Like previous actions undertaken by the Trump administration, the State Department’s recent decision to merge the U.S. Consulate General into the American Embassy to Israel undermines Washington’s status as a serious broker between the parties. But it’s not necessarily harmful for the reason one may think.The United States has often been accused of being a dishonest mediator and biased towards Israel, but it has retained its status as arbiter nonetheless. Although the U.S. is clearly Israel’s ally, it was still invested in both parties’ affairs and thus had influence over them. Moreover, the United States still supported the idea of a sovereign Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza Strip through a two-state solution. However, in severing political relationships and cutting funds to the Palestinians, the United States is becoming less effective as a mediator not because of prejudice but because its disengagement makes it increasingly irrelevant. A good third party mediator needs a stake in the conflict to influence the rival parties. As Jacob Bercovitch emphasizes in his essay in “Theory and Practice of International Mediation,” “without resources (and communications) a mediator cannot move the parties, nor can (they) exercise any influence on the proceedings.” Indeed, the decision to absorb the U.S. Consulate into the American Embassy was problematic not just because it implies that all of the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is under Israeli sovereignty, but also because it cuts off the primary point of contact between the United States and the Palestinians. Furthermore, the third party needs to provide the resources and tools necessary to ensure each side’s grievances are met before a peace agreement and to further influence the proceedings in negotiations. The United States has historically taken on this role by supporting Israeli security and defense capabilities and by developing the Palestinian economy and supporting PA security forces. Yet, the Trump Administration has made a fundamental and dangerous shift in this policy. For instance, in the summer of 2018, Washington froze all funding for USAID projects in the West Bank and Gaza. This hinders the possibility of a future viable Palestinian state and may have only further reduced America’s influence over the PA. The United States may have also ignited more defiance among the Palestinian populace when it cut $200 million in aid to the controversial organization UNRWA without preparing for its replacement. The theory behind the Trump Administration’s alienation of the Palestinians may be based on the assumption that the Palestinian leadership has rejected all the peace proposals and therefore the only way to get them to accept the “ultimate deal” is to place pressure on them until they surrender and accept a deal. This is a deeply flawed approach. For one, while it is certainly true that the Palestinians have missed their share of opportunities at peace, so too has Israel. Secondly, the Palestinians will not simply surrender and give in to American pressure. Rather, cutting ties with the Palestinians may only result in America losing its central role as the mediator of the conflict, as the Palestinians will search for an alternative broker elsewhere. Since the Trump Administration began changing America’s traditional policy towards the conflict, the Palestinians seem to have been seeking an alternative mediator in Europe. For example, in January, after US President Donald Trump unilaterally recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met with representatives of the European Union who reiterated their support for a two-state solution and that East Jerusalem would be the capital of Palestine. In addition, after the closure of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in DC, Husam Zomlot was moved to become the new PLO Envoy to London, where he praised the UK’s decision to double its aid to the Palestinians and stated that, “We [the Palestinians] firmly believe that the UK can play a leading role in achieving that desired peace in the Middle East.” Indeed, some may see the European states as potential alternative mediators in light of the Trump administration’s controversial decisions. The European Union may be embracing this role by having consistently stated its support for a two-state solution, condemning the Trump administration’s unilateral actions, and has invested itself in both sides. Soon after the United States ended its coverage to UNRWA, the EU announced that it would provide the Palestinians with over 42 million Euros in aid to partially fill the void left by the Trump Administration. The EU may also hold some influence over Israel, as it is currently Israel’s top trading partner. Brussels, it should be remembered, has achieved anti-settlement policies in defiance of Israeli government positions before.
Nevertheless, the Europeans also have certain limitations that prevent them from being an effective mediator. Perhaps the biggest limitation is that the EU is not a major security partner for Israel the way America is. Israel and its citizens will not be willing to take any risks by committing to two states without security guarantees, and the Europeans, at least up until this point, have not and cannot provide Israelis with the same quality security assurances that America has over the years. The Trump administration has not only chased the Palestinians away from the negotiating table, but it has also created an international divide over the peace process. Israel may continue to expect unconditional support from the Americans and will not agree to any negotiations that are not mediated by them, while the Palestinians are seeking the Europeans’ support, despite the EU’s inability to enforce an agreement like the U.S. can. The United States can end this division and push the parties back to the negotiating table, but that begins with reconnecting with the Palestinians and reestablishing Washington as a relevant actor.