As has been the case for every one of his predecessors, Donald Trump will attempt to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some resisted for a while, i.e., George W. Bush, while others jumped into the fray fresh after inauguration, such as Barack Obama. Each eventually tried and failed, President Obama most tragically, given his commitment to the issue at the outset of his administration.
All started with the same premise – achieving a two-state solution – and all faced the same challenge of getting the two sides to negotiate on issues such as borders, settlements, refugees, and security. Yet, they all ended up well short of the goal. U.S. President Donald Trump may be wise to recall Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
It is time for a different approach. Donald Trump, the most unconventional man to occupy the White House in modern presidential history, may be just the president to take on the region’s most enduring conflict from outside the box.
He’s already off to a pretty good start. His unconventional nominee for U.S. Ambassador to Israel, controversial hardliner and former campaign adviser David Friedman, has already rattled Washington’s foreign policy establishment and the Palestinians. President Trump also announced his intention to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, where it has been since 1949 and where all other countries with diplomatic relations with the Jewish state also have located their embassies. As candidates, previous presidents also made the same proclamation, but decided otherwise once in office. The involved parties would be unwise, however, to dismiss Trump’s pledge.
While highly controversial, Trump’s ambassador selection and embassy declaration now give the new president leverage to start the makings of a new approach. The challenge will be using it to achieve the desired outcome. But what outcome?
A two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been taken as gospel effectively since it was enshrined in UN Security Council Resolutions 242 (after the 1967 Six-Day War) and 338 (after the 1973 Yom Kippur War). But political rumblings in Israel, especially among the right, and even among Palestinians, should give the Trump Administration pause. According to a recent opinion poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 65 percent of Palestinians believe the two-state solution to be unviable and 36 percent of Palestinians support a single state, and some even say they would be willing to live under Jewish rule, according to a poll by the same organization last August. Israelis have similar views about the prospects for a two-state solution.
Although the two-state solution may still remain the best starting position for negotiations, and ultimately the most viable outcome, neither the U.S. nor any other nation should pre-judge this direction. Only face-to-face negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis can determine that.
That underscores another important step the new U.S. administration can take early on and make very public – to resist any effort to internationalize the conflict. Imposing a solution or even conditions inevitably favors one side over the other, which will doom any chance of a negotiated settlement. This conflict can only be solved by the unavoidably difficult compromises that both sides will need to make within the context of face-to-face negotiations.
President Trump may also want to ensure he has all the input he and his team will need. That will mean talking – but mostly listening – to Israelis and America’s Arab allies, who have been living and breathing this conflict through wars, successful and unsuccessful negotiations, uprisings, and dashed hopes for more than 75 years. They will have a much better idea of what’s possible. Quiet diplomacy in advance tends to produce more successful open diplomacy down the road. Communication channels must be established, relationships – always so vital in this part of the world – developed, ideas frankly vetted, and trust and confidence cultivated.
Moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem will take time. Trump should use that time to get Palestinians, Israelis, and Arabs to start taking necessary actions right now. An embassy relocation to West Jerusalem – which has been under Israeli sovereignty since 1949 and is home to the offices and residences of the Israeli President and Prime Minister, the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), the supreme court, and nearly all government ministries – will be much less objectionable to our EU allies and Arab partners if this administration can show that it is serious about addressing this core regional issue. Arab acceptance, if not approval, will be most important in helping to tamp down public reactions to the move.
There is also the question of who represents the two sides. As a democracy, Israel and its elected leadership clearly have the authority and wherewithal to negotiate. But the Palestinian leadership is another question. According to Palestinian polls, a majority of Palestinians do not have confidence in the newly elected Fatah leadership – a political party that heads the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank – and about two-thirds demand the resignation of PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
There is a real question about whether current Palestinian leadership can credibly and competently represent the interests and needs of the Palestinian people, as opposed to their own narrow, parochial interests. The recently concluded Fatah Party Seventh General Convention confirmed the current leadership’s intent in preserving its power and the status quo. Common Palestinian complaints of Abbas and the apparatchiks of Fatah and the PA include corruption, self-interest, poor leadership, incompetence and, despite billions of dollars in foreign aid from the EU, U.S. and other donors, little economic development or opportunity to show for it.
President Trump may wish to borrow a page from George W. Bush’s Mideast playbook and cut off U.S. contact with the Abbas regime, as Bush did with Yasser Arafat. So, Trump’s first step vis-a-vis the Palestinians should be to suspend official U.S. contact with the PA until there is agreement to hold UN-supervised elections in the West Bank and Gaza. Only candidates and parties subscribing to the Quartet principles, adopted in 2008 by UN Security Council Resolution 1850, would be permitted to participate. For Gaza, the UN may wish to employ a cyber-secure online voting mechanism to ensure against Hamas tampering. Palestinians must be given the opportunity to elect a leadership that puts their interests first.
Trump should also consider suspending U.S. aid to the Palestinians, except humanitarian and health- and education-related assistance, until new leadership is in place. He should maintain American security assistance, including training, to the Palestinian security forces. Once there is a new PA leadership, the U.S., working with the EU and other aid donors, should work with the finance and other ministries to establish financial controls and public accountability mechanisms to prevent the kind of corruption that has so grievously undermined Palestinians’ confidence in their current leadership.
President Trump can also use the embassy relocation as leverage with Israel. He should urge the Israelis to reciprocate Palestinian measures, most especially by helping to improve economic conditions in the West Bank. These measures could include opening Area C, which comprises more than 60 percent of the West Bank, to Palestinian development. Israel could also significantly boost the number of work visas – at least doubling them in the near term – granted to vetted Palestinians to work in Israel. Israel should also lift controls for granting licenses of West Bank businesses, especially stone quarries whose products are a major export of the West Bank.
Getting the Israelis to lean forward on these economic initiatives will be important if President Trump wishes to offer some compensating gesture to the Palestinians for the embassy move.
Some of the heavy lifting in the process must also be borne by Arab governments. That includes investing in the Palestinian economy and businesses. But perhaps the most important action Trump can take is to get major Arab nations including Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan to begin informal discussions with Israel. These states already share a common interest with Israel in confronting Iranian hegemony in the region and combatting terrorism. Once confident security ties are in place and communication channels are established, the Israelis and Arabs can begin frank discussions about Palestine and what they can all do working together.
Any eventual deal will need Arab support. The quid pro quo for them is not only in their own security interests but also a commitment from the new U.S. administration to bring Israeli and Palestinians back to the table.
There is a real risk to this approach. The embassy move, if handled without care, could easily become a rallying cry for the disparate terrorist groups in the region, which share a common antipathy towards Israel. Iran will doubtlessly use U.S. actions to incentivize its militias in Iraq and Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Arab streets could erupt as they did during the second intifada, and Arab governments, including Egypt and Jordan, which have formal ties with Israel, might react harshly. Perhaps worst of all, the move could spark widespread violence in the West Bank, prompting Israeli forces to move in. That in turn could spell the end of the Palestinian Authority, already severely weakened for all the aforementioned reasons. Gaza as well could erupt in another confrontation with Israel.
An alternative to this aggressive, somewhat unorthodox approach is to allow the status quo to continue. The situation could remain as it is, otherwise, but with continued Israeli settlement development and perhaps even expansion in the West Bank and continued declining prospects for a two-state solution. The first problem with this is that, as past experience had shown, it is unlikely to get the two sides to the negotiating table for the foreseeable future.
But there is a grimmer scenario associated with the status quo. Given the slipping grip of the PA in the West Bank and the attendant decline in economic conditions there, the PA leadership could very easily lose control. That might provoke violence, precipitating an Israeli intervention to restore or maintain stability. There would be predictable responses by most of the region’s extremists as well as Iran, threatening Israel in the north (Hezbollah) and in Gaza (Hamas) in the south. This is Israel’s worst nightmare: assaults on its security on all three of its fronts.
Currently, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is stuck in the ditch and won’t be moving until a dramatically different approach is taken to extract and right it and put it on a path with some prospect of resolution. So, risk will be inherent in anything Mr. Trump does, even if it is nothing.
And what’s in all of this for the U.S.? First, if the administration can begin anew in a meaningful and productive manner, it will be delivering on an American core interest and pledge to resolve the Israeli-Arab conflict. It will also bring a much-needed element of stability to a very unstable region. Finally, it will restore America’s position of leadership in this region, which has eroded over the past eight years.