What peace plan? How Trump tips his hand on Mideast ‘realities.’

Why We Wrote This

Policies can be as ephemeral as the term-limited presidents who hatch them, but some are more indelible than others. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, America’s aspirational “honest broker” status is at stake.

Mussa Qawasma/Reuters
Palestinian demonstrators pray as Israeli troops stand guard during a protest against Jewish settlements in Surif, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Nov. 22, 2019.

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When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States no longer regarded Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank as illegal under international law, he was reversing more than four decades of U.S. policy.

That followed relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights. What about the goal of nurturing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?

“The collective impact of these decisions is to effectively drive one of the parties away from the negotiating table,” says Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington. “The decision on settlements is just a reaffirmation of the already quite strong sense that the U.S. is out of the game as an honest broker.”

James Carafano, at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, says he recognizes that the standard response to President Donald Trump’s actions is that “they threaten the peace process,” but he says the “reality” is that “the peace process was already dead” – doomed, he adds, by one party’s refusal to sit down at the negotiating table.

“People say, ‘You can’t do these things,’ but the administration is saying, ‘What has been done for so long isn’t working, so we’re flipping things on their head.’”

From the outset of his presidency, Donald Trump has relished tossing aside long-held and bipartisan fixtures of U.S. foreign policy he felt were no longer working – no more so, it has seemed, than in his handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

That impulse was again on display last week, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States was reversing more than four decades of policy followed by Republican and Democratic presidents alike that held that Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank are illegal under international law.

The settlement policy reversal, coming as it did in the midst of an impeachment inquiry in Washington and political upheaval in Israel, raised a bevy of questions about timing and motivation.

Was the announcement, which seemed to come out of the blue, designed to boost a beleaguered Benjamin Netanyahu’s chances of holding on to Israel’s premiership, some wondered – or was its aim to distract from Washington’s impeachment hearings?

What seems indisputable is that the legitimizing of Israeli settlements was another in a string of presidential decisions that have given Israel long-coveted U.S. policy shifts without asking anything in return. In addition to alienating the Palestinians, the decisions appear to have closed the door further on the traditional “two-state solution” for resolving the conflict – the vision of “two states living side by side in peace and security.”

Previous key reversals by President Trump of longstanding U.S. policy include the December 2017 decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and to recognize the disputed city as Israel’s capital. The settlements decision, then, added another pro-Israel block to the foundation of the president’s long-anticipated but repeatedly delayed Middle East peace plan. 

Other reversals of long-held U.S. policy include recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights – signaling U.S. acceptance of annexation of territory seized in war – and closure of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Washington (the Palestinians’ not-quite embassy to the U.S.). The U.S. also decided to defund the United Nations’ Palestinian relief agency UNRWA.

“All of these decisions are significant, but one of the biggest changes is simply that this administration, starting with the president, has stopped citing the two-state solution as the goal,” says Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, director of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Program at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington.

“With that North Star gone, without that guiding objective as the basis for U.S. policymaking,” she adds, “these decisions they are taking move the U.S. farther away from the [two-state] goal.”

Moreover, the announcement further removed the U.S. from its traditional role as a go-between in the conflict who could be trusted by both sides to act as an arbiter in negotiations for a final settlement.

“The collective impact of these decisions is to effectively drive one of the parties away from the negotiating table,” says Ms. Kurtzer-Ellenbogen. “The decision on settlements is just a reaffirmation of the already quite strong sense that the U.S. is out of the game as an honest broker.”

Ammar Awad/Reuters/File
Motorcyclists from the Israeli Samson Riders motorcycle club ride through the streets of Jerusalem with U.S. flags on their way from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to its new location in Jerusalem, May 13, 2018.

In announcing the reversal of a 1978 State Department legal opinion finding settlements in the West Bank a violation of the Geneva Convention, Secretary Pompeo said the decision reflects “the reality on the ground” and the “unique facts, history, and circumstances of the West Bank.” It should not, he said, be construed as a broad finding on international territorial disputes.

Mr. Pompeo’s reference to “reality” echoed a similar justification for the embassy move to Jerusalem, which President Trump said was “nothing more, or less, than a recognition of reality.”

Such references to recognizing “realities” have led some experts to conclude that the administration is actually setting a new baseline from which an eventual peace deal would be negotiated.

But for some advocates of the administration’s actions, the president is simply moving ahead, step by step, with measures designed to break the “status quo” of a conflict that has not moved any closer to resolution on the basis of long-held but outdated assumptions.

“People say, ‘You can’t do these things,’ but the administration is saying, ‘What has been done for so long isn’t working, so we’re flipping things on their head,’” says James Carafano, director of foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

“The finding on settlements is consistent with what the Trump administration has done in the past, which is basically telling the Palestinians, ‘Don’t assume the status quo is going to be there forever that had discouraged you from getting serious on negotiations,’” he says.

“If you don’t move the embassy, hold on to this idea that the settlements are illegal, and continue to give [the Palestinians] bucket-loads of money,” he adds, “where is the pressure to deal?”

Mr. Carafano recognizes that the standard response to the president’s actions is that “they threaten the peace process,” but he says the “reality” is that “the peace process was already dead” – doomed, he adds, by one party’s refusal to sit down at the negotiating table.

Deeming any discussion of the administration’s “vision” for a final peace deal as the wrong focal point at a time when the Palestinians reject any negotiations, Mr. Carafano says wondering if the administration’s plan will be “one-state or two-state” is like “asking someone what kind of wedding you’re going to have.”

“Will it be a destination wedding, or just family?” he says. “But then if you ask ‘Are you actually dating anybody?’ the answer is, ‘Well, no,’” he adds. “You need a relationship, or in this case the two parties negotiating, first.”

Yet while Mr. Carafano says the administration’s moves can be seen in part as “punishing” the Palestinians for shunning the negotiating table, other experts say it’s the decisions that have pushed the Palestinians into their corner.

“Each issue, each of these decisions by the administration can be argued on its merits, but taken together they have offered nothing to the Palestinians as an incentive to get back” to negotiating, says David Makovsky, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Project on the Middle East Peace Process. “The U.S. has a finite number of cards to play,” he says, “and they should be played in ways that offer win-win situations and reduce the divides,” he says.

Instead of one-sided decisions, the U.S. should “do these things in a way that would call for some quid pro quos that would shrink the differences [between the two parties] and not expand them,” he says.

Mr. Makovsky, co-author of a recent book on Israeli leaders, “Be Strong and of Good Courage,” says the Trump administration recognizes the time is not right to launch its peace plan, given Israel’s political uncertainties and the political context at home.

But he says what the administration is unveiling is “more a vision than a plan” at this point, perhaps waiting as long as the 2020 election and Mr. Trump’s potential second term to move forward with a plan.

And no matter what happens in 2020, Mr. Makovsky adds, some aspects of the president’s policy decisions are now part of the landscape for good. Among Democratic presidential candidates and with a potential Democratic administration, he says, “I think the debate is going to be, ‘OK, what from Trump’s decisions are we going to keep, and which should we aim to change?”

For example, he says the U.S. Embassy will stay in Jerusalem – although a future administration could move to soften the move by opening a consulate for Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

Mr. Carafano of the Heritage Foundation says the message being sent by the administration even without a peace plan’s release is that the Palestinian people can have a bright future if they reject the status quo benefitting only their “leadership elites.”

But others worry the administration’s decisions, especially absent any effort to work with both sides, are only reinforcing the most extreme elements in each corner and reducing further the prospect for a peace settlement.

“I am concerned that the practical impact of the settlements announcement will be that it signals to settlers all over the West Bank that the way is open to expanding settlements now,” says Mr. Makovsky, who hosts the podcast “Decision Points: The U.S.-Israel Relationship.”

More broadly, he says the latest decision may only encourage some in the Israeli leadership to say, “Things may not be the same in the U.S. in another year, so we should move now with decisions and to extract from the U.S. whatever we can get.”

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