President Trump’s visit to Israel has provoked a slew of articles characterizing him as a dealmaker who can negotiate an end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump is the first president to travel to Israel this early in his tenure. He is also the first sitting president to visit the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site. Photos of the president leaning against the Western Wall wearing a skullcap, laying a wreath at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, and walking through the narrow streets of Old Jerusalem conveyed the message that he is a friend of Israel—willing to dispense with the diplomatic correctness that characterized President Obama’s relationship with the country. His visit was thus full of promise: “The president’s arrival here opened a new chapter in Middle East peacemaking, one that will test whether a career of business-deal-making can translate to success in the world of international diplomacy,” reports the Times. Israel’s leaders shared this measured optimism. Both Benjamin Netanyahu and Isaac Herzog (leader of the opposition Labor Party) expressed their renewed hope for peace and confidence in Trump’s deal-making savvy.
Despite these sentiments, Trump’s visit to the Middle East does not herald a new beginning for the peace process. We should react with the utmost skepticism to his statement, apparently off-the-cuff, that a deal between Israel and Sunni Arab nations must also include a settlement with the Palestinians. These words have garnered Trump enormous praise, as if merely acknowledging that the Palestinians do exist and must be dealt with at some point is an unsurpassed diplomatic breakthrough. But note the context of his announcement: “I was deeply encouraged by my conversations with Muslim world leaders in Saudi Arabia, including King Salman, who I spoke to at great length. King Salman feels very strongly and, I can tell you, would love to see peace with Israel and the Palestinians.” It is from Saudi Arabia that Trump detects a desire for a solution to the Palestinian problem, not from an independent assessment of the situation in Israel or the Occupied Territories.
Trump’s magnanimous mentioning of the Palestinians has little to do with actual Palestinians, just as his visits to Yad Vashem and the Western Wall are scant evidence for his love of the Jewish people. Instead, these phrases and actions are exercises in political expediency. The proof is obvious. During the Obama Administration, a visit to Israel would elicit some symbolic gestures from Netanyahu’s government, such as temporarily freezing settlement construction in the West Bank or releasing a handful of political prisoners. Trump’s visit has produced absolutely no concessions for Palestinians, as if Netanyahu is saying “We all know your words are completely empty Donald, so we will dispense with even the tinniest of symbolic gestures towards peace.” This emptiness of word and deed was equally evident when Trump met with Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority. President Trump spoke about the need for peace between Israel and Palestinians, but mentioned no specific demands or steps toward negotiations. The mendacity of his meeting was obvious. There can be no peace process without common sacrifices and symbolic actions that bring both sides to the bargaining table. Trump showed no understanding or even awareness of this structural dimension of the conflict—the fundamentally different positions of both sides on core issues such as Palestinian refugees, Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, and the nature of Palestinian sovereignty and self-determination.
However transparent Trump’s lies are, they do reveal something quite striking about the conflict. Both sides are perfectly willing to abandon the peace process, as each has more to gain by maintaining the status quo. This has been the trend for many years, but President Obama’s genuine efforts to force a settlement obscured how little each side wanted one. Netanyahu’s coalition government has much to lose by pursuing a two-state solution. Jewish settlements in the West Bank are so materially and politically intertwined with Israel that abandoning them is impossible. Moreover, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza prevent Palestinians living there from acquiring any rights in Israeli society. Israel can maintain its status as a Jewish state and a democracy only because of this demographic repression. Furthermore, occupation and siege are vastly preferable to confronting a sovereign nation along shared borders from a security standpoint. Israel’s military knows this, and would never allow a militarized Palestinian state that could deter Israeli power.
On the other side, the Palestinian leadership (namely Abbas) is equally reticent about entering into negotiations. A two-state solution would force the Palestinian leadership to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state—an emotionally charged demand that many Palestinians would not support. Abbas would have to sacrifice every piece of leverage for what would amount, in the end, to an impoverished nation encircled and dominated by its greatest enemy. Partition has never truly been an option because both sides have deep emotional and historical ties to the same land. While the situation in the West Bank and Gaza is dire, it allows the Palestinian leadership to maintain the promise of victory in the future without sacrificing on core issues such as the right of return for refugees, the status of East Jerusalem, and the nature of Palestinian “sovereignty” given Israel’s military and economic dominance.
Thus, the political leadership on both sides of the conflict have nothing to gain and everything to lose by pursuing genuine negotiations. This is, I believe, the secret to Trump’s popularity with Israel’s ruling factions (and his tacit acceptance by Abbas): both sides can see that his statements about resolving the Israeli-Palestinian lack even the barest shred of credibility. They are sound bites without content. Each side can continue maneuvering for power without the distracting and ultimately dead-ended prospect of negotiations over a two-state solution.
If Trump’s sentiments about peace merely underscore both sides’ unwillingness to pursue a two-state solution, then what ultimately is at stake in his visit to the Middle East? The answer is not difficult to intuit, as the President visited Saudi Arabia before Israel and announced a staggering $110 billion arms deal with the Sunni nation. As the Times reports, Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia was meant to realign United States foreign policy with that country and away from Iran. Trump played to Saudi anxieties, which dovetail with US and Israeli public opinion, characterizing Iran as an evil nation that sows terrorism and extremism in the Middle East. The irony of delivering these remarks in Saudi Arabia—a repressive monarchy engaged in the relentless bombing of Yemen and the exporting of Wahhabiist Islam—was probably lost on Mr. Trump. But as confused and contradictory as the president’s rhetoric can be, his Middle East policy is clear: support Sunni nations and Arab dictatorships that are sympathetic to US interests, while demonizing countries, especially Iran, that pose a challenge to Sunni hegemony in the region. This is an old playbook for the United States, one which has proven totally disastrous by any measure. One could argue that the Persian Gulf War, the 9-11 Attacks, the War in Afghanistan, the Iraq War, the Syrian Conflict, and the rise of the Islamic State are all directly attributable to US policies that privileged Sunni states and Arab dictators in order to control the Middle East. So, while it is likely that Trump’s Middle East policy will prove catastrophic in the long-run, it is unsurprising in the short-run. US interests, conceived in narrow terms, favor more repression in the Middle East rather than less; a concentration of power than can be placated and manipulated is favorable compared with the instability of democratic self-rule.
This brings us back to Israel, and the question of a two-state solution with the Palestinians. It is conceivable, in fact probable, that Donald Trump, Jared Kushner, and Rex Tillerson will succeed in brokering a deal between Netanyahu’s government and the Sunni Gulf states, including of course Saudi Arabia. This deal would be historic given the mutual enmity between Israel and Arab nations, who fought two wars against Israel and lost both times. It would also be tragic. Israel would put strategic interests ahead of any concern for democracy or human rights. They would ally themselves with a repressive monarchy that preaches Islamic extremism and double down on aggressive policies toward Iran, Syria, and Lebanon. Essentially, Israel would be choosing sides in a conflict with no ultimate winners. I see no indication, despite President Trump’s remarks (and perhaps because of them), that an accord between Israel and Saudi Arabia would necessitate resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The interests of Israel’s ruling coalition and the Saudi monarchy transcend the conflict, and one can easily envision a strategic partnership where both sides publicly criticize one another but maintain a tacit understanding.
When Trump speaks about resolving the Palestinian issue alongside a deal with Sunni Arab states, both Palestinians and Israelis should be worried. The Palestinians should worry that their leadership will trade what little leverage they have for the appearance of a resolution, some semblance of a state with no real power or sovereignty (in essence, this has already happened). Neither Saudi Arabia nor the leadership of the Palestinian Authority has the majority of Palestinians’ interests at heart. They could contrive a deal that, far from ensuring Palestinian self-determination, legitimates and reifies the status quo—continued repression at Israel’s hands. Similarly, Netanyahu’s coalition is shortsighted in the extreme and cares little for Israel’s survival over the next fifty years so long as it is strong now. A deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia would not solve the problem of Israel’s existence in the Arab world. Instead it would align Israel with one particular strand of Islam and one particular regional power—in a place where religious and regional sectarianism leads inevitably to war.
It is difficult, amidst these shifting alliances and realities, to envision either a reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians or between Israel and the Arab world. President Trump’s rhetoric is so transparently false that both sides cling to it, relieved that no serious peace process is being proposed. But what is the alternative? I do agree with Trump that the Palestinian question is fundamentally connected with Israel’s relation to its Arab neighbors. Israel and its main patron, the United States, have pursued policies that favor regional stability over the aspirations of Arabs themselves. The US aligns itself with dictatorships in Egypt and absolutism in Saudi Arabia, while Israel threatens war with Iran for daring to pursue a heterodox agenda and rains violence on Palestinians in Gaza for rebelling against their conditions of existence. The forces that unite Israeli and Saudi interests are also those keeping the Palestinians oppressed: military and economic power, which sees any political opposition as a threat to its rule. Reconciliation between the two sides is difficult to imagine, but the alternative is not. Israel’s ruling factions cannot imagine a resolution to the Palestinian question other than continued violence and oppression. Only by reckoning with Palestinian self-determination can Israel avoid an eventual civil war, a horrific prospect. Emerging from this encounter, Israel would perhaps be capable of pursuing peace with its neighbors, recognizing that political differences are vastly preferable to a perpetual war that no one country can win.