Will Donald Trump bode an ill wind for Mideast peace?

People dine at a Tel Aviv coffee shop Nov. 9 as an image of President-elect Donald Trump is displayed on a monitor. (CNS/Baz Ratner, Reuters)
People dine at a Tel Aviv coffee shop Nov. 9 as an image of President-elect Donald Trump is displayed on a monitor. (CNS/Baz Ratner, Reuters)

by Ra'fat Al-Dajani

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June 6, 2017, will mark the 50th anniversary of the longest running military occupation in modern history, Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories June 2017 will also mark the fifth month of Donald Trump's presidency and, as with most foreign policy issues he spoke about as Trump the presidential candidate, there is considerable uncertainty and ambiguity regarding what his position and policies will be on the issue of Israel/Palestine.

On the face of it, a number of key indicators bode ill for a resolution of the conflict and an end to the Israeli occupation during a Trump administration. In Israel, far right members of the Israeli government could barely contain their glee at Trump's election.

Barely hours after Trump's victory Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing, religious-nationalist Jewish Home party and a staunch proponent of Israeli settlement building, declared that the two-state solution was dead. Paraphrasing statements Trump and his team made during the presidential campaign to support his declaration, Bennett said: "This is the position of the President-elect, as written in his platform, and it should be our policy, plain and simple. The era of a Palestinian state is over."

Bennett doubled down by demanding that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formally annex Area C of the West Bank (approximately 61 percent of its territory) in order to include all the West Bank Jewish settlements as a response to any United Nations Security Council resolution on settlements. Coupled with this has been discussion by Uri Ariel, the Israeli minister of agriculture, of expelling the 300,000 Palestinians who live in that area.

Ayelet Shaked, Israel's justice minister, joined the “chorus of delight” in the election of Trump by expressing hope that Trump would fulfill his campaign promise to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. It is worth noting that due to the sensitivity of the issue and the fact that the issue of Jerusalem remains unresolved politically, not one of the 86 foreign embassies in Israel is located in Jerusalem. Instead, all are in Tel Aviv.

During the presidential campaign, Trump's top advisors on Israel made statements that seemingly abrogated longstanding U.S. policy regarding Israeli settlements.

Trump advisor and attorney Jason Greenblatt told Israel's Army Radio that Trump doesn't consider Israeli settlements built on Palestinian land to be "an obstacle to peace.” Greenblatt is considered a top candidate as Trump’s Middle East envoy.

According to Mondoweiss, attorney David Friedman, another top Trump advisor, stated in a radio interview that “We’re taking the view that the Israelis have just as much of a right if a much greater right to Judea and Samaria as the Palestinians, and when they sit down and talk to each other it will be on that basis. That is frankly, a unique position of Donald Trump and one that we are very proud of.”

Additionally, the leading candidate for U.S. secretary of state in a Trump administration, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, told an audience at the Israeli American Council in September 2016 that the U.S. should "reject the whole notion of a two-state solution in Israel."

Given the synchronicity of all of these statements by both right-wing Israeli leaders and top Trump advisors, it is highly likely that the situation will remain in dangerous flux until a Trump administration finalizes its Middle East foreign policy. During this time of flux, the Israeli government will feel secure that it will not be on the receiving end of American criticism or pressure if it chooses to expand settlements or build new ones.

Contrast this with the Obama administration which at the very least has said that continued Israeli settlement in the Palestinian territories has undercut the goal of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, with the Obama administration at times even questioning Netanyahu's commitment to seeking peace.

Israel's right-wing, both government and settler leaders, now see an opportunity for Israel to start annexing the parts of the West Bank that Israeli settlements are built on, leaving a patchwork of disconnected Palestinian 'islands' where most of the Palestinian population resides.

The process for this seemed to begin on Nov. 14, 2016, when an Israeli ministerial committee voted unilaterally on a bill to retroactively legalize Israeli settlement 'outposts' in the West Bank. What makes this step particularly dangerous is that even the Israeli government officially considers outposts built without government approval as illegal. If 'illegal' outposts now become legal this makes it all the more impossible for settlements in the Palestinian territories that Israel considers 'legal' to ever be removed.

Ironically, annexing large parts of the West Bank into a Greater Israel and the final extinguishing of hope for a Palestinian state may prove to be a pyrrhic victory. It will certainly lead to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority putting the military and financial burden of the occupation completely back in Israeli hands. It will likely lead to a renewed outbreak of serious violence affecting both sides. It will poison relations between the U.S., Israel and Sunni Arab partners in the region who share a common interest in fighting ISIS and Al Qaeda.

On the world diplomatic stage, it will trigger a serious diplomatic crisis with Europe and likely lead to sanctions against Israel. Finally, it will redefine the Palestinian struggle as a fight for equal rights in a single state and make comparisons to apartheid in South Africa hard to counter due to Israeli rule over hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who have no civil or citizenship rights.

Trump's Israel advisors, whose strong affinity to Israel is coupled with a complete lack of any foreign policy experience, have stated that Israel's settlement policy is not an obstacle to peace and that a one-state outcome (a Greater Israel) is a viable option.

These positions are totally divorced from the current reality. Israel's internal existential threat is its continued rule over the Palestinian territories and it is wishful thinking to believe that Palestinians will ever peacefully accept a living under permanent Israeli sovereignty unless it comes with the full benefits of Israeli citizenship, something more Palestinians are beginning to aim towards as the prospect of a viable and independent Palestinian state fades away.

U.S. presidents and the American foreign policy establishment have long understood that Israel's long-term security and wider stability in the region can only be achieved by resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a manner that both recognizes Palestinian national aspirations and Israeli security concerns.

The first real clue whether a President Trump will understand this dynamic will be to see if Trump the president is different from Trump the presidential candidate. It is easy and relatively cost-free to speak off the cuff during a presidential campaign and say things with no real responsibility or implications.

Entering the Oval Office is a different matter altogether and it is hoped that the office of the presidency will have a sobering effect on Trump as he begins to realize his actions are limited by the realities of world politics, other countries' interests and unforeseen future events.

As far back as the late 1960s, Gerald Ford, then-House minority leader, promised Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli ambassador to Washington, that he would move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem if elected president. Years later when Ford was elected president, Rabin reminded Ford of his promise to which Ford responded that while he did remember his promise, he had "realized that life looks completely different from the Oval Office."

One can only hope that in this case too, the gravitas of the U.S. presidency will prove stronger than Trump's oversized personality and ego.

[Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American businessman and political commentator.]

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