by Lara Friedman
Since well before Election Day, Donald Trump and his key advisors made clear that a Trump administration would blow-up longstanding U.S. policy on Israel-Palestine. Whether talking about moving the U.S. embassy, renouncing any commitment to the two-state solution, or adopting a policy of at best agnosticism, at worst outright support for settlements, this administration deserves credit for maintaining consistent positions from the 2016 campaign through its first 11 months in office.
And yet, from the earliest days of the Trump administration through last week’s drama over the president’s “Jerusalem Proclamation,” foreign policy experts and pundits have commonly argued that Trump’s approach on Israeli-Palestine issue has been responsible thus far and, indeed, largely unchanged from his predecessors. If pressed, analysts justified this position with arguments like: Trump had refrained from moving the embassy; Trump once said he’d like to see Israel “hold back on settlements for a little bit;” Trump’s team of close advisors—Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and David Friedman—was actively engaging both Israelis and Palestinians; and Trump—who casts himself as the ultimate deal-maker—continued to say that he was committed to getting a peace deal, which implied that he had no intention of crossing red lines or permitting Israel to do so.
This line of argument, from the get-go, defied objective evidence, logic, and common sense. It suggested an almost desperate need to believe that inside the Trump administration, pre-Trump logic still applied on Israel-Palestine policy, even when this was manifestly not so in literally every other policy domain, foreign or domestic. How could anyone have ever convinced himself or herself that the one area where Trump’s policies were rational was Israel-Palestine, an issue that is a favorite playground for exactly the kind of zealots and ideological pyromaniacs with which Trump has surrounded himself? How could anyone have imagined that there would be sober, responsible policy on Israel-Palestine from a president whose top advisors are unapologetic Greater Israel advocates, who counts Sheldon Adelson as a top funder, and who elevated Mort Klein and the Zionist Organization of America to the position of the White House’s most favored pro-Israel Jewish organization?
Last week’s Jerusalem announcement should finally have put an end to such arguments, but indications are growing that this may not be the case. Thanks to explanations and clarifications from extremely competent State Department officials like Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield, the argument now being made is that this historic “proclamation” involves no meaningful shift in U.S. policy. This line of argument, too, defies evidence, logic, and common sense.
Trump is not a president known for nuance or subtlety, and his intentions are encapsulated in the topline, big-print message of the “proclamation:” “My announcement today marks the beginning of a new approach to conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.” With this as his framing, Trump’s “proclamation” obliterated the policy that has been in place with respect to Jerusalem for more than 70 years and gave Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli right-wing a clear green light to go full speed ahead on their agenda of “Jerusalem belongs to Israel and only Israel, now and forever.”
Understanding the implications of the “proclamation” won’t come from parsing the fine print, which almost certainly reflects the input of responsible foreign policy and national security professionals—whom this administration treats with undisguised contempt and whose careful words will soon be lining the dustbins of history. It will come from answering three questions: first, what does Israel understand this new policy to mean, and more specifically, what are U.S. officials quietly telling Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that it means? Second, what will this “proclamation” embolden Netanyahu and the Israeli right-wing to do, in concrete terms, with respect to East Jerusalem and its environs? And third, how will the Trump administration react to what they do?
These questions are by no means hypothetical. Trump’s historic “proclamation” coincides with dire developments in Jerusalem (or exciting developments, from the point of view of many who are close to this administration). Specifically, Netanyahu has opened the settlement floodgates in East Jerusalem and surrounding areas. In tandem, he and his government are actively backing and moving forward with legislation that will massively expand the Jerusalem municipal boundaries to annex de facto a huge area of the West Bank—land and settlements—to the city’s north, south, and east, while at the same time excising Palestinian neighborhoods and placing them under the authority of special, isolated municipal authorities.
It beggars belief to suggest that Netanyahu and his fellow travelers will see this “proclamation” as anything less than an endorsement of all of these policies, particularly given the failure of the Trump administration to thus far in any way suggest opposition. Likewise, when new, catastrophic settlement plans move forward—like E-1, Givat Hamatos, and Atarot—or when Greater Jerusalem bills pass into law, it defies credulity to expect meaningful pushback from the Trump administration. If asked for comment, the Trump administration will almost certainly respond that it won’t weigh in because “we don’t want to pick a side.” Given this reality, the argument that U.S. policy regarding Jerusalem’s borders has not changed is clearly hollow.
Everything the Trump administration has done since it took office, like everything Trump’s key advisors said during the campaign, suggests that there is no basis for believing that President Trump is interested in limiting the impact of his historic, and historically reckless, “Jerusalem proclamation.” Indeed, days after the explanations and clarifications from the State Department, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, observed bluntly, “The president took Jerusalem off the [negotiating] table.” In short, with this proclamation Trump has doubled down on an unmistakable message to Netanyahu and settlers that the United States is fully on board with policies that foreclose the two-state solution, including in Jerusalem. They will certainly take him at his word. Isn’t it time for analysts and pundits to do the same?