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No Blue Sky for Trump Team Negotiations

posted on: Aug 22, 2018

By: Kareem Rosshandler/Arab America Contributing Writer

Since George H.W. Bush, every American president has made direct negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis a top priority on his foreign policy agenda. The breakthrough of the Madrid Conference in 1991 and the initial momentum spawned from the Oslo agreement in 1993 established the US credentials as the ultimate peace broker.

While the Oslo momentum had long since floundered by the time Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had taken his second term, the Obama administration nonetheless made a last-ditch effort to revive talks by not using its veto to block UN resolution 2334 condemning Israel’s settlements. Though cutting foreign aid was off the table even then, the warning sent a serious diplomatic signal to Israel – a departure from the usual policy of unconditional support.

Can we expect the Trump administration to keep up the pressure? For insights, let’s take a look at the team driving White House policy on Palestinian-Israeli talks:

Jason Greenblatt

The New York real estate lawyer is the team’s Middle East envoy. Greenblatt, who spent time studying at a West Bank settlement, has not stated outright what kind of political solution he supports. Having worked to relocate the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem this past May, Greenblatt has alienated veteran Palestinian negotiators enthusiastic about reviving US-sponsored peace talks. This strain has been compounded by his criticism of some officials in quite reductionist terms – even accusing Saeb Erakat in a Haaretz newspaper op-ed of playing into a Hamas agenda because of his “overwrought rhetoric.” Rather than address the substance of Palestinian demands, he seems to focus more on their representatives. The rather personal nature of his criticisms – to the detriment of the diplomacy required by his position – invariably complicates any future face-to-face meetings between the envoy and Palestinian officials.

Jared Kushner

Trump’s son-in-law and special advisor – also with a background in real estate – seems to be the most visible member of the team. A longtime family friend of Netanyahu, he is tasked specifically with Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. Kushner has asserted for months that he is nearly done putting together a ‘final deal’, though its basic framework remains unknown. He takes a regional approach to his task, seeing common interests between some Arab Gulf states and Israel as the means for normalizing ties and weakening the Palestinian negotiating position. There were leaked email exchanges between Kushner and Greenblatt which reveal the former’s attempt to disband United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) services in Jordan and make the kingdom take full responsibility for the Palestine refugees. In an interview with the newspaper al-Quds, Kushner addressed the Palestinian people directly, saying President Mahmoud Abbas may not be able to “lean into a deal” and insinuating that the US may sidestep him in favor of willing Palestinians from the business community. Kushner favors a ‘cash buy off’ approach over resuming the track to Palestinian statehood, obscuring Palestinians’ long-term political aspirations with short-term grievances over their living situations.

David Friedman

The New Jersey-based bankruptcy lawyer serving as US ambassador to Israel has deep ties with the state, even endorsing his daughter’s naturalization as a citizen there last August. He also worked as a fundraiser for the Jewish Beit El settlement near Ramallah and openly supporting settlement expansion. Contrary to the longstanding US – and even Israeli – policy, Friedman has made several statements denying the occupation and claiming that West Bank settlements “are part of Israel”. Similarly, unwilling to face Palestinian demands, he sees the two-state solution as “an illusory solution in search of a non-existent problem.” Friedman is on hostile terms with progressive interest groups in the US such as JStreet and – even more so than Kushner – has a corrosive relationship with Abbas. The two do not communicate and since the American embassy move, Abbas has withdrawn Friedman’s Palestinian counterpart, Husam Zomlot, from Washington D.C.

There seem to be a few common goals underscoring the team’s approach:

  1. To more closely align US foreign policy with the widening Israel/Palestine power discrepancy since the Oslo years;
  2. To marginalize veteran Palestinian negotiators until they drastically lower their political expectations;
  3. To replace Palestinian expectations of independent statehood with those of long-term economic improvement.

So where is the blue sky?

In other words, what is left on the table for Palestinians to look forward to? Since the Madrid Conference, three issues have dominated the Palestinian agenda: the near goal of establishing a territorial basis for a Palestinian state (based on UN Resolution 242) and the two ‘final-status’ goals of making East Jerusalem the capital of that state and having Israel recognize the Right to Return for Palestinian refugees expelled in 1948. Accelerated Jewish settlement activity on the West Bank during the Oslo years has eroded the first goal in any practical sense.

As for the other goals, two major Trump administration moves–not to be seen in isolation from each other–were meant to erode them as well:

First, the US decision in January to slash funding for UNRWA, the organization that since 1950 has provided for what is now some 5.3 million registered Palestinian refugees. This was meant to end the ‘temporariness’ of their refugee status and shift the onus for permanently resettling them from Israel onto neighboring Arab countries.

Second, the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem, which endorsed Israel’s claim to a unified Jerusalem as its capital and aimed to remove the possibility of East Jerusalem becoming the future capital of a Palestinian state. These moves are in line with a general policy reversal in which the White House no longer seems to support a two-state solution and thus puts into question Palestinians’ very right to self-determination.

As a rule, the Trump administration seems to show little regard for Palestinian popular will. Instead, the team – not known for having a historical grasp of the issue – seeks to restore the pre-Oslo strategy of ‘Arab first’ negotiations in which the US focuses first on brokering deals between Israel and Arab states, assuming that Palestinian leadership would then lower their demands under diplomatic isolation.

Indeed, with an anti-Iran axis taking shape in the Middle East, the Trump administration sees this as a golden opportunity for some Arab states – particularly in the Gulf – to normalize their ties with Israel. However, what the Trump administration fails to realize is that patchy geopolitical alliances are no substitute for an equitable and just solution to the Palestine/Israel conflict. Arab opinion remains deeply committed to seeing such a solution and no diplomatic maneuverings by the regions’ regimes could change that long-standing matter of principle.

We will have to wait and see what comes next.