art of the Deal author, who partly based his pitch to voters on his vaunted negotiating skills, may not be content to sit on the sidelines. If he does take on the peace process, he’s likely to find it as frustrating as his predecessors, says Miller. “Let’s be clear, it’s not ready for prime time. Neither Netanyahu nor [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas are anywhere near making the kind of decisions that would allow even the greatest negotiator in the world, Mr. Trump, to bridge those differences,” he says, sarcastically.

Another possibility is that Trump could radically shift U.S. policy by abandoning the stated goal of a two-state solution altogether. After Trump’s election, Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party expressed his hope that “the era of the Palestinian state is over.” One of Trump’s legal advisors, Jason Greenblatt, has said that the president-elect doesn’t see the settlements as an obstacle to peace.

One early test of just how radically different this administration will be is whether Trump follows through on his campaign pledge to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the future capital of an independent state, while many Israelis believe that the undivided city should be their capital. Moving the embassy would be viewed as an endorsement of the latter. A U.S. law passed in 1995 called for the embassy to be moved but allows the president to delay the move for six months due to national security concerns, which has been done ever since. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush promised to move the embassy while campaigning, but then went back on their pledges once in office. Moving the embassy would further enrage the Arab and Muslim world and intensify the religious nature of the conflict without any tangible benefit. Senior diplomats in the State Department, if Trump were taking briefings from them, would advise against the move. But Trump’s phone call with Taiwan’s president last week suggests that he’s not shy about overturning decades of diplomatic practice, regardless of the risks. Miller says moving the embassy “would send a powerful signal that the Israel-Palestinian peace process, at least for the Trump administration, is closed for the season.”

If that happens, Munayyer says, it will be a blow to the credibility of the current Palestinian leadership. “The leadership has been saying to the people, we’re going to have a Palestinian state, that’s the goal. And it’s going to happen through negotiations with the Israelis mediated by Washington. That was the narrative that was driven by the leadership to the public. A reversal on that is going to be pretty chaotic,” he says.

This could lead Palestinian leaders to shift their focus to efforts outside the framework of the American-led peace process. Abbas has been big on symbolic gestures to maintain public credibility, such as seeking recognition from foreign governments, pursuing long-shot cases against Israel through the International Criminal Court, and telling the U.N. General Assembly last year that he is no longer bound by the 1995 Oslo Accords. But a complete collapse of the peace process could increase pressure to take more dramatic steps, such as suspending security cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. Abbas has also recently renewed calls for forming a unity government with Hamas, the militant group that holds power in Gaza and is considered a terrorist organization by the United States.

A U.S. administration that abandons the two-state solution and either stops criticizing settlement-building or actively encourages it, would pose its own set of headaches for Netanyahu. Though the prime minister has flirted with abandoning the two-state goal in the past, he generally prefers to remain at least rhetorically committed to it. Israeli politics have shifted to the right to the point that Netanyahu is a relative centrist within his cabinet, and he likes it that way. A fundamentally cautious politician, Netanyahu doesn’t want to take the risk of opposing settlement building or effectively endorsing the permanent annexation of the West Bank. Under the current status quo, he doesn’t have to pick a side. U.S. opposition has given Netanyahu cover to restrain the pro-settlement right within his government without actively opposing it. With Trump, that fig leaf could fall away.

This new dynamic already played out in the debate over a proposed bill that would legalize outposts built on private Palestinian land. Netanyahu initially opposed the bill on the not-very-convincing grounds that it would encourage prosecution by the International Criminal Court. This may have been because, with Trump heading to the White House, he could no longer cite U.S. opposition as a reason. Netanyahu eventually supported the bill, which stands a good chance of being overturned by Israel’s Supreme Court, rather than risk a showdown with Bennett and his right-wing supporters.

“The paradox is that after 10 years, Netanyahu finally gets to cohabit with a Republican president, but it’s going to throw up as many problems as joy,” says Levy.

The advent of Trump, and what’s likely to be a publicly chummy relationship between him and Netanyahu, could also complicate the critical relationship between Israel and American Jews. Jews overwhelmingly voted against Trump, rejecting him in even greater numbers than past Republican candidates. The anti-Semitic rhetoric of many of Trump’s supporters and his appointment of Steve Bannon as chief strategist have been condemned by the Anti-Defamation League. Levy argues that the Israeli right, seeing GOP leaders as better for their longterm interests, have been “conspicuously indifferent to right-wing anti-Semitism, which places them on a collision course with the American Jewish community.” It remains to be seen how the American Jewish community will respond to an American president who is overtly “pro-Israel,” but whose most fervent supporters are anti-Semites. It also remains to be seen how splintered American Jews become during the Trump years. For instance, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee declined to condemn the Bannon hiring.

This is a messy situation all around. In fairness, neither Hillary Clinton nor any of the Republican challengers Trump beat in the primary were much more likely to land the “ultimate deal” than he is. But in the Middle East, no matter how bad the situation gets, there’s always a chance for it to get worse.

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