In the middle of a boisterous rally in West Virginia, a gathering organized in part to oppose the state’s Democratic incumbent U.S. Senator and also to distract attention from mounting scandals, President Donald Trump suddenly invoked the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Referring to the American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Trump said Israel would have to pay “a higher price” for that and the transfer of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The seemingly incoherent reason for this should chill Israeli leaders and snap them out of their state of euphoria with regard to all things Trump: it’s now the Palestinians’ “turn” to receive a unilateral gift from the United States, which once aspired to be an honest broker in the conflict.
The reason the current coalition – either the most or second-most right-wing government in Israel’s history, depending on your view of Yitzhak Shamir’s second coalition – should be afraid has little to do with the Trump administration’s policy itself. Mere days after the impromptu statement at the rally, the administration announced it would cut $200 million in social and economic aid to the West Bank and Gaza and also indicated it would seek to cap the number of Palestinian refugees. Team Trump is, on its face, the most pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian administration in U.S. history. Until proven otherwise, there is reason to dismiss any concern, or hope, that their conflict resolution efforts will contain a modicum of balance.
What Israel should be worried about is what its current leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, so often ignores: the long-term position of the country vis-à-vis its traditional allies, as well as the stability and legitimacy of its closest security partner, the Palestinian Authority.
The Trump administration’s Middle East team, staffed mostly by people with no particular expertise or experience in the region, has broken a powerful taboo with its one-sided unilateralism. While American administrations have tipped the scales prior to negotiations in the past, they have never done so with such a heavy hand and with such blunt instruments. While Israel’s supporters in the United States would often grouse about what they saw as the Palestinian side’s intransigence, there was a common understanding that a process in which both Israel and the Palestinians participate willingly was ultimately beneficial for Israel.
It’s unclear what the Trump administration is aiming for, as it has yet to release the much-hyped plan being put together by Jared Kushner and Jared Greenblatt, but it’s clearly not seeking to play a traditional mediating role. It wants to at least set some of the terms of the deal, and it sees the Palestinians as either the most vulnerable or deserving of external pressure.
The problem for Israel is that reality does not conform to the clean narrative in which Israel repeatedly makes generous offers that are summarily rejected by the Palestinians. The history of the talks is a lot more complicated than that, with proposals, rejections, and demurrals on both sides. The talks launched toward the end of the second term of the George W. Bush administration illustrate the difficulties: at one point, the Palestinian team reportedly proposed allowing Israeli citizens to remain in Ma’ale Adumim under Palestinian governance, what the seasoned Palestinian negotiator Abu Ala called “a model for cooperation and coexistence.” They also offered a detailed plan for land swaps that required significantly less annexation than any Israeli proposal. This plan, which was widely seen as a humiliating concession for Palestinians when it was leaked in 2011, along with Ehud Olmert’s last-ditch proposal to President Abbas, went nowhere.
Both sides have thrown up obstacles, but Israel is the only party that can do truly lasting damage to the two-state solution, mainly through settlement construction that makes a contiguous and viable Palestinian state less likely. U.S. administrations have denounced settlements, and in its last days the Obama administration refused to veto a UN Security Council resolution that focused on then, but hard pressure resembling the Trump’s administration’s financial sanctions aimed at the PA has been largely absent. Now that the U.S. has effectively forfeited its mediating role in favor of a more assertive one, future administrations will have a basis on which to justify sanctions against Israel.
Perhaps this is an unlikely scenario (although I would suggest taking a peak at Israel/Palestine discourse on the American left before confidently stating this), but threatening the stability of the PA is also a completely unnecessary and damaging risk for Israel. Indeed, defense establishment officials in Israel are already voicing concerns that cuts to important social programs will benefit Hamas, which Israel has – despite tendentious denials from Defense Avigdor Lieberman – been negotiating with in recent weeks. Outside of small conservative policy circles, there are few experts who believe these cuts are a good idea. The PA, if we overlook its initial purpose of serving as a transitional regime for a future Palestinian state, is an integral component of the status quo.
Speaking of benefiting Hamas, the U.S. is undermining the PA while President Abbas is stuck between a struggle of influence involving Egypt, which insists on Abbas’s Fatah Party playing a role in governing Gaza, and Qatar, a longtime benefactor of Hamas. It doesn’t appear that the Trump administration appreciates the risk it is taking by publicly browbeating the PA while Israel continues to deal with Hamas to ensure “quiet” on the Gaza border. I imagine Israel is cognizant of the dangers, but it lacks farsighted political leadership, which renders experts and their insights valueless. Ultimately, the fevered imagination of the Likud activist in a WhatsApp group will play a greater role in determining the political survival of the prime minister than Israel’s actual diplomatic and security interests.