June 12, 2017
Foreign Policy: Trump Peacemaker or Wrecker?
by Shlomo Ben-Ami
Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is Vice President of the Toledo International Center for Peace. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.
Peacemaker POTUS Donald Trump?
A half-century ago, Israel won the Six-Day War against its Arab neighbors, occupying territories from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank – and establishing its rule over millions of Palestinians. In the ensuing decades, Palestinians tried virtually everything to escape Israel’s repressive occupation – from civil resistance to armed conflict to international diplomacy – to no avail. Now they will try something new: negotiating with US President Donald Trump.
Every American president since 1967 has sought to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict, with Bill Clinton offering the most thorough and judicious parameters for a peace settlement ever conceived by any foreign statesman. Yet Trump confidently asserts that he will “get done” an agreement, which he believes isn’t “as difficult as people have thought.”
Needless to say, not everyone is as optimistic as Trump. Israelis and Palestinians have largely lost hope that a mutually acceptable solution even exists. But the specter of a bi-national state locked in a permanent civil war has so far prevented the relevant actors from fully giving up. In fact, both the Palestinians and the Israeli left seem to have suddenly become infatuated with Trump, though that may signal their despair more than a real chance of a breakthrough.
For Trump, the appeal of brokering a peace settlement most likely lies mainly in how it would affect his own legacy. Though he has a lot on his plate – from North Korea’s nuclear brazenness to Russia’s encroachment on Western spheres of influence – and the odds of success are desperately slim, the prospect of striking a “big deal” where all his predecessors have failed is simply too tempting to pass up.
Whatever his motivation, Trump does possess some significant advantages. Unlike the typical East Coast politician, Trump doesn’t depend on votes and donations from American Jews, and therefore has little reason not to criticize, even threaten, Israel publicly.
Early last year, Trump set himself apart from all past American interlocutors, by describing himself as “a neutral guy” when it came to the Israel-Palestine conflict. While he has since shifted away from the unusual and controversial rhetoric of neutrality, the fact remains that his core constituency – enraged white working-class men – cares little about Israel.
Moreover, Trump will benefit from highly favorable regional conditions. Key Arab actors in the Middle East have lately been more forthcoming than ever before in offering incentives to Israel to move toward peace with the Palestinians.
The impetus for these overtures was highlighted during Trump’s recent trip to Saudi Arabia. At an ostentatious gathering of 50 Arab Sunni leaders in Riyadh, Trump was told that an Israeli-Palestine peace agreement would cement a grand pro-American Arab-Israeli alliance against Islamist terrorism and a resurgent Iran. Without an Israelis-Palestinian peace settlement, such strategic cooperation would not be palatable to the Arab public.
It helps that, unlike most of his predecessors, Trump is initiating his bid for a peace agreement at the outset of his term, rather than in its twilight, thereby imbuing his position with a sense of vigor, conviction, and commitment. Moreover, he need not develop potential solutions from scratch: pretty much every approach to the peace process has already been tried. A deal therefore doesn’t depend on negotiators’ creativity.
What it does depend on is political will. Leaders would have to show courage, offering highly unpopular compromises on some key issues of contention. Unfortunately, that may be the one area where Trump has no advantage over his predecessors.
Israel today is governed by the most fanatically right-wing administration in its history, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has consistently refused to disengage from his nationalist electoral base for the sake of peace. The idea that such a government would accept terms even more generous toward the Palestinians than the Clinton peace parameters sounds like science fiction.
The Palestinians are not primed for compromise, either. They have rejected offers by far more forward-looking Israeli governments than Netanyahu’s in the last 20 years. In any case, President Mahmoud Abbas lacks the legitimacy to turn his back on his predecessor Yasser Arafat’s legacy and confront Hamas over the need to compromise on core elements of the Palestinian national narrative.
As a diplomatic novice, Trump may not fully understand how difficult it has been to keep negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians on track. But his life experience should enable him to understand better than most people the extent to which ego can impede even the most minor compromise. And, in the case of Israel and Palestine, relatively minor disagreements have been sufficient to derail the peace process repeatedly.
Trump may be at a particular disadvantage in overcoming such disagreements, owing to his lack of patience. In the Israel-Palestine conflict, the historical narratives are overwhelming, and the geography is small, so details cannot be glossed over. Yet Trump seems to have little interest in history, geography, or detail.
Israelis and Palestinians are united in an unholy alliance of inertness and political cowardice, lest challenging the status quo lead to an explosion of violent conflict. The best Trump could manage to bring about is a much-needed shakeup of Israeli politics and another reckoning for the divided Palestinians.
To persuade Israeli and Palestinian leaders to take the political risk that compromise entails will require massive pressure from both the US and Israel’s Arab neighbors. Until then, political leaders on both sides will continue to give their people not what they need, but what they’re comfortable with.