Israel-Palestine: The Deal-Maker Deals Himself Out

by Paul R. Pillar

Donald Trump had already moved a long way backward since uttering a few remarks last year raising hopes that he would break out of the straitjacket that binds American politicians on all things involving Israel and the Palestinians and that he would try to be an impartial peace-maker.  He later made his peace with Sheldon Adelson, adopted AIPAC’s talking points as his own, and appointed to be U.S. ambassador to Israel a bankruptcy lawyer who is directly involved with West Bank settlements, is politically somewhere to the right of Benjamin Netanyahu, and likens American Jews who do not agree with him to Nazi collaborators.  Then this week, in a joint press conference with Netanyahu, Trump appeared to abandon what had been U.S. policy through several administrations, Republican and Democratic, of support for creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel as the only feasible and durable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The president’s exact words were, “I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like.  I can live with either one.”

As has become typical with so much of the policy of this month-old administration, confusion reigns.  The next day, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, told reporters, “We absolutely support a two-state solution.”  Probably the best interpretation of what was going on at that White House press conference is consistent with insights offered by former U.S. ambassadors to Israel Daniel Kurtzer and Daniel Shapiro, both of whom describe the joint appearance in terms of two leaders dealing with domestic pressures and wanting to look chummy with each other, rather than as an occasion for announcing new diplomatic departures.  Specifically, Trump’s comments were a favor to Netanyahu in dealing with the extreme right-wing of his own governing coalition, by pouring some cold water on the two-state concept without Netanyahu having to utter the words “two-state solution” himself.

As random and disorganized as Trump’s tweets, blurts to reporters, or other verbal expressions may be, when the president of the United States says something it either is policy, at least declaratory policy, or affects policy.  And so it must be noted how utterly unreal, and divorced from the concept of a true peace agreement, was Trump’s responding to a question about backing off from commitment to a two-state solution by talking about what “both parties like,” as if there were anything that both parties like right now that would not be a two-state solution.  The only thing that the vast majority of Palestinians would “like” is getting their own state or, failing that, full and equal rights for Jews and Arabs alike in a single state.  But that latter alternative would be disliked by most Israelis (not just the extreme right) insofar as it would imply, for demographic reasons, destruction of the concept of Israel as a Jewish state.

Trump tosses these words around amid apparent thinking within his own administration and Netanyahu’s about an “outside-in” approach in which development of relations between Israel and some Arab states would lead to Arab pressures on the Palestinians to settle their own conflict with Israel.  This notion is far removed from any realistic peace, and not only because the key to ending an occupation is not to pressure the occupied party, who does not control the situation on the ground, rather than the occupier, who does control it.  The notion also is merely a derivative of right-wing hopes in Israel, based on finding some common cause with some Gulf Arabs in disliking Iran, that the international opprobrium and isolation of Israel that results from its occupation and apartheid policies can be kept indefinitely at tolerable levels.  That is a strategy for indefinitely continuing the occupation and apartheid, not for ending that arrangement and achieving peace.

The Arab states have had their position on the table for fifteen years in the form of the Arab peace initiative, which lays out in simple form the basic trade of full recognition of, and peace with, Israel in return for an end to the occupation and just settlement of the Palestinian refugee problem.  The Arab peace plan was modified later to make clear that it includes the possibility of land swaps that would not require all of the West Bank to be returned to Arab sovereignty.  There is no reason to expect Saudi Arabia or any of the other Arab governments involved to abandon the concept enshrined in this initiative.  And however much one talks about the Arabs’ distractions with their own intramural problems, the sentiments among Arab populations as well as regimes regarding the plight of their co-ethnic brethren in Palestine is not about to be flushed down the toilet by pressuring Palestinian leaders to accept some bantustan-like arrangement and calling it a peace settlement.

As with other early moves of President Trump, his posture on this set of issues illustrates a more general tendency of his regarding governing.  Trump billed himself as a master deal-maker, but supporters who liked him for that reason should have looked more carefully at the sorts of deals he was accustomed to making.  Most of his business deals were more like one-night stands than like lasting relationships.  Sell naming rights, pocket the cash, and let someone else worry about running the enterprise that bears the Trump name.  Even when Trump’s own organization was more directly involved in a property, there was a tendency toward cutting and running.  His business record featured repeated stiffing of suppliers and sub-contractors and, when necessary, repeated bankruptcies—help on which evidently is part of what earned the settlement-loving David Friedman that ambassadorial appointment.

Note how often Trump’s foreign policy is referred to, by himself and now by others, in terms of whether “a deal” will be made with some other country, whether it is Russia, China, or some other state.  Foreign relations should not be thought of in such a one-shot, pointillist way.  Foreign relations, and how they affect U.S. interests, are instead a matter of continuing relationships in which interests are always intermingling, colliding, and evolving.  “One and done” may work for aspiring pro basketball players, but not for U.S. foreign policy.

This is as true of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as of other sticky foreign policy problems.  Pressuring Palestinians into something that can be labeled a “deal” but does not respond to ordinary human aspirations for a better life and national self-determination does not make a problem go away.  It can make it even worse.  It can come back in the form of intifadas, terrorism, or something else that damages the interests of Israelis and Americans as well as Palestinians.  Trump may not have to worry about such things any more after either impeachment or re-election defeat, but the rest of us will.

This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright The National Interest.

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  1. Obtuse is a good description of your thinking process. The closest modern analogue to Nazism is Islamism. Only Islamism is a violent irrational movement seeking global control. Zionism is a simple premise that the Jewish people have the right to live in peace and security in their ancestral homelands as many millions of Jews and Christians believe was prophesied in the Bible.

  2. @Jeffrey “Justice mandates that they be permitted to rule over their ancestral homeland in peace and security.”

    Justice mandates nothing of the sort. Besides, you said in a post a while back on another thread, that there is no such thing as international justice. So far, the behaviour of Jews ruling over their ancestral homeland has been to persecute the people who happened to be living there when the folks came back to the old homestead after 3,000 years (or 2,000 years, depending on which of your posts the rest of us are reading). Even if these immigrants had some sort of right to “rule over” that unhappy piece of real estate, the way they are doing it is an abomination.

    I know it’s a waste of time arguing with bigots, but I really wouldn’t want you to think that John O, and the rest of us commenters here, haven’t got an answer to Jeffrey’s latest zinger.

  3. @Jeffrey “Zionism is a simple premise that the Jewish people have the right to live in peace and security in their ancestral homelands as many millions of Jews and Christians believe was prophesied in the Bible.”

    Balderdash. Zionism is the last remnant of of the European belief that their peoples were entitled to go to the ends of the earth, find a nice piece of real estate, immigrate, then kill, subjugate, or kick out the people who happened to live there.

    As for Biblical prophesy, here’s a saying of the great Rabbi Hillel: “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.”

  4. John O, what a hypocrite you are! For centuries the European nations did not consider the Jews to be legitimate parts of Europe. They usually treated them as second class citizens or residents, with frequent periods of persecution, expulsion, pogroms and finally the Holocaust.

    Now, you have the gall to label Zionism a European invention. Maybe because you an atheist it might seem that way to you, but if you ask many millions of Christians or Jews they will explain that Zionism is concept first expressed in biblical days during the first exile of the Jews. The Jews were the ones who “happened to live there” when the Europeans (i.e., the Romans) invaded and drove many of them off.

    The Jews did live there 3,000 years ago and were exiled by the Romans roughly 2,000 years ago. Thus your confusion over dates I have used in the past.

    You are also confused about my prior statements about international law, which I did say in reality does not exist. I never said justice or morality do not exist. They do but majority vote of Muslim dominated bodies and their craven allies trying to appease them do not dictate morality. I have made a strong moral argument why the Jews have the superior moral claim to Palestine and the Arabs calling themselves Palestinians have a very weak claim. You have not even attempted to undermine my moral argument. Hillel or other Jewish philosophers never said when someone comes to slay you, you should let them do it. The Israelites were ordered to treat strangers living among them with great respect, but they were also told to fight back against people who sought to destroy the Jews.

    Finally, you are a hypocrite because if there were a group of people (the Arabs) constantly committing violence against your people, you would do what the Israelis do or much worse. Name a country that would not.

  5. So far the only thing I’m beginning to like about Trump is telling all parties that the US mediations in Israelis and Palestinians peace process have not worked for the past seven decades so why should he do the same thing again and expecting different results! Trump by saying “he’d like and he’ll be ok with whatever the warring parties agreed to”, I’m interpreting his comments as the two parties involved have only two options! Either Israelis and Palestinians and perhaps the other neighbors beat the shit of each other and continue killing each other until the world ends or begin to working on a peaceful solution! If the peaceful solution results into one state or two separate states it’d okay by him! Trump knows that the US hasn’t been a trusted mediator to the peace negotiations in the ME and he is not going to repeat the same thing again! As much as I dislike Trump but I think he is on the right track for boxing in the zio-MSM and the zio-neocons in the US!

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