Matthew Duss is the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. Follow him on Twitter @mattduss. This piece is part of a special RCW series on America’s role in the world during the Trump administration. The views expressed are the author’s own.
Any attempt to examine how the Israeli-Palestinian peace process might fare under the presidency of Donald Trump must acknowledge one thing: The peace process did not survive the presidency of Barack Obama -- at least not in the form in which it has existed over the two decades since the signing of the Oslo agreement, in which the United States served as broker of bilateral talks between Israelis and Palestinians aimed at negotiating a Palestinian state.
The Obama administration’s decision on Dec. 23 to abstain from vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution reaffirming the illegality of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory marked the end of the longstanding U.S. monopoly over the negotiations process, and the acceptance of greater international ownership of a solution.
While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims to support a two-state agreement, his government has enacted a set of policies in the occupied West Bank that are clearly designed to entrench Israeli control over the territory rather than end it to make way for a Palestinian state. His closest rival for power, Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett, welcomed the election of Trump by declaring that “the era of the Palestinian state is over.”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who also serves as head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, seems to have given up on the prospect of negotiating with an Israeli government that seems determined to prevent actual Palestinian liberation. In the wake of the collapse of Secretary of State John Kerry’s 2013-2014 peace effort, Abbas shifted toward a more aggressive effort to achieve recognition through advancing the Palestinian cause in various multilateral organizations such as the United Nations, UNESCO, and the International Criminal Court.
The Palestinian national movement also remains divided between the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, which governs the main population centers in the West Bank (which otherwise remains under the complete control of the Israeli military), and Hamas, which governs within Gaza, a territory that remains blockaded on all sides by Israel, and by Egypt to the south. This continuing division raises serious questions about the Palestinian leadership’s ability to make credible commitments on behalf of all Palestinians even if negotiations were in the offing.
Trump has said at various times that he’d love to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians. He has called it “the ultimate deal.” Early on in the primary campaign he promised that he would be a more even-handed, neutral arbiter between the two sides, but eventually he adopted a much harder-line pro-Israel approach. Several of the president-elect’s advisers -- one of whom, attorney David Friedman, was recently nominated by Trump to be U.S. ambassador to Israel -- have said that they don’t see Israeli settlements, which U.S. presidents have consistently cited as unhelpful to the peace process, as illegitimate or harmful. They also rewrote the Republican Party platform to remove support for a Palestinian state and to “reject the false notion that Israel is an occupier.”
The latter point is particularly important, as it suggests that Israel has no special obligation to the Palestinians over whom it rules while denying equal rights.
The Mattis Exception
All signs indicate that a Trump administration will take a hands-off approach, essentially giving the Israeli government a free hand to make permanent its control of the West Bank, turning Israel into a de-facto apartheid state. Interestingly, one of the most prominent Americans who have warned of this eventuality is Trump’s own choice for secretary of defense, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, who told the 2013 Aspen Security Forum that, in the absence of a two-state solution, “either [Israel] ceases to be a Jewish state or you say the Arabs don’t get to vote -- apartheid. That didn’t work too well the last time I saw that practiced in a country.”
In a speech to the hawkish group Endowment for Middle East Truth, Trump’s recently appointed national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, said that he thinks the United States should pull out of the peacemaking business altogether.
“I don’t think there’s gonna be peace between Israel and Palestine. I mean, come on. How many people have we struggled to go through that?” said Flynn. “So let’s be honest about this, and let’s not have another big name go in there and get in the middle of the two countries and try to figure this out while people that are coming from one side of that line with daggers are putting knives into women and children in Israel.”
Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said that Trump also plans to make good on his promise to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, something which many Middle East analysts believe could further inflame an already tense situation in Jerusalem and beyond, providing a boost to the extremist narrative across the region. “[T]he ISIS’s and al-Qaeda’s of the region will be gleefully uncorking the proverbial bottle of champagne,” said analyst Mouin Rabbani in an interview with the Institute for Middle East Understanding. “And a second one if the region’s regimes -- and Muslim-majority states more broadly -- respond meekly.”
One possible dissenting voice in a Trump administration on these issues could be the aforementioned Mattis, who served from 2010 to 2013 as head of U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East. Mattis explained in a 2013 interview why he supported the peace process then being pursued by Secretary Kerry.
“I paid a military security price every day as a commander of CENTCOM because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel, and that moderates all the moderate Arabs who want to be with us because they can’t come out publicly in support of people who don’t show respect for the Arab Palestinians,” Mattis said. “So [Secretary Kerry is] right on target with what he’s doing. I just hope the protagonists want peace and a two-state solution as much as he does.” Mattis reiterated this view at his Senate confirmation hearing this week, saying that Israeli-Palestinian peace “serves our vital interest.”
Given that Trump said in a recent speech that “our goal is stability not chaos,” it’s possible that, notwithstanding many of his advisers’ hardline pro-Israel leanings, he may ultimately be swayed by Mattis’s view, one also shared by previous administrations, and backed by a strong international consensus, that achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace would contribute to that goal.