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Can Trump Balance Peace and Politics in the Middle East?

Can Trump Balance Peace and Politics in the Middle East?

Image Source: Flickr

By: Rohan Pethkar

In a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations General Assembly, President Trump pledged to release an outline of a proposed Israeli-Palestinian peace plan by the end of 2018. The plan (which has been in the works since the beginning of the administration) is likely to follow a “two-state” model, as the President recently seemed to endorse it, claiming “That’s what I think works best.” While the administration has high hopes for tackling one of the oldest and most complicated geopolitical problems in modern history, it may have already ruined its chances by overvaluing domestic politics and continuously showing bias in a negotiation that needs a neutral mediator to be successful.

While campaigning for office in 2016, both Donald Trump and the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton took a decisively pro-Israel campaign stance. However, the President differentiated himself by promising to move the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, a controversial move that would show the US believed Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel instead of a shared and divided city under UN control. Domestically, the statement may have been strategic in turning out pro-Israeli Americans, which make up around 74% of all US citizens according to polls, but the President undoubtedly tied his hands to a policy that could seriously disrupt his long-term international goals.

Trump made good on his promise in late 2017 by moving the embassy, a policy that was condemned by security experts as well as key US allies in Western Europe and the Middle East (many of whom now back a UN resolution to void the move). It seems that Trump may have made the move in an effort to show political progress to his supporters in the face of mounting failures in a bitterly divided Congress, but in moving the Embassy, the President set the tone of US involvement by alienating key Palestinian leaders. The administration assumed that any blowback would be temporary and would actually help negotiations by making the city a non-issue , but a few days after the event  President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority called the move a “slap in the face”, claiming that the United States could no longer be considered an “honest negotiator” in any peace deal, and this all stick-no carrot diplomatic approach is likely to foster the heavy anti-American sentiment that violent and extremist groups like Hamas thrive from.    

Since the move, relations between the US and Palestine further deteriorated, with the administration cutting close to $200 million in aid that had been mandated by Congress and redistributing it to other regions. Contact between the two countries has been almost non-existent with Husam Zomlot, head of the Palestinian General Delegation in the United States, stating that the administration “is dismantling decades of US vision and engagement in Palestine” and its actions are “another confirmation of abandoning the two-state solution and fully embracing Netanyahu’s anti-peace agenda.” In response to stalling communication, President Trump’s administration decided to close the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s  United States diplomatic mission in Washington, stating that the Palestinians have “not taken steps to advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel.” These actions seem to continue and reinforce the vicious circle of punishing the Palestinians for not coming to the negotiating table while all the while adding to the mistrust between the parties that deters them from negotiating in the first place.

President Trump is certainly not the first president to correctly assess the importance of an Israeli alliance in the need for American national security; however, he must realize that he cannot try to both score political point back home and be taken seriously in creating a Middle Eastern peace strategy. In trying to pander to evangelicals and pro-Israel Republicans, the President has made it harder for himself to appear as an intermediary in negotiations that require a neutral but invested party. While the President states that he wants to reach a solution “that both parties like”, his continuing hostilities towards the Palestinians will more likely than not kill any chance of his plan coming to fruition. The President must understand that he cannot bully the Palestinians to the negotiating table and expect a lasting peace in the region. While the US certainly has the hegemony to compel certain state action, this explicit use of hard power is likely to strengthen the resolve of extremist groups in both Palestine and Israel that will oppose concession and thus waste any use of US soft power. While it may hurt his approval numbers among his base demographic, the President must make concessions to promote cooperation with the Palestinian Authority if he wants any chance to solve the one conflict that has challenged the international community and previous presidents for decades.           

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