For decades, the United States has been the central outside actor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with a very specific role to play. The U.S. has aimed to be the convener that pushes the sides together and the mediator that helps bridge gaps through a combination of incentives and cajoling, and irrespective of whether the U.S. has tilted toward Israel – which is a fair assessment – it has tried its best to maintain credibility and an overarching evenhandedness. Under President Trump, however, this equation has been significantly altered; some of it due to what appears to be a deliberate policy shift from the White House and some of it due to the way in which the two parties themselves now view the U.S.
Following Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and various American threats – some already acted upon – to cut off funding that assists Palestinians and to close the P.L.O.’s mission in DC, the Palestinians now view the U.S. as an unhelpful entity that they can and must work around. The initial skepticism with which the Palestinian Authority and President Abbas treated Trump’s election now seems in Palestinian eyes to be vindicated. Whether it be freezing contacts with the U.S., snubbing Vice President Pence, or announcing its abandonment of a U.S.-led peace process in favor of resuming its strategy of appealing to the United Nations for statehood, the PA is acting as if the U.S. is just another foe that it can ignore.
On the Israeli side, the Netanyahu government looks at the same landscape and sees an American administration that is not a mediator, but is a cudgel with which to bludgeon the Palestinians and a shield to ward off any potentially adverse consequences that follow. Israel was understandably thrilled at Trump’s Jerusalem move, is in thrall to Nikki Haley for her unstinting defense of Israel at the UN, and is now debating whether or not to support Trump and Haley’s instincts to cut off funding for UNRWA and disrupt the system that has been in place for Palestinian refugees. Israel now views the U.S. as a savior – deputy minister and former ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren went to far as to put Trump in the same company as Harry Truman and Cyrus the Great – and is looking to the Trump administration to do a host of things on the Palestinian front that Israel itself has never been able to do.
Both of these views of the U.S. are wrong. The U.S. cannot be ignored and shunted aside, but neither can it accomplish unilaterally what Israel cannot. The American role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is necessary but insufficient, and if the Palestinians and Israelis don’t wake up from their respective delusions, they are bound to be gravely disappointed.
The fact of the matter is that the Palestinians cannot just get around the U.S. regardless of how much they may now want to and no matter how hard they try. For starters, there is no other viable mediator for when they eventually return to the peace process (more on that in a moment) since no other party is sufficiently trusted by Israel. Not only that, but no other party has the institutional knowledge and memory of past negotiating rounds the U.S. does, and no other party has the financial and military willingness and wherewithal to be able to make the details of an eventual permanent status agreement work.
The Palestinian declaration that statehood will come through the UN is a dead letter, all the more so while in the midst of a campaign to disassociate from the U.S. With its Security Council veto, the U.S. can ensure that a Palestinian state cannot be established through the UN route, but American pressure and influence on the vote can also make it so that the veto does not even have to be used. The Palestinians have announced a statehood strategy that is entirely dependent on U.S. acquiescence while simultaneously giving the Trump administration their collective middle finger. This may be a strategy for something, but it certainly isn’t one for establishing a Palestinian state. This only ensures that at some point Abbas and the Palestinians will see the need to return to negotiations, and when that day comes, the cost of blackballing the U.S. will come full bore. It would be foolish in any scenario to pick a fight with the sole global superpower when you are literally stateless and being sold out at every turn by your putative regional allies. It is especially foolish when much of your future will be determined by that sole global superpower.
The Palestinians are not alone in their myopic miscalculations. The Israeli government is under the mistaken impression that the Trump administration will be able to use its influence with Egypt and Saudi Arabia along with punitive measures toward the Palestinians to get Abbas to agree to a deal that comports with Netanyahu’s vision of a state minus. Israel also thinks that Trump will be able to browbeat the rest of the world into following his lead or pay the consequences. The Israeli view of the Trump administration’s abilities will not be as damaging to Israel as the Palestinians’ view of the Trump administration’s necessity will be to the Palestinians, but that does not make it any less erroneous.
As the absence of a follow-the-leader effect from Trump’s Jerusalem announcement and the subsequent vote in the UN General Assembly made clear, the rest of the world does not seem eager to join in Trump’s strategy toward the Palestinians. A similar result will occur if the White House announces a new policy toward settlements or winks at Israeli moves to annex parts of the West Bank. Having the support of the U.S. is more important for Israel than any other factor, but it is not sufficient to override anything and everything else. Despite the Trump administration’s close embrace, Israel last month quietly signed the Transboundary Cooperation Program in the Mediterranean Basin, which will provide funding for a host of projects but expressly bars money for any Israeli project in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. As much as the Israeli government may wish that the U.S. under Trump was the only government with which it would have to interact, the reality is different.
There is also no evidence so far to support the theory that squeezing the Palestinians from all sides will force them to sign a deal that they don’t want to sign. There are plenty of legitimate and defensible reasons to cut funding to projects in the West Bank and Gaza over PA terrorist and prisoner payments, and UNRWA is an organization whose conduct should generate all sorts of questions and raised eyebrows, but the Palestinians will be able to ride these things out. Much like the reported pressure on Abbas from Saudi Arabia or Egypt’s downplaying of Trump’s Jerusalem policy, these moves may eventually get the Palestinians to talk, but they are not going to override internal Palestinian domestic politics on the acceptable parameters of a deal. It is tragically laughable to believe that any Palestinian leader will agree to a capital in Abu Dis because Mohammed bin Salman or Abdel Fattah El-Sisi says that he should. If this is Israel’s long term plan, the best case scenario is another half century of stalemate while the worst case scenario is a Palestinian push for full political and civil rights in a single state.
Israel and the Palestinians should both wake up. Donald Trump is no Cyrus the Great, but neither is he Edward II. The quicker that both sides in this conflict recalibrate their views of the U.S. in a more realistic way, the better.