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Trump could kill off what's left of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process

Donald Trump gives a thumbs-up as he addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 Policy Conference at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC, March 21, 2016.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, peace can hinge on turns of phrase. And that's why many throughout the region have been so startled by the turns of phrase being used by aides to the president-elect.

“It is certainly not Mr. Trump’s view that settlement activities should be condemned and that it is an obstacle for peace, because it is not an obstacle for peace,” Jason Greenblatt, the Trump team’s point person on Israel — and rumored potential new envoy to the region — told Israeli Army Radio Thursday.

The language is significant. For three decades, American foreign policy leaders have consistently labeled Israeli settlements in the occupied territories to be exactly that. “Obstacles to peace” is foreign policy speak for a total roadblock toward finding an agreement with the Palestinians on territorial concessions and creating a contiguous Palestinian state alongside a Jewish one.

The prospect of such a deal has grown remote as the number of Israelis living over the “Green Line,” the pre-1967 border between Israel and the West Bank, has swelled to an estimated 400,000, plus another 210,000 in East Jerusalem.

In the event of a peace deal, many of these West Bank Jewish towns would likely be uprooted, though any agreement is likely to involve Israel annexing the settlements close to the Green Line where the vast majority of the settlers currently live.

That may not happen anytime soon. The two sides haven’t sat down at the same table for negotiations since 2014, let alone restarted hashing out the sort of agreement that has eluded negotiators for decades. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shook hands with his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas last month at the funeral of former Israeli President Shimon Peres, it was the first time the two men had crossed paths, even briefly, since 2015.

If anything, Israel is taking steps that would make a deal even harder. On Sunday, Knesset ministers to the right of Netanyahu moved forward with a bill that would legalize settlement outposts built on private Palestinian land. While the controversial move still has to work its way through several parliamentary readings, Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, has already told the Knesset the bill would be challenged by the Israeli Supreme Court and he would not be able to defend what amounted to “expropriation of private property.” In effect, that was a signal that the bill could be struck down.

Frustrated and rapidly running out of time, the Obama administration is considering whether to make a last diplomatic push in coming weeks by introducing a so-called “parameters” resolution at the United Nations Security Council that would enshrine guidelines on what Washington wants to see in a final deal. Israel has fiercely opposed such a move because it would dramatically increase the international pressure on Jerusalem to make concessions it's shown no willingness to consider.

That’s what makes Greenblatt’s comments so explosive: America’s outgoing president may make a last-minute move to curtail Israeli settlements just as America’s incoming one effectively gives them a green light.

Israel is changing the facts on the ground

The fact that there's no peace process to speak of doesn’t mean that the situation between the Israelis and Palestinians remains static. And the more the facts on the ground change, the harder it will be to come to an agreement — and the more a theoretical agreement must be modified to accommodate facts on the ground.

Jerusalem itself, the holiest city for the three Abrahamic religions, continues to morph — both demographically and, crucially, geographically.

Take what happened two weeks ago. On November 2, Israel quietly announced new housing units approved in Gilo, a neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Jerusalem’s enormous growth makes Gilo appear simply part of the Jerusalem environs. (Check out Gilo on Google Maps; if it weren’t for a faint dotted line, the progression of communities from Jerusalem neighborhoods like Talpiot down to nearby Gilo appears almost seamless.)

But such construction in East Jerusalem neighborhoods is seen as a way for Israel to firm up Jewish control over a part of the city that Palestinians have long said would need to be part of a future state. Though Gilo itself is unlikely to be dismantled, building there doesn’t show good faith in a potential peace process, which is predicated on stopping settlement building.

The United States, to put it mildly, wasn't pleased about the Gilo construction. “These actions,” State Department spokesperson John Kirby told reporters, “risk entrenching a one-state reality and raise questions about Israel’s ultimate commitment to a peaceful negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.”

In the normally genteel world of diplo-speak, the “one-state reality” phrase was meant as a clear warning that Israel might soon reach a point where creating a viable Palestinian state would be impossible. That would mean a de facto or de jure annexation of the West Bank in its entirety, and would, at least in theory, force a debate over making Palestinians citizens in a new, binational state.

It's the rare idea that has united Israelis and Palestinians because majorities of both pretty much hate it. Many Israelis see it as a demographic nightmare for Israel because high birthrates mean Jews would soon be outnumbered by Arabs. Palestinians, meanwhile, worry that they would never receive full and equal rights. And many outside observers see it as a recipe for continued strife.

As David Remnick put it in a New Yorker article on one-stateism, “Even many of those who know that a two-state peace settlement is far from imminent believe that a binational state represents not a promise of democracy and coexistence but a blueprint for sectarian strife — Lebanon in the eighties, Yugoslavia in the nineties.”

When politicians say “one-state reality” they are speaking to an amorphous, potentially volatile limbo between a binational state and two states.

Kirby isn't the only one using the phrase. In the past year, “one-state reality” has been intoned gravely by everyone from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Secretary of State John Kerry to both left-wing and right-wing Israeli activists.

Of course, the two sides use it very differently: To left-wing Israelis and most international leaders, it’s a warning that the decades-long idea of a “two state” solution to the dispute is becoming an impossibility. To the right wing, that's a potentially good thing: Ceding so much land, they believe, would harm Israeli national security and leave Palestinians in control of some of Judaism’s holiest sites. (The right, it should be noted, doesn’t use the phrase “occupied territories.” Instead, the region is referred to biblically as Judea and Samaria.)

Language condemning such incremental acquisitions and small but significant settlement building has changed marginally over time. When pressed on these 180 or so new housing units in Gilo, the State Department’s Kirby had a ready answer: “Our policy on settlements, as I said before, is very clear. We strongly oppose settlement activity, which we believe is corrosive to the cause of peace.”

In fact, language on settlement policy from the State Department and proxies has shifted somewhat over the past 40 years. Former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, in his book Doomed to Succeed, explains that the Gerald Ford administration actually called the settlements “illegal.” It was Ronald Reagan’s administration that softened that stance, and moved to the expression “an obstacle to peace” — a position that has held through every successive American presidency. The proxies of both parties, though, have not been willing to take punitive measures to force Israel to stop or roll back its settlement construction.

But while that “obstacles to peace” phrase has stuck around for 30 years, Daniel Seidemann, the director of Terrestrial Jerusalem, a nongovernmental organization that monitors settlement construction and the ever-shifting map of Jerusalem, said the current administration is sharply escalating its rhetoric. The Obama administration has gone “from calling settlements ‘unproductive’ ... to something close to accusing Netanyahu of willfully destroying the two state solution,” he told me by email. “From statement to statement they are becoming more unequivocal and it's a clear indication of ‘taking off the gloves.’”

What Seidemann was alluding to was the possibility that the new language was a sign that Obama, in his remaining days in office, would take what would be a far-reaching and deeply controversial move.

As Nathan Thrall wrote in September in the New York Review of Books, the “one option that isn’t seen as unrealistic, unpalatable, or insignificant” for Obama was “to set down the guidelines or ‘parameters’ of a peace agreement — on the four core issues of borders, security, refugees, and Jerusalem — in a US-supported UN Security Council resolution. Once passed, with US support, these Security Council-endorsed parameters would become international law, binding, in theory, on all future presidents and peace brokers.”

Thrall noted that Obama’s options weren’t ideal, since Netanyahu has already forcefully spoken out against parameters and Democrats and Republicans alike have pledged not to support them. But he also underscored that it was a unique opportunity for this president to leave a mark on the moribund peace process.

Trump may deal a final blow to the peace process

Trump’s win, and his position on settlements, may constrain the legacy Obama would be attempting to create. But Obama’s moves could still have an impact on what the Trump administration does regarding the conflict, just as Trump’s early statements have already had an impact on the region.

The radio interview with Greenblatt, Trump’s man on Israel, has already prompted provocative statements from right-wing members of the Israeli Knesset. Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home Party and Israeli education minister, announced, “The victory of Trump is a huge opportunity for Israel to immediately announce that it renounces the idea of establishing Palestine in the heart of the country. ... The era of the Palestinian state is over.’’

Yoav Kish of Israel’s center-right Likud party crowed the same day, “We believe that the policy of freezing and blocking settlement expansion is over. It’s time we stop talking about two states and we start talking about building, settlements, and sovereignty.’’

Indeed, as Matt Duss, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, pointed out to me in an interview, Trump’s signaling was foreshadowed at the Republican National Convention, when the GOP platform pulled out references to support for a two-state solution.

Seidmann, reached by phone, told me, “What we were are witnessing under Trump is a significant departure.”

Trump hasn't offered many specifics about Israel, other than a campaign promise to relocate the US Embassy to Jerusalem. The United States has long delayed an embassy move until a peace deal is passed and the status of Jerusalem is decided. Ivanka Trump promised Florida Jewish voters at the end of October that her father was 100 percent behind an embassy move.

Yet advisers to the president-elect are now signaling otherwise: Walid Phares, a Trump foreign policy adviser, already told the BBC that such a move was not imminent. “Many presidents of the United States have committed to do that, and he said as well that he will do that, but he will do it under consensus,” Phares said.

Trump has otherwise been opaque about how he’ll go about approaching the conflict, though his proxies have said the US-Israel relationship will “grow like never before.” So, it seems, may settlements.

Sarah Wildman is the author of Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind and a frequent contributor to the New York Times, Washington Post, and other publications.