The dramatic changes in United States policy on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land are bringing a new paradigm to the region – indeed, we have witnessed a political earthquake.
These changes enacted by President Donald Trump include effectively removing Jerusalem from the agenda
of final status negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis, reneging on a commitment made in writing
by the U.S. government as it witnessed previous Palestinian-Israeli accords.
The second major change was ending Washington’s commitment to the two-state solution; President Trump made it clear that he will support whatever the parties agree to, whether that be one state or two. Third, the United States no longer criticizes Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank, thus entirely abandoning the positions of all previous administrations and most of the rest of the world.
Finally, the Trump administration has wholeheartedly adopted Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s new vision of a “regional track,” in which Israel promotes the illusion that it can establish a regional political process on the basis of a “common enemy,” (usually Iran) and that this process can deal with the Israel-Palestine issue later as part of other regional arrangements.
The popular explanation among Palestinians for these policy shifts -- that such changes are cheered by evangelicals and shore up Trump’s weak popularity -- might be a little accurate, but does not provide a complete picture. The more reasonable explanation is that the United States is modifying its policy to adapt to changes in Israeli attitudes on the conflict. Israeli public opinion has swung so far right in recent years that the idea of territorial compromise seems almost farfetched.
In the late eighties and nineties, when Israel’s public and political elites were considering a territorial compromise through the creation of two states, the United States adopted these politics and made efforts to implement them. Now that Israel is no longer interested in such compromise, and that a majority of Israel’s public, Knesset members, and government officials agree that Israel should maintain various types of control over the Palestinian territory Israel occupied in 1967, Washington must fall in line.
The reason for this tail-wagging-the-dog approach is that Israel and Israeli-related issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have always been approached in Washington as internal American political problems, rather than foreign (Middle East) affairs. One need only to recall how Netanyahu, seeking to rebuff former President Barack Obama’s criticism of Israel’s settlement expansion policy, confronted the president by speaking to Congress -- and succeeded.
A new ingredient has been added to the Israeli-American political approach, however. In an attempt to take advantage of the decaying regional situation and the vulnerability of some Arab states still recovering from war and internal turmoil, Israel and then the United States have linked Israeli-Palestinian relations to Arab-Israeli relations. This reshuffling of the deck only serves Israel’s protestations that there really is “no solution” (or “no partner”), thereby prolonging the status quo and enabling Israel to achieve the fastest rate of settlement expansion ever with little political cost. Inside Israel, this is really the only thing that the government coalition agrees on now. It is also a straight path to ending the prospects of two states.
The manner in which U.S. positions have realigned with Israel’s has generated a strategic debate among Palestinians. This debate centers on the following question: Is the international community through its organizations serious about its resolutions and laws? Palestinians reflect that, through a historical process, they have modified their political thinking, positions and behavior to nearly mirror international legality and the international consensus. Instead of pursuing claims inside the lands of 1948, Palestinians accepted the international consensus that Israel existed and sought a state on the lands Israel occupied later, in 1967. While armed revolt was once part of the PLO’s platform, today armed resistance against Israel’s occupation is considered outlier politics, as most Palestinians have accepted the restrictions of the internationally-sanctioned peace process.
It is shocking to Palestinians, then, that even though Israel deviated from established international precepts, the United States -- the most influential country in the world -- simply followed after it with no regard for international law. Palestinian faith in international organizations and their legal structures is now shaken -- even as they remain their only recourse.
The official Palestinian response to the U.S. was reasonable and cautious. The leadership decided to stop accepting mediation with the U.S. as sole sponsor, while continuing to pursue collective international efforts that include U.S. involvement. It also did not change its commitment to a negotiated two-state solution.
The net outcome, however, is expected to be negative. We are already seeing a radicalization of the two sides of the conflict. Extreme elements in Israeli society and its body polity have been encouraged and empowered. The changes have also weakened Palestine’s moderate leadership, coming like a slap in the face of all who had counted on Washington’s moderating role. Indeed, Palestinian President Abbas described it as “the slap of the century.”
Regionally, not only will the “no solution strategy” mean that the conflict remains a source of instability, but it will also play into the hands of Iran and its proxies, who took the opportunity to say: “I told you so – the Americans cannot be trusted!”
While Netanyahu has been doing his best to disseminate propaganda giving the impression that Saudi Arabia, one of the few remaining strong regional players, is on board with his regional vision, this remains unsubstantiated. The Saudi camp seems as yet unwilling to alter the order of events of its Arab Peace initiative, endorsed in 2002, which allows for normal relations with Israel only after Israel’s occupation has finally ended. Save for this glimmer of hope, Palestinians feel they are entering entirely uncharted territory.
But Palestinians have always been the weaker party. They cling to their steadfastness on the land, especially in Jerusalem, and continued refusal to acquiesce to occupation. The “no solution solution” is as harmful to Israel as it is to Palestinians and to overall regional stability.