Expert Q&A: President Trump & Palestine/Israel

November 14, 2016 IMEU
Expert Q&A: President Trump & Palestine/Israel
President Barack Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump in the Oval Office. Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo



Yousef Munayyer, Political analyst at the Arab Center of Washington, DC, executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, and former executive director of the Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center.



Phyllis Bennis, Political analyst, director of the New Internationalism project at the Institute for Policy Studies, and author of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer (2015) and Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror: A Primer (2015).



Zaha Hassan, Human rights lawyer, Middle East Fellow at New America, and legal advisor to Palestinian negotiators during the UN statehood bid.

Q - During the primaries and general election campaign, president-elect Trump made contradictory statements about Palestine/Israel. Initially, he declared he would be neutral and that he would keep the US embassy in Tel Aviv rather than moving it to Jerusalem, as the Israeli government wants. Then he flip-flopped, announcing his staunch support for Israel, stating he would move the embassy, and contradicting decades of official US policy by publicly encouraging Israel to build more illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land.

Do you think a Trump presidency will mean a substantial shift in US policy in the region, and if so, how?

Yousef Munayyer: “It is impossible to tell. The last president that had this little foreign policy experience was George W. Bush, but he had at least served as a governor. In that administration the key to understanding the direction of his foreign policy was who he put around him. The public was reassured at the time that anything Bush lacked in foreign policy experience, he’d make up for with the team he would surround himself with. We all saw how that turned out. In Trump’s case I think the gap is even greater and the impact of who he puts around him will tell us a lot. Because Trump himself is an outsider to Washington, he is going to have to pull in team members to fill key posts from somewhere and the most likely place is the Republican foreign policy establishment. These figures tend to support interventionism and the deployment of US military force to shape the world and defend what they claim to be the values they uphold.

“The problem here is obviously that Trump won an election on a campaign that spoke of a different approach to the world. One that was more isolationist, or as Trump put it, ‘America First.’ The electorate today tends to agree with him on this and presidents usually try not to violate the core principles of their electoral mandate. But again, this is Donald Trump.

“Beyond the personnel and the electoral mandate, the other factor is American interests. The US has been in a process of realigning its priorities away from the Middle East for some time now due to the simple fact that their key interests in the region, natural resources, are not as critical as they used to be to the American economy. If Trump deregulates the hydrocarbon industry we might see even greater supply further diminishing US interests in the region. In any case, this is a trend that is well underway.

“Triangulating between these three factors leads one to conclude it is more likely than not that Trump will deprioritize the region but the region is volatile and events can quickly change the way the US perceives its interests there.”

Phyllis Bennis: “Right now it is impossible to know what a Trump policy on Israel-Palestine will be. His statements have been wildly contradictory, although throughout the later period of the campaign the majority were strongly supportive of the most uncritical pro-Israel positions of the US Congress. It is virtually certain that US military aid to Israel – which President Obama raised to $38 billion over the next ten years – will remain at that astonishingly high level, or perhaps go even higher. It is certainly possible that some of Trump’s most provocative statements – his intention to move the embassy to Jerusalem for instance – may be scaled back when US diplomats push back on how that may undermine other US goals, such as maintaining stable relations with Arab regimes. But that kind of pushback will only be possible if foreign service professionals, rather than the likely Israel lobby-approved political appointees heading the State Department, get access to the White House. Right now that seems unlikely.”

Zaha Hassan: “The only guarantee that one can make about a President Trump Middle East policy is that there are no guarantees. His campaign policy statements on most issues have shifted and become more nuanced almost from the moment Trump became the president-elect. Having said that, there are some general principles that undergird the anti-establishment billionaire who handily won the White House: First, the days of US largesse overseas are likely numbered in favor of domestic initiatives. Second, an Israel-Palestine peace agreement is a deal that Trump believes he could broker. And third, ISIS/ISIL and other radical extremist groups will be met with a heavy US hand wherever they are found. Taken together, it is likely that despite promises to increase aid to Israel in contradiction to the recently signed Memorandum of Understanding between the US and Israel, a President Trump would honor that agreement and not permit additional appropriations by Congress. Trump might even use the cap on additional military assistance to Israel as a lever to get Israel back to serious negotiations towards a peace agreement, which he would see as a feather in his cap that will be hard for him not to pursue given the perception he has of himself as a deal-maker.”


Q - Senior Israeli officials have been rejoicing at Trump's victory, declaring that the two-state solution and the prospect of a Palestinian state are dead. Many observers would argue that the two-state solution has been dead for years due to Israeli settlement construction but that politicians in Washington and other capitals have been in denial because admitting this reality would force them to consider other solutions and to apply pressure on Israel for the first time.

How do you think a Trump presidency will impact the pursuit of a two-state solution, as well as the political consensus surrounding it?

YM - “The peace process is dead. Even when the players all agree to pretend it is alive, it is a zombie. Trump, however, doesn’t even seem to want to pretend anymore and this is truly interesting. For years, it has been US policy to pursue a peace process in part because the process itself was in Israel’s interest. The idea of a peaceful resolution, even if it was far, far off on the horizon, was enough to keep international opprobrium at bay. This is why, as emails revealed by Wikileaks showed, Secretary Clinton believed a ‘Potemkin process’ was better than nothing. The absence of a process forces both the US and Israel to uncomfortably address the apartheid reality they are responsible for. From what we know about Trump through his statements and the platform his campaign ran on, they no longer see any utility in pretending. They will fully embrace Israeli apartheid. If this is maintained, it is a game changer because it forces every other sane person in the world to ask the question the peace process industry refuses to ask: if not the two-state solution, then what? Perpetual apartheid has never been an acceptable answer.”

PB - “The fact that Trump has expressed such disdain for current US policy in the region may be a precursor to a full-scale rejection of the long-popular two-state idea. Since the possibility of an actual two-state arrangement has long been rendered obsolete by the expansion of Israeli settlements, the separation Wall, and other infrastructure of Israeli control across the occupied territory, such a US acknowledgement of reality might actually help reframe an entirely different international political position – one based on rights rather than states, meaning a Palestinian civil rights movement demanding equality for all.”

ZH - “If one were to make a prognostication of the likely impact of a Trump presidency on the two-state solution based solely on the group of Middle East advisors that president-elect Trump has gathered around himself or by the Israel position paper that his campaign released just days before the election, one would have to say that the two-state solution as it has been internationally understood is no more. Both of the co-chairs of Trump’s Israel Advisory Council have strong connections to Israel and little interest in a Palestinian state. One of the co-chairs, David Friedman—who has been rumored as a possible pick for US ambassador to Israel—is the president of a US charity that supports the illegal settlement of Beit El, which is located only yards from the Palestinian president’s residence in Ramallah, and believes that settlements are not illegal. Friedman has said that in his estimation the two-state solution isn’t working, that if Gaza is ‘removed from the denominator,’ Israel (with the West Bank) would be reduced to a state with a population that is 65% Jewish, which would not be ‘existential’ for Israel.

“The Trump position paper on Israel-Palestine peace is no more reassuring for the prospects of a two-state solution in that it takes as US policy positions on final status issues that Palestinians would never agree to. For example, it provides for the recognition of the Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel, states that a two-state solution appears impossible as long as Palestinians refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and provides that the US should not pressure Israel to withdraw to indefensible borders, i.e., to the pre-June 4th 1967 line.

“Advisors and position papers aside, the president-elect has already backtracked on a number of positions he held during the campaign so Israel-Palestine will likely be no different. As the international and regional ramifications of Trump’s positions become more evident to him, there will likely be a softening on some of his policy statements.”


Q - There has been much speculation about what President Obama might do in regards to Palestine/Israel before he leaves office, including possibly supporting (or at least not vetoing) a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel's illegal settlement enterprise or setting out his vision of what a final peace agreement should look like. There has also been a lot of talk about a peace conference being held under French, Russian, or other auspices, with France declaring they will hold such a gathering in late December.

How you think Trump's victory will affect President Obama plans and those of France and other countries pondering a resumption of negotiations?

YM - “The Obama administration has reportedly been carefully weighing precisely what it might do in these last months of Obama’s presidency on the issue of Israel/Palestine. One of the issues they had to consider as they went through this process is how, if at all, their action might help the incoming administration move the situation forward. If the next administration is not going to use it as a building block to advance the policy then it is useless. With a Clinton administration, there were ways to envision steps the Obama administration could take that would be carried forward by the new White House occupant. These steps still wouldn’t have amounted to much but would at least have kept the facade up for a bit longer. With Trump, it is really hard to see how an Obama administration could take steps that they know would be carried forward when Trump seems to be opposed to the long-standing bipartisan policy around the Israeli occupation that has existed for decades. With Trump in the White House and Netanyahu running Israel, both the American and Israeli leaders are brazenly and unapologetically supportive of the apartheid status quo. Maybe that is the wake up call the rest of world needs to realize the two-state solution is dead and they showed up far too late for the funeral.”

PB - “At the political level, Trump’s victory frees President Obama from any concerns about what he is ‘leaving behind’ for his presumed successor, Hillary Clinton. His foreign policy legacy is woefully thin, since he ultimately gave in to pressure to maintain rather than end the Middle East wars that began with the Bush invasion and occupation of Iraq. His victories are where he held out for diplomacy over war – especially in moving towards normalization with Cuba, in the Paris climate agreement, and especially in defending the Iran nuclear deal. A major move in the long-stalled Israel-Palestine scene would be an enormous boost – but it is a very difficult challenge, not least since Israel has already announced it would reject the French initiative currently being discussed. An Obama move to allow a Security Council resolution setting out, for the first time, what a truly just solution to the conflict would look like, would mean an entirely different, powerful legacy for President Obama. Unfortunately, any resolution that might emerge from a US-French agreement would be unlikely to actually challenge the limited parameters of the existing US and thus UN consensus; it would be a good thing to show the extent of Israel’s isolation because of its extremism and intransigence, but any possibility of enforcing such a new position would almost certainly be undermined by the incoming Trump administration.”

ZH - “President-elect Trump indicated that among the topics he discussed during his first meeting with President Obama was the Middle East. Israel-Palestine peace had to figure prominently in the ninety-minute conversation since for at least the last year President Obama has been weighing options with respect to how to best preserve the prospects for a negotiated two-state solution before he leaves office. Without a Democrat to take up the two-state torch and given that the Republican party platform is devoid of any reference to support for the two-state solution, President Obama may feel that the only way to preserve the two-state solution is to make it irreversible US policy. Thus, he is likely now more than ever to permit a parameters resolution in the Security Council that holds the pre-June 4th 1967 border as the base-line for a territorial agreement or, in the alternative, to recognize Palestine with the same base-line. A Security Council resolution merely reaffirming the illegality of settlement construction in the West Bank does nothing new and does little to preserve the two-state solution, therefore it is less likely to be the option pursued by President Obama. France and the international community are likely to support President Obama in this regard as they regard the president-elect as unpredictable and potentially destabilizing to the little stability that exists in the region.”