Washington — A squabble between the administration of US President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is throwing the course of America’s Middle East policy into doubt.
Obama has accepted a UN resolution that takes aim at Israel’s settlement policy, creating new facts under international law. Trump, however, has signalled that his administration will not feel bound by it.
“The UN — even the Security Council — only matters as much as governments care to make it matter,” said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a think-tank in Washington.
“Basically, what we see is the Israel-Palestine dispute becoming a partisan football in the US context,” Rubin said via e-mail. “That means every change of administration may bring with it a rapidly different approach.”
Only weeks before Trump’s inauguration on January 20, the Obama administration refused to use the US veto to block a UN resolution critical of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. Trump tried to stop the draft resolution by persuading Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to drop Cairo’s initiative at the UN Security Council but Malaysia, New Zealand, Venezuela and Senegal made sure the council voted on the motion anyway.
Following adoption of the resolution, Trump told Israel in a tweet to “stay strong” until he takes over the presidency but the Obama administration stuck to its line with US Secretary of State John Kerry delivering a speech on December 28 that warned the two-state solution, as the only realistic way to secure a peace between Israel and the Palestinians, was in “jeopardy”.
Kerry said the UN resolution was not a sign of diminished US support for Israel but he defended his government’s decision to allow the resolution to be adopted and criticised Israel for moving away from the two-state goal. “If Israel goes down the one-state path, it will never have true peace with the rest of the Arab world,” he said.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called the UN resolution a “slap in the face” for Israel and an expression of international support for a two-state solution. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu slammed the US position and vowed to continue with settlement-building. Kellyanne Conway, one of Trump’s closest aides, said the new administration would seek a “much stronger relationship with Israel”.
That determination of the Trump camp could mean that the two-state solution will be abandoned as the basic approach for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite the Obama administration’s efforts to prevent that from happening, said Ryan Ahari, research and policy fellow at the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC).
“It looks more and more like Israel is becoming a one-state with the Palestinians as second-class citizens,” he said. Ahari added that the push of the new US administration could lead other countries with populist leaders to follow suit. “They’re looking towards Trump,” he said.
Rubin predicted that Obama and Kerry could end up making matters in the Middle East even more complicated with their manoeuvres. A stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians, coupled with a “heightened disdain” for the United Nations, could encourage Trump to act unilaterally “by moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and perhaps recognising Israeli sovereignty over disputed areas, such as East Jerusalem”. This could “scramble the situation permanently and box in future administrations”, he said.
Ahari also criticised the Obama administration’s moves. “It’s too little, too late,” he said. “Where have they been in the last three years?”
The big question is what kind of policy will Trump pursue beyond his stated strong support for Israel. The president-elect has said he would like to be the man to solve the Israeli-Palestinian question with an agreement but he has given no indication what he plans to offer to the Palestinian side.
Richard LeBaron, a former US ambassador to Kuwait, said he doubted that much programmatic work is going on among Trump’s team to formulate a coherent Middle East strategy. “It is typical of Trump to inject himself with those feeds, expressing firm opinions based on almost zero experience,” said LeBaron, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington.
Netanyahu “is having Trump’s ear whenever he wants it” and was using that access to his advantage, LeBaron said, adding that the development is not necessarily as positive for the Jewish state as it seems.
“The Israelis run some risks if they rely on those tweets” and on David Friedman, a staunch supporter of Israel who is Trump’s pick as new US ambassador to Israel, LeBaron said.
Despite his pro-Israel stance, Trump has been reluctant to make commitments about a future US involvement in the region. With his highly impulsive style that sometimes leads to contradictory statements and in the absence of a thoroughly developed strategy for the Middle East, the new president could be facing serious challenges after taking office, LeBaron said.
“At some point very difficult decisions will have to be made” with regards to the Middle East, he said. “This won’t work.”
Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.
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