by Emile Nakhleh
Last week, The New York Times reported that the Trump administration is eliminating previously approved funds to support Palestinian-Israeli civilian engagement. USAID has wisely given these funds to nongovernmental organizations to promote understanding between the two peoples and help them understand each other’s aspirations and need for security and dignity.
Cutting off these funds is the latest salvo in Trump’s punitive measures against the Palestinians, ostensibly for their refusal to acquiesce to Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inhumane and illegal attempts to deny them their national aspirations, cultural heritage, and lawful ownership of their lands. The Trump administration, contrary to international agreements and United Nations resolutions, has moved the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, closed the Palestine Liberation Organization’s political office in Washington, and cut off financial support for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. UNRWA has provided Palestinian refugees and their descendants with education and healthcare for over 70 years.
Mistakenly thinking that these pressure tactics would force the Palestinians to the negotiation table, Trump is implementing these policies at the recommendation of his two self-proclaimed colonial “high commissioners” for the Palestinians—Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, and David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel.
The British colonial government dispatched British High Commissioner Herbert Samuel to Palestine in 1920 to help implement the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine against the will of the Palestinians and other Arabs. More recently, the Bush administration appointed Paul Bremmer as the “high commissioner” in Iraq following the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And now Trump has dispatched Kushner and Friedman, two strong supporters of continued Israeli colonization in the West Bank. In fact, both of them and their families have ideologically and financially backed the building of Jewish settlements on Palestinian lands.
Colonial policies have rarely succeeded in subduing the “natives.” Herbert Samuel facilitated the establishment of a homeland for the Jews in Palestine, a country that had an overwhelming Palestinian majority. Not only did he fail to quell the aspirations of the native Palestinians, he sowed the seeds of conflict and violence that continue until today. Paul Bremmer’s disastrous policies in Iraq—especially de-Baathification and dissolving the Iraqi army—still plague that country and the region today. The condescending attitudes of Kushner and Friedman toward the Palestinians and their refusal to recognize the legitimate “peoplehood” of the Palestinians will further burden Israel/Palestine with unending conflict.
Kushner’s recent self-congratulatory announcement that by removing Jerusalem and the refugee status “off the table,” the Palestinians would realize their weak hand and compromise. Similarly, Friedman’s recent claim that now that Israel can do whatever it wants without objections from Washington, the Palestinians would have no option but to negotiate. These statements reflect ignorance and colonial hubris. Such a haughty posture failed to save the apartheid policy in South Africa and is doomed to fail in Palestine. Neither Kushner nor Friedman is an “honest broker” about Israeli settlements or Palestinian aspirations. They are invested in continued Israeli domination and subordination of the Palestinian people through settlements, power asymmetry, and military control. Kushner and Friedman are the vehicles through which Netanyahu is implementing his extreme right and racist policies toward the Palestinians.
These exclusionary policies are not only directed against the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. They have also targeted the Arab citizens of the state of Israel. The recent Israeli law restricting “citizenship” to Jews only and declaring that Arabic is no longer an official language of the state has effectively rendered the 1.5 million Palestinian citizens (or 21% of the population) second-class citizens. This also applies to the Druze community whose youth are required to serve in the Israeli army. It won’t be long before the government-sanctioned apartheid policy in the West Bank and Gaza creeps into Israel proper.
Although Trump is ultimately the architect of foreign policy, Kushner, Friedman, and Netanyahu are the real culprits in the design and implementation of this mean-spirited, aggressive policy. They have endorsed continued suppression of the Palestinian people, expropriation of their lands, and denial of their legitimate national aspirations and identity. Trump, meanwhile, seems ideologically vacuous, without concern for the Palestinian people or other indigenous peoples. As long as Arab dictators remain indifferent to the plight of the Palestinians and continue to receive U.S. support for their destructive regional wars and their repression of their peoples, Trump and his senior emissaries to the so-called peace process will continue their dangerous and short-sighted policies.
Although the Palestinians are powerless to challenge the Kushner-Friedman demands or fight the occupation, their anger will continue to simmer. Many of their youth will turn to extremism and even terrorism. Israel is also playing with fire because in addition to Hamas in Gaza, some “Israeli Arabs” will become more radicalized and begin to plot against the state and its Jewish citizens. Many of these Israeli Arab citizens know Israel well, have native fluency in Hebrew, and are indistinguishable from Israeli Jews of Middle Eastern origins. This is the nightmare that Israeli security and intelligence services are dreading.
What Does This All Mean?
The Israeli right, which now occupies the political center in Israel, has never been interested in peace with the Palestinians, has never accepted the basic premise of a Palestinian state, and has even denied the existence of the Palestinians as a people. The Israeli right now feels more empowered than ever by the Netanyahu-Trump camaraderie and the direct access that Kushner and Friedman have to the Oval Office.
Successive Israeli governments, but especially the Netanyahu regime, have paid lip service to the “peace process,” “peace with the Palestinians,” and a “future Palestinian state.” But they’ve implemented policies that run counter to their PR sound bites. Settlement expansion has continued at a feverish pace. The occupation has become more pervasive, controlling the lives of Palestinians all over Gaza and the West Bank, with no regard for Palestinian sovereignty in Palestinian cities, including Ramallah, the so-called administrative capital of the Palestinian state, where the Palestinian Authority president and his government reside.
The Palestinians, much more than the Israeli right, have always been willing to go to the table knowing full well that their share at the conclusion of the “final status” talks will be way less than half of a loaf. They always insisted that the negotiations should ultimately address the future of Jerusalem, the boundaries of their envisioned state, the status of refugees, and the right of return. Far from being radical, such a position has always been supported by the international community, including the United States. That is, until the Trump administration took office.
If Kushner and Friedman expect their forthcoming “peace” formula to succeed, it must recognize the Palestinians as a people with legitimate national, political, cultural, and spatial aspirations. They will not accept Israeli control in perpetuity. Although Kushner and Friedman have championed settlement expansion as a divine right for the Jewish people between the Jordan River and the sea, their new role as promoters of “peace” must be based on one of two premises: either remove the occupation and allow Palestinians to have their own political entity or maintain Israeli control but give Palestinians Israeli citizenship. Otherwise, the two envoys will return to Washington empty-handed.
Israeli and Palestinian pluralities still support peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but the support for a two-state solution is fading rapidly. If this is the case, any possible solution should be based on peoples, not states. Kushner and Friedman will have to understand that two peoples occupy the area between the Jordan River and the sea. Their living together in peace must be based on dignity, equality, and respect for each other’s right to security and dignity, not on some poisonous brew cooked up in Washington and Tel Aviv.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Kushner and Friedman are so committed to the Israeli right’s view of the issue that they cannot possibly be objective brokers of peace between the two peoples. They should be relieved of their roles.
President Trump should ask other prominent Americans to handle this task. Former diplomats, who served as American ambassadors to Israel, like Thomas Pickering, Daniel Kurtzer, and Martin Indyk, to name a few, would make excellent choices as special emissaries to Israel/Palestine. They are respected by both sides for their even-handedness and have the gravitas and expertise to engage the two peoples.
It is time for the United States to rejoin the international community in seeking a solution to this conflict. Although Trump has for all intents and purposes abandoned any leadership role in the Middle East, influential foreign policy advisers must prevail on him to take another look. A new group must take charge of the issue. The Kushner-Friedman team just doesn’t cut it.