by Robert E. Hunter
Every president since Harry S Truman in 1948 has, in one way or another, been bedeviled by the Israeli-Palestinian issue. President-elect Donald J. Trump will be Lucky Number 13. Like Joel Chandler Harris’ tar baby, Trump has already got himself stuck to the issue. Even if he is later inclined to extricate himself, he may not be able to do so.
It didn’t have to be thus. Four years ago, Secretary of State John Kerry launched yet another effort to revitalize peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, setting an ambitious but unrealistic one-year timetable. Predictably, with the unwillingness or political incapacity of leaders on both sides to make concessions, even on relatively minor matters, nothing of consequence was achieved. In the Middle East and elsewhere, therefore, a virtual consensus developed: in current and foreseeable circumstances of region-wide instability and conflict, there is no value in trying to move the Israeli-Palestinian issue off dead center. Better to leave it alone and deal instead with matters more pressing for the region and the world. These are the wars in Syria, Yemen, and Libya; a fractured Iraq; the threat of Islamist terrorism and particularly that of the Islamic State; and continuing competitions for regional influence between Shi’a Iran and its Sunni Arab neighbors.
Then enter President-elect Trump, who began by anointing as his choice for U.S. ambassador to Israel a man whose views are extreme even as measured against those of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his super-hawk defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman. The man Trump will nominate to represent the United States, David Friedman, wants to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a highly symbolic act that is opposed throughout the Muslim world and would be certain to inflame intense emotions. Yet this view is nothing new. Israeli leaders have for decades called for this to be done. Hillary Clinton also called for it when she was First Lady, and she made no secret that, as president, she would have worked to repair damage done to US-Israeli relations during the Obama administration. Further, Friedman’s position on moving the U.S. embassy comports with that of the President-elect, which is a reasonable thing for a U.S. ambassador to do!
But David Friedman also wants Israel to annex at least parts of the West Bank, strongly supports Jewish settlements there, has called President Barack Obama an anti-Semite, and has even castigated some moderate American Jews, notably those who belong to J Street, which is a rival to the hardline American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), as “worse than Kapos”. This is a reference to Jews who assisted the Nazis in carrying out their grisly work in the Holocaust death camps.
Perhaps only Mr. Trump knows why he is making this appointment. But in itself it does not indicate the future course of U.S. policy toward Israel-Palestine. All that ever counts in U.S. policy involving Israel is what the U.S. president says and does; like many another ambassadors in every administration, Our Man in Israel might not even be “in the loop.” Cheers by right-wing Israelis at Mr. Friedman’s selection could thus prove premature, but the appointment is certainly not evidence that President Trump will promote resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet in that history-burdened corner of the world, every word counts and is chewed over by all concerned.
This tempest might have blown over in the context of so many other unusual statements and steps by the president-elect. But then the action moved to the United Nations Security Council, where Egypt, supported by most of the other members of this 15-nation body, introduced yet another resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. After thorough discussion it would likely have been pigeon-holed. But then Mr. Trump intervened in yet another example of “Policy by Tweet”, saying, among other things, that the draft Security Council resolution “… puts Israel in a very poor negotiating position and is extremely unfair to all Israelis.”
Only President Obama and his team know for sure what happened next. Up until the last minute, it seemed that the resolution would be quietly set aside, but then the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, withdrew her objection to a vote and it proceeded. Unlike many other times in the past, even under President Obama, when the Security Council had considered condemning Israeli settlement policy, on this occasion the United States did not cast its veto, but rather abstained. Thus the resolution passed by a 14-0-1 vote.
In trying to assess President Obama’s motives, Washington speculation has centered on his fraught relations with Prime Minister Netanyahu, which included the latter’s March 2015 speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress in which he asked its members to trust his judgment on the Iranian nuclear program rather than that of the American commander-in-chief (Netanyahu was roundly cheered). On more than one occasion, senior Americans visiting Israel were greeted by fresh announcements of new settlement construction, most prominently during Vice President Joe Biden’s March 2010 trip. When confronted with the fait accompli, Mr. Biden characterized it as “precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now.” But in contrast to what would have been his likely reaction to a similar affront by any other country in the world, the Vice President did not threaten to go home if the decision were not revoked.
Perhaps, therefore, President Obama just used the occasion of last week’s UN vote on Israeli settlements to “get even” with a thorn in his side, who has shown no sign of understanding a few obvious facts: that Israel has only one real friend in the world, that the U.S. is the only country which has produced security and any form of peace for Israel–notably the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty–and that keeping America strong rather than seeing it in any way weakened is fundamentally in Israeli’s interests. Israel is close to the hearts of most Americans, and supporting its safety and security has been a bipartisan cause since Israel’s founding. The Israeli people have also won widespread American admiration by demonstrating that, whatever the odds, they will fight to preserve their state. But it is also true that Israel might not now exist but for the steadfast support of the United States and every one of its presidents in the past seven decades.
It is unlikely, however, that Obama’s decision to abstain was meant simply to send a message to the Israeli prime minister that “enough is enough.” A more likely explanation can be found in the act of lèse-majesté committed by president-elect Trump in intervening in the UN deliberations, as he has also done on other major issues, including US nuclear policy, the holy of holies in terms of the nation’s security and requirement for sagacity and caution above all else. At the UN, therefore, the U.S. president sent a message to the president-elect: only one of us is in power at a time! Again, “enough is enough.”
Even so, Prime Minister Netanyahu could have let the matter slide and represented his country as simply an innocent bystander to the display of power in American politics. Instead, he chose to escalate the matter (just as members of Congress were induced to lobby on his behalf for votes on the Security Council). He launched a blistering attack on President Obama and on countries that voted for the UN resolution, threatening that they would pay a “diplomatic and economic price” and singling out Senegal for a halt to Israeli aid. He recalled Israeli ambassadors from some of the countries that voted for the resolution, called for reevaluation of Israel’s relationship with the UN, and cancelled a visit to Israel by the Ukrainian prime minister. His government also authorized the first 600 of 5600 planned new housing units in East Jerusalem. However, on Wednesday Netanyahu ordered Jerusalem’s municipal government to postpone approving construction plans for some 492 new East Jerusalem homes, in a sign that he may be looking to avoid further controversy in the short time left before Trump takes office.
To try understanding the intensity of Mr. Netanyahu’s reaction, it is useful to look at the content of the resolution just passed by the UN Security Council. It takes a strong position on Israeli settlements, “including in East Jerusalem,” which “…[have] no legal validity and constitute a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-state solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace.” It also demands “…that Israel immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem…” And it “underlines that [the UN] will not recognize any changes to the 4 June 1967 lines, including with regard to Jerusalem….” However, the resolution then adds to this sentence the words: “other than those agreed by the parties through negotiations,” a key Israeli goal that has already been accepted by the Palestinians [emphasis added].
In addition, while the UN resolution is centrally focused on Israeli settlements, it is not entirely one-sided. Thus it calls “…for immediate steps to prevent all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terror…;” and “further calls upon both parties…to observe calm and restraint, and to refrain from provocative actions, incitement and inflammatory rhetoric, with the aim…of de-escalating the situation on the ground, rebuilding trust and confidence, demonstrating through policy and actions a genuine commitment to the two-state solution, and creating the conditions necessary for promoting peace.” It also endorses the full range of efforts to create “a just and lasting peace,” including the Israeli position on “the principle of land for peace,” which means land swaps and Israel’s ability to keep much of the land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem on which settlements have already been built.
There is also nothing new about US opposition to Israeli settlement-building on Palestinian lands, reflected in last week’s abstention on the UN resolution. The American position has been consistent since the 1979 Camp David Accords. President Jimmy Carter believed he had agreement by then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin that all further settlement-building would cease while negotiations proceeded to determine the fate of the West Bank and Gaza–which have now had a life of 47 years. Mr. Carter believed that, soon after returning to Israel and facing domestic political opposition, Mr. Begin reneged on that promise. The president was quite open about his sense of betrayal. Even during the 1980 presidential campaign, he made this clear in a briefing to a group of American rabbis held in the Old Executive Office Building, next door to the White House (I attended as the senior official for Arab-Israeli issues on the National Security Council Staff).
Further, the US in March 1980 voted for a UN resolution that was even more categorical than last week’s. Not only did it declare the settlements illegal, it also called “…upon the Government and people of Israel…to dismantle the existing settlements and in particular to cease, on an urgent basis, the establishment, construction and planning of settlements in the Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem.”
President Carter was pilloried for his decision, both in Israel and by many of its American supporters (the UN vote was instrumental in his losing the New York Democratic primary to Senator Edward Kennedy), though Carter has stuck by his guns. In his 2006 book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, Carter cited this UN Resolution as the most important on the subject during his presidency. More important, no administration has wavered from the basic belief that Israel’s settlement policies are an “obstacle to peace,” though the precise characterization has at times varied, while at the same time each administration has consistently asserted that Palestinians and other Arabs have also presented many serious obstacles.
The long history of U.S. disagreements with Israel on settlements, in both Republican and Democratic administrations, thus raises the question why Mr. Netanyahu has chosen to escalate the fallout from last week’s United Nations vote, which was politically significant (given the US abstention), but which can have no practical impact. Much more must be involved than just Mr. Netanyahu’s belief that Israel is being mistreated at the UN. More likely, he’s been motivated by the prospect of an incoming American president who will be more sympathetic to Israel than Obama was perceived to be, at least by Mr. Netanyahu–even though Obama achieved for Israel (and for the U.S. and others) the extraordinary feat of effectively closing off any realistic Iranian path to getting nuclear weapons.
Almost certainly, Netanyahu is pursuing a two-pronged strategy: one is to create new facts on the ground–to use the classical phrase regarding settlements–that will make a two-state solution even more difficult to achieve than it is at present; the other is to exploit the UN vote to create a perception, at least with Mr. Trump and his team, that Israel needs to be compensated in some way for what the UN–and especially the United States–allegedly did to it.
Perhaps this strategy will work. Perhaps President Trump will be inclined to follow Israeli advice on the handling of critical issues across the Middle East,. But it is also possible that the new president, once he has his team in place, gets fully “read into” the issues, and learns the nature of U.S. interests in the region and the wide range of complexities and intangibles, will decide to chart a course based first and foremost on what is best for America. With his latest Tweets, however, he has shown no inclination to rethink the matter: “Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching…We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect.” At one of Mr. Trump’s casinos, that would be called “doubling down.”
By getting personally involved in last week’s United Nations Security Council debate and now tweeting about it again, Mr. Trump has made it more difficult to “take a pass” on the Israel-Palestine issue, even if he later decides that taking a pass would be the smarter course of action. At the same time, by escalating his reaction to the UN resolution and, while not so clearly stated, to the U.S. failure to veto it, Prime Minister Netanyahu has assumed the risk that, instead of helping to repair the rift between the United States and Israel, he may in time make it even wider.
In any event, we in the United States did not need what has transpired and what it could portend for the future. At the very least, we should all now be aware of the risks in Policy by Tweet–and we must hope that Donald Trump also becomes aware of them, sooner rather than later.