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How Trump made Israel weak again

The US president's unalloyed backing has united Israelis and Palestinians in a shared loss of hope for peace
Donald Trump placing a note in the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on May 22, 2017. (screen capture: Channel 2)
Donald Trump placing a note in the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on May 22, 2017. (screen capture: Channel 2)

There is a growing consensus in the Israeli media – including its most critical segments – that Benjamin Netanyahu, even if pressed domestically, is having an excellent run diplomatically. The December 6, 2017 American recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel set in motion a series of ripple effects that culminated in the US President’s announcement in Davos that the American embassy in Israel will begin operating in the city by the end of next year. In the intervening weeks, the status of the already fragile Palestinian Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, has plummeted; the two-state solution has been all but jettisoned; the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have dimmed; and the Israeli-American alliance appears to have further solidified following the visit of Vice President Michael Pence to Jerusalem and the joint Netanyahu-Trump meeting in Switzerland. Nothing could be much better from the perspective of the prime minister and his ruling coalition. Or so it seems.

A closer look at the turn of events in recent weeks, however, puts dampers on the emerging euphoria. Here are some cautionary remarks that should temper even the most enthusiastic.

1. If the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has stymied negotiations, what is going to happen now? Central among the multiple motives behind Donald Trump’s dramatic announcement changing the seventy-year old policy of the United States on the status of Jerusalem was the desire to fulfil what to him was a deep-felt campaign promise: “Today, we finally acknowledge the obvious: Jerusalem is the capital. This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality.” But a critical factor was the desire to reignite Israeli-Palestinian talks. “We are not taking a position on any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of Israelis in Jerusalem or the resolution of contested boundaries. These questions are up to the parties involved”.

The Palestinian decision to suspend links with Washington in the wake of the American move prompted the President to clarify last week that in his mind, the Jerusalem move was indeed an inducement to negotiate: “We took Jerusalem off the table, so we don’t have to talk about it anymore”. He blamed the Palestinians openly for stalling talks: “They never got past Jerusalem.” To press home the point, he even resorted to not-so-subtle threats: “We gave them [the Palestinians] hundreds of millions. That money is not going to them unless they sit down and negotiate peace.” The Palestinian response was swift and emphatic: “If Jerusalem is off the table, then peace is off the table.” But lest Netanyahu gloat too much, Trump took pains to remind him that, “You win one point and you’ll give up some other points later on in the negotiation – if it ever takes place. I don’t know that it ever will take place.”

The current stalemate may be convenient for the Israeli prime minister at this time. But what are the alternatives? The results of the latest Palestinian-Israeli Pulse poll published a few days ago show a rise in militancy amongst Israelis and Palestinians, with only 26% of the former and 38% of the latter favoring a peace agreement. Without a negotiated settlement, the degree of volatility cannot but rise. Such a situation serves nobody’s interests – including Israel’s.

2. If the two-state solution is not possible without agreement on Jerusalem, what are the alternatives? The slippage in support for a two-state solution has been steady in recent years. It now reaches less than half of Palestinians and Israeli Jews (46% each), according to the Palestinian-Israeli Pulse. Only Arab citizens of Israel remain solidly in favor of this option (83%). This drop is closely linked to the drastic reduction in the perception of the feasibility of this option – especially in light of increased settlement expansion.

None of the alternatives to a two-state solution, however, garner much enthusiasm. The single, democratic, bi-national option is backed by only 19% of Palestinians and 15% of Israeli Jews (including 26% of settlers). The transfer of Arabs from Israel has minimal support among Israeli Jews (14%); this notion enjoys a slightly higher rating among Palestinians (17%). The idea of annexation without the extension of civil rights to Palestinians is the first choice of 31% of Jewish Israelis, but understandably receives little Palestinian backing. Even the confederation alternative, which has been floated widely as a possible improvement on the Oslo parameters, has yet to emerge as a significant option (33% of Israeli Jews and 28% of Palestinians).

The message is loud and clear. The slide in support for a two-state solution is not accompanied by a notable preference for any of its (diverse and often contradictory) replacements. Indeed, the strengthening of the status quo that has prevailed for the past fifty years only narrows Israel’s room for maneuverability and exposes it to greater pressure in the long run.

3. If the change in US policy on Jerusalem has compromised its standing as an honest broker, who can come in its stead? The reactions of the Palestinian leadership to the change in American policy on Jerusalem further accentuated the loss of confidence they had previously expressed in the American capacity to continue to oversee fair negotiations. Some of President Abbas’ recent pronouncements have been especially pointed in this regard. The Palestinian sense that the current administration in Washington is heavily tilted in Israel’s favor places an enormous question mark around the identity of potential mediators. Israelis continue to favor a US-led process (28%), but are willing to entertain other options that ensure American involvement, such as a US-Russian umbrella (21%). They are far less likely to support international options preferred by the Palestinians, such as a regional approach, led by Arab states (27%), a European Union-convened initiative (17%) or a UN-based one (15%).

The vastly divergent views on the role of third parties in bringing the sides together present an additional obstacle to some kind of Israeli-Palestinian understanding. The erosion of the American position without provision for a mutually-agreed replacement only distances the prospects for a durable agreement.

4. If the policies of the current administrations in Israel and the United States on Jerusalem are converging, how does this affect the American-Israeli strategic alliance? For the past fifty years, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, the United States has been Israel’s main – and at times sole – strategic partner. All American presidents during the past decades have gone out of their way to reassure Israel and to extend support in international forums. For Israel, the United States has become its major strategic asset.

The inauguration of Donald Trump a year ago was seen in pro-Israel circles as a way of cementing this alliance. But the close personal affinity between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Trump appears to have dented the sine qua non of the American-Israeli partnership: its bi-partisan character. According to the Pew poll conducted earlier this month, Republicans and Democrats are now widely divided on Israel and the Palestinians: 79% of Republicans sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians; only 27% of Democrats feel the same (the divide is maintained, but less extreme when it comes to opinions on Binyamin Netanyahu: 52% of Republican and 18% of Democrats view him favorably).

This partisan-political divide may put at risk the most critical element of Israel’s connection with the United States. Without broad support across the political spectrum, its long-term strategic viability may be at risk.

5. If the United States further reduces monetary support for the Palestinians because of their response to the Jerusalem policy, what are the implications for Israeli security? The security cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Israel – heavily but not exclusively funded by the United States – has been the cornerstone of the relative quiescence on the ground since the end of the second intifada. The Palestinian forces have been instrumental in preventing acts of terrorism and curbing violence. But if Washington continues to slash support for the Palestinian Authority, these arrangements will be among the first to unravel. In recent days, Israeli security pundits have gone out of their way to warn against the possible adverse effects of such measures.

It appears that not all policies that coincide with the present Israeli government’s views necessarily serve Israel’s security needs. A more long-term perspective might be in order.

6. If the institution of new US measures reduces hope, what can come in its stead? At the moment, the main sentiment shared by Israelis and Palestinians – even more than fear of each other – is the loss of hope for peace. Until recently, the prospect of negotiations (however illusory) always gave some cause for optimism; its dissipation is robbing Israelis and Palestinians alike of the belief that things can be better. Without that conviction, there really is no incentive to press for improvement or for resolution – leaving matters in an increasingly constricting, deterministic, zero-sum limbo.

There is no particular reason to be overly ecstatic about these dynamics. What through a simplistic prism seems to be a rhythm of increasingly pro-Israel moves may actually only serve to highlight – or actually exacerbate – ingrained difficulties. Israel (if not the present government) may emerge from this flurry of activity not only weaker, but with fewer tools to deal with the challenges it faces. No external backing, however extensive, can act as a substitute for resolving the basic issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians. These will continue in different forms until a lasting understanding is reached.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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