January 31, 2019 |
Midterm Assessment: Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
January 31, 2019
Midterm Assessment: Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Defying concerns that the peace process is a lost cause, the Trump administration has spent more than a year promising to broker the “deal of the century” between Israelis and Palestinians. Meanwhile, the administration has aligned itself closely with Israel’s government by moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and slashing American funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the agency responsible for Palestinian refugees. Details of the administration’s peace plan remain a closely guarded secret, leaving uncertain how the White House intends to resolve a conflict that is increasingly resistant to foreign mediation.
By moving the embassy and cutting funding for refugees, President Trump has slaughtered the sacred cows of the peace process. For decades, candidates have pledged to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, yet fear of an Arab backlash had prevented any White House from following through. With his decision, Trump called the bluff of Palestinian negotiators and numerous experts who warned that such a move would set the region ablaze. The president added insult to injury by shuttering the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) mission in Washington, DC and downgrading the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem to an extension of the Jerusalem embassy,1 thereby removing a symbol of American support for Palestinian claims to the city.
The administration has similarly dismantled the Palestinian refugee issue. UNRWA’s unique policy of granting refugee status to the descendants of refugees has increased the original population of less than 700,000 displaced Palestinians in 1949 to more than 5.4 million today. Previously UNRWA’s top donor accounting for a quarter of agency’s budget, the U.S. has pulled $305 million in contributions and does not intend to renew its support. Palestinians again warned that such a move would set the region on tilt. Once again, Trump proved them wrong – at least for now.
The administration has also pushed back hard against efforts to delegitimize Israel at the UN. Notably, the White House exited UNESCO, the first UN body to grant full membership to the “State of Palestine.” The U.S. stopped funding the agency in 2011 after it admitted Palestine as a member state but only ended formal ties in 2018, under the Trump administration. The administration has also exited the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), whose members include China, Cuba, and other dictatorships, yet condemns Israel more often than all other nations combined.
Controversially, Trump has also withheld $200 million of U.S. aid to projects in the West Bank and Gaza to pressure Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to reengage in the peace process.2 This came after Congress passed the Taylor Force Act, which cut aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) until it ends payments to terrorists and their families. In response, Abbas and the PA have boycotted the administration, refusing to meet American officials. Congress then passed the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act of 2018, which could threaten the remaining Palestinian security aid. These cuts raise real concerns about Washington’s ability to have influence with the Palestinians on key issues, like security cooperation with the Israelis.
The Trump administration’s broader strategy appears designed to break the Palestinians’ cycle of dependence on foreign support, which encourages corruption, thereby necessitating additional support. On that score, Trump advisor Jason Greenblatt has focused on growing the Palestinian economy to encourage self-sufficiency and perhaps stimulate investment in the peace process.3 And the focus has not only been on the West Bank. In March 2018, the White House hosted a Gaza humanitarian relief conference, attended by 19 countries but boycotted by the Palestinians.4 This was part of Trump’s efforts to enlist regional actors, such as Saudi Arabia, to encourage new thinking on Gaza, which is currently subject to an Israeli blockade because the terrorist group Hamas controls the coastal enclave.
If the administration seeks a landmark agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, a very difficult road lies ahead. In light of his faltering health and influence, Abbas may not be able to implement a substantial agreement even if he were willing to sign it. Nor is it clear how an agreement could mitigate the threat posed by Hamas.
Sensibly, the administration has not divulged elements of its plan before it is ready, which has prevented extremists and spoilers from undermining a potential deal. Nonetheless, by raising expectations while postponing the plan’s release, the administration has generated skepticism about both the contents of its plan as well its commitment to it.
Trump’s readiness to depart from conventional thinking may be an asset. After all, 25 years of conventional thinking since Oslo have yielded little progress. White House aides vow that their plan will not entail another formulaic two-state solution.
In the short run, Trump’s unorthodox decisions have antagonized the Palestinian Authority leadership, which has led to a full rupture in ties. The Palestinians have cast Trump’s approach as punitive and have argued that the U.S. has thus disqualified itself as an honest broker. In the long run, however, Trump’s confrontational moves may force the Palestinians to bend, especially if the Arab states apply pressure.
The relocation of the U.S. embassy clearly confounded forecasts that it would spark violence in the West Bank and the wider Arab world. (The Gaza “March of Return” in May was planned before the embassy move, though the decision may have exacerbated tensions.) Over time, the American embassy’s presence in Jerusalem may clarify for Palestinians that the city will remain the Israeli capital for the foreseeable future.
Holding UNRWA accountable was also long overdue. The organization undermines prospects for compromise by exacerbating a refugee crisis that, logically speaking, should no longer exist. UNRWA schools also have a long record of promoting the demonization of Israel. But the removal of services could spark unrest in refugee camps. If UNRWA is ultimately dissolved, other service providers will be necessary.
The decision to challenge UN efforts to delegitimize Israel also represents a welcome reversal of the Obama administration’s passive approach to the problem, or even its complicity, as was the case in the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2334.
The decision to challenge UN efforts to delegitimize Israel also represents a welcome reversal of the Obama administration’s passive approach to the problem, or even its complicity, as was the case in the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which cast Israel as the main despoiler of peace while remaining silent on Palestinian support for terrorism.
On the other hand, cuts in funding to the PA may prove to be the administration’s main mistake on the Israeli-Palestinian front, insomuch as they impede security cooperation. Should that cooperation break down, terrorist activity in the West Bank may become difficult to contain, thereby imperiling a new peace deal.
- Wait to unveil the peace plan until after Israel’s April elections. The Trump administration should not hastily release its plan, particularly in light of upcoming Israeli elections. Israel’s next prime minister will need to construct a political coalition more inclined toward compromise over territory in the West Bank if its goal is to maintain strong ties with the Trump administration. Moreover, unfurling an ill-conceived plan would create further distrust among the parties and erode confidence in the United States as a broker.
- Keep in mind the structural barriers to peace. Palestinians are divided between Gaza and the West Bank, and between Hamas and Fatah. As long as this schism persists, the PA cannot enforce and guarantee Palestinian adherence to a peace deal.
- Prepare for a chaotic Palestinian succession. Mahmoud Abbas has overstayed his mandate by nearly a decade. He is in his mid-80s and is reportedly in poor health. For peace to succeed and endure, Israel must reach an agreement with viable Palestinian institutions, not a lone figure. Yet the PA has become a vehicle for Abbas’ autocratic rule. He has prevented the emergence of a clear successor.
- Build the economy first. The Trump administration should lay the groundwork for a peace deal by improving the Palestinians’ ability to provide for their own needs. The White House should support coexistence, entrepreneurship, and infrastructure projects, particularly in the West Bank. This can pave the way for Palestinian buy-in to a future peace process, if they realize that cooperation is the way to overcome deprivation. The U.S. should pursue such initiatives through transparent non-government organizations to sidestep the rampant corruption within the PA.
- Redefine the refugee problem. Trump should order the State Department to release its report estimating the total number of 1948-49 Palestinian refugees still alive (the number is estimated to be less than 40,000). This will allow all sides to plan for a realistic solution to the problem. Concurrently, the U.S. should support some refugee assistance programs to ensure medical, educational, and nutritional needs are met among the destitute populations UNRWA serves. This would also avoid destabilizing nearby countries, such as Jordan, that host numerous Palestinian refugees.
- Keep fighting for UN reform. The UN is exceptionally resistant to change. U.S. ambassadors to the UN will have to pick up where Nikki Haley left off, exerting constant pressure to ensure that the organization gradually moves in the right direction. Reforms to the UNHRC should include the removal of Agenda Item Seven, which ensures the targeting of Israel at every session. The U.S. should also hold accountable any UN body that advances the PA’s “Palestine 194” campaign to secure statehood without negotiating peace or recognizing Israel.
- Preserve security assistance. Aid cuts to the PA must not harm Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation.
- Demonstrate strategic vision. Trump must provide carrots, in addition to the sticks, to demonstrate that he is serious about improving Palestinian lives and establishing a path to statehood.
- Encourage regional support. Trump’s peace push comes amid a changing regional order. Fear of Iranian aggression and respect for Israeli capabilities have drawn Sunni Arab states closer to Israel. Trump should leverage this to enlist regional partners in the cause of peace.