foreign policy

Trump’s Effort to Strong-Arm the Palestinians Will Bring More Suffering, Not Peace

Trump and Netanyahu shake hands at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, on May 23, 2017. Photo: AFP/AFP/Getty Images

This Thursday, September 13, marks the 25th anniversary of the signing of the first Oslo accord, which established the Palestinian National Authority and marked the start of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process based on the principle of two states for two peoples.

To anyone paying attention, the failure of the Oslo “process” has been blindingly obvious for years. Indeed, it was barely alive three years before Benjamin Netanyahu began his first term as prime minister of Israel in 1996 and began working to undermine it. Two decades later, in his fourth premiership and having long since killed and buried Oslo, Netanyahu has finally found the perfect American president to partner with him in his ambition of crushing the Palestinian national movement for good and all.

Barely a week after the Trump administration announced it was cutting off $290 million in funding to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA, the agency that supports Palestinian refugees) and just two days after cutting another $25 million in aid for hospitals in East Jerusalem, the State Department announced on Monday that it was closing down the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington, saying the PLO “has not taken steps to advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel.”

By that logic, the Israeli embassy should also be shuttered, as the only steps Netanyahu’s government has taken on negotiations with the Palestinians have been backward. Netanyahu’s oft-repeated claim that he is always ready to launch negotiations “without preconditions” simply means he will not countenance any expectation that Israel be held to any agreements it has made in the past. In other words, he is happy to negotiate, but not over the things that need negotiating: namely, the establishment of a viable Palestinian state and some form of recompense for Palestinian refugees — notions past Israeli governments had accepted in principle, albeit not in practice.

As it turns out, Netanyahu comes with preconditions of his own, demanding that the Palestinians abandon their core ambitions at the outset. Knowing that it is impossible for Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate under such bad-faith conditions, Netanyahu is actively blocking the Palestinian leadership from taking “steps to advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel.”

So if being an intransigent negotiating partner in the peace process is grounds for expulsion from Washington, it stands to reason that Israel should have no presence there, either. But of course, the real motivation for Monday’s move has nothing to do with Palestinian intransigence and everything to do with the Trump administration’s ideological campaign to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by declaring Israel the winner and forcing the Palestinians to settle for whatever scraps Netanyahu deigns to throw them.

The Trump administration’s contempt for the Palestinians has been a throughgoing motif of its Middle East policy since day one: from putting Trump’s son-in-law, Netanyahu family friend, and West Bank settlement financier Jared Kushner, in charge of the portfolio; to moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in a sop to religious extremists both here and in Israel; to taking its cues directly from Netanyahu in putting the screws to the Palestinians and making them offers they can’t accept. The only surprising thing about Trump defunding UNRWA and locking out the PLO is that it took him this long.

Incidentally, Netanyahu’s single-minded obsession with destroying Palestinian national aspirations by cutting off its institutions, which Trump has adopted as his own, is not shared by the entirety of the Israeli Establishment. Israeli security officials recognize that a $200 million deficit at UNRWA will lead inexorably to a massive humanitarian crisis in Gaza, in turn sparking unrest and likely another war between Israel and Hamas. The agency is now scrambling to make up the shortfall with funds from European and Gulf Arab countries.

Palestinian leaders have been quick to decry these actions by the Trump administration as collective punishment. That indeed they are: The stated rationale for these moves is to punish UNRWA for including too many Palestinians in its definition of “refugees,” and the PLO for refusing to negotiate with Israel on Israel’s terms. But cutting funding to schools and hospitals doesn’t punish anyone so much as their students and patients — not to mention their employees, as UNRWA is also a major provider of jobs in the areas where it operates.

However one apportions blame for the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere; whichever party is more in the wrong for denying the national ambitions of the other; and whoever is or is not a refugee is all immaterial to the fact that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced by the 1948 and 1967 wars, plus millions of their descendants, are still suffering and stateless. Even those Palestinians who do enjoy citizenship somewhere still lack a national home.

These millions are continuously deprived of things that, at least in theory, are considered fundamental human rights in international law — but of course, the Trump administration doesn’t believe in such a thing as international law. National Security Adviser John Bolton’s speech at the Federalist Society on Monday, in which he declared the International Criminal Court “illegitimate” and “dead to us,” came partly in response to attempts by the Palestinians to get the I.C.C. to investigate Israel, in the latest of a series of increasingly pathetic attempts to leverage the U.N. and international law to their advantage.

That international law doesn’t really apply to the U.S. has been a matter of bipartisan consensus for decades, admitting differences only of degree, but not until the Trump administration has this American contempt for supranational institutions of justice been laid out quite so plainly.
The question that remains is what Trump and Netanyahu see as their endgame. The Trump administration has floated a series of fantastically unworkable solutions to the question of borders, mostly identical to right-wing Israeli designs. That includes most recently the pipe dream that won’t die: a confederation between Jordan and the West Bank, which even if the Palestinians accepted, Jordan never would.

In the meantime, Trump has systematically slaughtered all of the Palestinians’ sacred cows: a return to the 1967 borders, a capital in Jerusalem, and the right of return. From the vantage point of right-wing American Jews like Kushner and Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson, these are long-overdue reality checks. To the neutered Palestinian leadership, they are giant middle fingers, confirming that they will only be allowed to negotiate when there is nothing left to negotiate for. With Bolton, Kushner, and Netanyahu in his ear, Trump is convinced that the Palestinians can be forced into acquiescence. Of course, if it were that easy, it would have happened already.

This attempt to erase the Palestinians from the book of nations will fail. A lasting peace cannot be attained through humiliation and starvation. The more likely outcome is a renewal of violent Palestinian resistance — perhaps even a third intifada — which Israel appears content to periodically crush.
The next chapter of this drama may be disastrous for the Palestinians, but they won’t disappear. As long as Israel refuses to acknowledge their humanity and the legitimacy of their national aspirations, extremism will continue to fester on both sides of the fence and the conflict will simply never end. In the long run, Trump’s attempt to strong-arm his way to a solution might do Israel more harm than good.