RAMALLAH, Sept. 26, 2017 - The historical coincidence that Donald Trump is president of the United States at the same time that Benjamin Netanyahu is prime minister of Israel is terribly dangerous, not only for Palestinians but for the region.
The reason for this is that the three major changes that we have seen in American policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict under the new administration dovetail perfectly with Netanyahu’s right-wing strategy. President Trump, since his election, has refrained from publicly criticizing Israeli settlement expansion (an enterprise that he and his Israel ambassador have given money to promote, don’t forget). Moreover, the administration has refused to commit itself to the two-state solution, despite much urging from Palestinians. Third, this administration is approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict entirely from a regional prospect, seeking to establish Israeli-Arab relations and discussing Palestinian issues as one component of them.
These fundamental changes in the U.S. approach to the conflict have thus removed any remaining constraints on Israel’s illegal confiscation of Palestinian land and the expansion of Jewish settlements on occupied territory. The new American approach, wielded internationally, has provided Netanyahu with the political space he needs for a “new” Israeli strategy.
This new Israel strategy can be characterized as replacing the paradigm of Israeli relations with Palestinians from one based on territorial compromise to one based on functional compromise. The “new Israel” that Netanyahu, and his right-wing extremist and Jewish religious supporters have tacitly agreed upon is not spoken of or written down by government officials and spokespeople, but rather can be understood through their practices.
Netanyahu’s political strategy is to maintain the status quo that Israel has unilaterally created in the occupied Palestinian territory – just enough military violence not to draw attention, ongoing settlement construction, and small adjustments here and there to promote “good” Palestinians while punishing the “bad.” It also seeks to avoid any interruptions, especially those posed by a political process based on the two-state solution that promises real independence and is therefore antithetical to the status quo.
In many respects, Israel is no longer the same Israel that Palestinians negotiated with quarter of a century ago. In the “new Israel” of Netanyahu, there is no longer a critical mass, neither among the public nor among the political elite, that supports ending the Israeli occupation in any kind of exchange. Therefore, there is no space in current Israeli political thinking for the two-state solution long-promoted by the international community.
The notion of territorial compromise is the very basis of the two-state solution, while today’s functional compromise allows Israel to maintain command over various areas of the occupied Palestinian territory.
Israel of today shuns achieving its strategic objectives in negotiations, preferring solely to implement facts on the ground, unilaterally and by force. The replacement of the bilateral strategy with a unilateral one was initially begun by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and later pursued by Netanyahu.
Unilaterally and by force, Israel maintains certain controls over Palestinians, such as all security responsibility and authority over land (including land use, movement over land, and resources underneath the land). In the same way, Israel has left to the Palestinian Authority (again in a de facto manner and not by mutual agreement) the job of providing services such as education, health, and basic law and order -- but only in populated areas. This status quo is very comfortable for Israel because it allows it to proceed with its colonial project unhindered.
Another aspect of the status quo that Israel has created and successfully maintains is the disengagement of the Gaza Strip from both Israel and the West Bank. Israel hopes that Gaza will gradually fall into the lap of Egypt, becoming its responsibility. This policy started with the Israeli redeployment from Gaza, but has compounded over ten years of draconian blockade. Part and parcel of this policy is Israel’s intensification of settlement in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. In-fighting between the two rival Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, has indirectly augmented Israel’s plans.
Previously, Israel had trouble fully implementing this strategy because it contradicted international law and invited increasing international opposition, particularly to the growing presence of settlements. The main reason for this opposition was the perception that the two-state solution was in danger, thus jeopardizing the only international consensus over the solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. When former U.S. President Barack Obama pressed Israel on the contradiction between settlement expansion and the two-state solution, Netanyahu fought him back, bringing the battle to his own back yard, the U.S. Congress.
The election of President Trump removed this tension between Israel and the U.S.-led international community. Just recall Trump’s statement at his first press conference with Netanyahu on February 15 this year when he indicated that two states are not necessarily his preferred outcome. Since Trump’s election, the administration has also avoided even the slightest verbal criticism of Israel’s settlement policy. This apparent green light has encouraged Israel to escalate settlement construction, and softened previously united international opposition.
During former U.S. administrations, Palestinians suffered from the fact that Israel-related issues, including the peace process, were treated as internal U.S. political issues, rather than matters of foreign policy. This was a major structural defect in the peace process. But now with Trump as president, alongside his new envoy, ambassador, and advisers, resolution of the Middle East peace process seems to have become a family matter, to be congenially decided between Israel and the United States.
This could have many consequences. One of them is that Washington is disqualifying itself from the leading mediation role it has played in the past. As time goes on, Palestinians are increasingly unable to see any difference between the positions of Israel and the United States.
Where does that take us? Unless international bodies such as the United Nations step in on the basis of international legality to fill the vacuum and rescue the two-state possibility, its window of opportunity will close. That will suit the shortsighted policies of both the Israeli right-wing government and Hamas, both of which are ideologically opposed to the two-state compromise. But it will also come at the expense of a democratic Israel and Palestine, perpetuating the conflict and the instability it brings to future generations.