by Lara Friedman
In the weeks leading up to President Trump’s first planned trip to Israel, many observers have been waxing cautiously hopeful that, based on what Trump and officials like Jason Greenblatt have said and done thus far, the new U.S. president is serious about achieving a breakthrough on Israel-Palestine peace. Some are even suggesting that Trump’s unpredictability could be an asset in restarting a meaningful peace process. Only time will tell if the hope is justified.
But make no mistake: Trump’s unpredictability is matched by the predictability of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has spent decades honing various traps to sabotage even the most sincere and resolute peace effort.
One of these traps is the demand that, as a precondition for restarting negotiations, the Palestinians recognize Israel as the “Jewish state.” Predictably, Netanyahu set this trap in his first White House meeting with Trump. No matter that in 1993 the Palestinians recognized “the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security.” No matter that neither Egypt nor Jordan was ever required to embrace Zionism in their respective peace deals. No matter that this demand is quite understandably a non-starter for the Palestinians, as Netanyahu understands all too well.
Second is the demand that the Palestinians cease “pay-for-slay” payments to families of Palestinians killed or imprisoned by Israel (according to Palestinian sources, Israel has arrested around 40% of the total male Palestinian population since 1967). Never mind that this demand misrepresents what more accurately has been described as a decades-old social safety net. Never mind that the real cause of violence is the occupation, which engenders desperation so profound that a small number of Palestinians turn to violence even though they know that Israel’s retribution will be far-reaching. The attacker’s home—likely home to multiple generations of a family—will be sealed or demolished; fathers and brothers will be arrested; mothers and sisters will be humiliated; work permits will be canceled and bans on movement and travel imposed; entire villages will have their lives turned upside down by closures and raids. And never mind that this demand dismisses Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ longstanding security cooperation with Israel.
Third is the settlements trap. Over the past 50 years, successive Israeli governments have settled more than half a million Israeli civilians on lands occupied in the 1967 war. They have done so in defiance of international law, U.S. policy, and the spirit and goals of the peace process. Now, “pragmatic” voices from the right-wing, the center-left, and possibly even some Gulf states, are adopting Netanyahu’s call for a shift in U.S. policy to legitimize the settlement enterprise for the first time in history. This trap is perhaps the most insidious of all, with such a shift in policy touted as an easy way to neutralize an issue that has been a source of endless conflict with Israel and promote peace.
In reality, such a shift would give a green light for settlement construction—defined by vague terms like “settlement blocs” or the “contours” of existing settlements—over huge areas of land, dipping deep into the West Bank and surrounding East Jerusalem. Expanded settlement construction would take off the table the minimum requirements for a Palestinian state. It would render land swaps—agreed, limited, and equal—unworkable. And it would make a viable, contiguous Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem impossible. In short, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the occupation and the 25th anniversary of the peace process, it would foreclose the possibility that negotiations and diplomacy will resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict, pushing both Israelis and Palestinians to pursue instead zero-sum, violence-driven outcomes.
Those are just the biggest of the predictable traps. Others include demands that an Israel-Palestine peace agreement resolve the claims of Jews from Arab countries, calls for changes to Palestinian textbooks, and attacks on the PA for incitement. Then there’s Netanyahu’s tool chest of “hardy perennial” anti-peace arguments, like the “ethnic cleansing/judenrein” canard, the “defensible borders” gambit, and, of course, the claim that “now is not the time for peace.”
Trump is indeed highly unpredictable; Netanyahu is not. If past is prelude—as it has been, over and over, with peace efforts—then it can be predicted with a high degree of certainty that Trump will face these and similar traps if he moves ahead with trying to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace. Navigating these traps will require not just unpredictability but political will, starting with a readiness to stand up to Netanyahu in a way that no president has done before.