By Rohin G. February 16, 2017
US President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu during a joint press conference.
Photo Credit: Time
On February 15, President Donald Trump met with Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Many have seen an obvious shift in the rhetoric by the Trump administration, moving away from the Obama administration’s criticism of Israel and towards a more unconditional support of Israel regardless of Israeli actions. Many advocates for a two-state solution and greater rights for Palestinians were and still are nervous about the new administration’s stances on Israeli-Palestinian issues. One proposition from the administration was to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a city hotly contested by Israelis and Palestinians.
Another controversial topic is that of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories of the West Bank. For decades, the United States has attempted to pressure Israel to cease appropriation of Palestinian lands for the construction of Jewish communities. Although the US has been against settlement activity, it has never supported measures against any Israeli action in the United Nations until the very end of the Obama administration. Many Israeli actions have drawn harsher reactions from the international community. Early this year, the United Nations passed a resolution banning all settlement activity by Israel in the West Bank with all members of the UN Security Council except the US voting yes. (see my previous article for more information: https://youthnewsjournal.com/2016/12/28/the-controversy-over-the-israeli-settlements-resolution-in-the-united-nations/ ). The Obama administration chose not to veto the resolution, instead abstaining and allowing it to pass. President Trump, as well as many American politicians from both parties, condemned the resolution stating that it was “anti-Israel” and adding that the only solutions to issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are those reached through direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
Recent statements by the Trump administration present mixed signals about the new US stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although President Trump has pledged to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Trump has not shown any signs of following through with that action thus far. On the issue of settlements in the West Bank, President Trump has stuck to the US policy against Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank stating that settlements are “counterproductive for peace”. President Trump, however, did break from longstanding US policy quite drastically when in a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, he stated that he was fine with either a one-state or a two-state solution. President Trump said that he still believed that the two-state option was easier to achieve but that he would support any solution which was agreed upon by both Israel and the Palestinians. This radical shift in American policy away from mandating a two-state solution begs the question; what will the American role in Middle East peace be under the Trump administration?
What Trump Administration Officials have said About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
We can get a rough idea of the new administration’s stance based on what officials on the Trump team have said.
Most foreign policy conducted by the Trump administration as in any administration will likely be done by the secretary of state, who currently is Rex Tillerson. Tillerson had not made many comments about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before being nominated for secretary of state. During his confirmation hearing, he stated that the US should give more support to Israel and condemned the recent UN resolution on settlements. Tillerson did say that he supports restarting peace talks and also supports a two-state solution.
Any work in the United Nations will be done by UN Ambassador, Nikki Haley. Haley has promised greater support for Israeli actions and to veto actions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the UN stating that direct negotiations are the only way to reach a lasting solution. She has spoken against Israeli settlement activity during her confirmation hearing.
The closest person to many issues in the region will be US ambassador to Israel, David Freidman if he is confirmed by the senate. In the past, Freidman has made controversial comments about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict including his statement that a progressive Jewish organization called J Street was similar to Jews who collaborated with Nazis, and another statement where he openly endorsed Israeli settlements. In his confirmation hearing, Freidman committed to facilitating direct negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians.
Although it is impossible to know what will happen with the ever-changing situation in the Middle East, the administration’s statements provide some basis for understanding.
If the Trump administration looks to people with more extreme viewpoints such as the nominee for ambassador to Israel, David Freidman, The US would likely take a stance of staunch support for Israeli actions regardless of what the actions are or the international opinion on them. This could manifest itself as, for example, if Israel decides to engage in a massive expansion of settlements or a formal annexation of Palestinian lands, the US defends these actions and increases support for the Israeli state even though the Israeli actions would draw strong condemnation from the vast majority of the international community. A less extreme example of this approach of staunch support for controversial Israeli policies is that of moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. A key American ally in the region, Jordan, where many US forces are based, has called a possible move of the embassy to Jerusalem a “red line”. Regardless of this statement, President Trump still says that he is considering moving the US embassy to Jerusalem.
A more likely approach by the new administration towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that of more support for Israeli actions but a continued support for the peace process. This is the approach which most of the President’s closest officials including secretary Tillerson and UN ambassador pick Nikki Haley have advocated for. This policy would likely mean more military aid to Israel, less condemnation of Israeli actions, and a resistance to efforts in international organizations such as the United Nations to pass resolutions regarding Middle East peace. However, this moderate approach would include constant encouragement to both Israelis and Palestinians to continue peace talks and would also include soft statements against Israel settlement activity. This approach is already being taken by the administration in statements by President Trump endorsing continued negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians and requesting Israel cease construction of settlements in the West Bank. This approach is almost exactly the same as the Bush administration’s policy towards Israeli-Palestinian issues.
Both approaches that could be taken by the Trump administration are far more unconditional in their support for Israel regardless of provocative actions than the approach taken by the Obama or Clinton administrations. Both Presidents Obama and Clinton were staunch supporters of Israel but also often condemned Israeli actions including settlement expansions and restrictions on Palestinian people’s personal freedoms.