Trump’s unfounded optimism on Israeli-Palestinian peace

The most realistic — dare I say, hopeful? — comment Trump made was “Israel will have to do something that will be good for the other side.”

It is well-documented that US President Donald Trump likes to talk big. Very big. Speaking at the UN General Assembly on September 25, Trump announced that ″In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.”

The comment provoked a wave of laughter so, in a sense, Trump was right: No US president had ever been publicly laughed at by the General Assembly.

This was not the only laughable remark Trump made. The following day, Trump reiterated his commitment on Israeli-Palestinian peace and pledged that his administration would present a “very fair” proposal within the next four months. He said Jared Kushner, his 37-year-old son-in-law tasked with achieving the deal that seasoned diplomats on all sides have been unable to reach for decades, “loves Israel but he’s also going to be very fair with the Palestinians.”

That Kushner loves Israel is not in doubt — he and his family have long been financial supporters of illegal Israeli settlements — but “fair” to the Palestinians? That is truly laughable or at least it would be if the enduring human tragedy of the Israeli occupation were not so painful to so many people.

It was Kushner who lobbied for cutting off US aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) as well as US contributions to the UNRWA, the agency created to help Palestinian refugees. Kushner advocated moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem and recognising the city, which is holy to three religions, as the capital of Israel.

Yet Kushner has not raised a single public complaint about Israel’s relentless settlement expansion, confiscation of Palestinian lands, heavy-handed response to protesters, imprisonment of children and stifling of peaceful Palestinian dissent on social media.

Less laughably, Trump announced that he favours a two-state solution to the conflict, saying “that’s what I think works best.” A few seconds later, however, he said: “I think probably two states is more likely but, if they do a single, if they do a double, I’m OK with it if they’re both happy.”

Doing what makes both sides happy is the goal of any negotiation. The idea implies, however, that the two sides are operating from a position of equality or at a minimum of mutual respect and concern for each other’s needs. To suggest that the Israelis and the Palestinians could sit down at the table as equals and figure out together what makes them both “happy” is ludicrous.

The most realistic — dare I say, hopeful? — comment Trump made was, “Israel will have to do something that will be good for the other side.” Perhaps unnerved by Trump’s suggestion that Israel would have to make actual concessions to achieve peace, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said: “Israel will not relinquish security control west of Jordan. This will not happen so long as I am prime minister and I think the Americans understand that.”

The world should know that 1) nothing Trump says is cast in stone and may be contradicted within hours; 2) Kushner’s negotiating team is loth to suggest anything that diverges from the goals of the Netanyahu government and 3) the Palestinians will not be coerced to the negotiating table.

Trump said he was “absolutely, 100%” confident that the Palestinians would soon return to negotiations. Palestinian Foreign Affairs Minister Riyad al-Maliki begged to differ, saying that, after 40 meetings between PA officials and Kushner’s team, it had become clear that “they have opted to open that war against the Palestinians to inflict the most damage.”

Aaron David Miller, vice-president at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars and a former US State Department adviser and Middle East negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations, wrote on September 26 that Trump’s peace team “has compromised and undermined America’s ability to present itself as an effective broker, let alone an honest one.”

Kushner and his colleagues, Miller wrote, “are pursuing an approach that hews far more closely to a Netanyahu narrative and is not only hostile to a Palestinian one but seeks to dismantle the elements of a two-state solution, including on borders and Jerusalem.”

Despite Trump’s comments, what will matter most in terms of achieving a real peace is what is happening on the ground and whether US mediators are truly committed to pursuing the rights and needs of both sides. Miller concluded: “If we continue to take sides, providing Israel with all the honey and Palestinians with all the vinegar, we might as well hang a ‘closed for the season’ sign on any hope for a meaningful US role in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.”

Mark Habeeb is East-West editor of The Arab Weekly and adjunct professor of Global Politics and Security at Georgetown University in Washington.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.