Most indicators suggest that Hillary Clinton has bigger odds to win the elections than Donald Trump. While it is agreed that the role of the US president is restricted by constitutional checks and balances, the balance of power in the political landscape, and international developments, the president’s orientations have a role to play. However, the US presidential elections have often shown that the political attitudes voiced on the campaign trail will not necessarily be adhered to by the winning candidate.
Both candidates are hugely biased in favor of Israel, judging by their statements and speeches, particularly before Jewish lobby groups. However, the ideological framework differs between the two. Trump seems inclined towards relative isolationism, contrary to the traditional stances of the Republican Party; while Clinton appears closer to interventionism.
At the Palestinian level that is closely sensitive to the international level, both candidates are poised to put pressure on the Palestinian side. Resistance movements, especially Hamas and the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine (PIJ), will be the main recipients of this pressure, requiring from them extreme care in dealing with Middle Eastern conditions, where they must remain neutral and refrain from interfering in internal Arab affairs, whether at the media or political levels.
Three key questions linking the Palestinian issue to the elections of the 45th president of the United States may be raised:
1. Who is likely to win? Hillary Clinton of the Democratic Party or Donald Trump of the Republican Party?
2. What are the positions of each of the candidates on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
3. What impact will the results of the US elections have on the future of the Palestinian issue?
A number of indicators suggest Clinton’s odds for victory exceed those of a Trump win:
1. Most opinion polls and financial reports (like that of The Wall Street Journal) show a Clinton lead.
2. Jewish votes, which are active and influential, are traditionally supportive of the Democratic candidate as shown by previous US elections.
3. Comparing the expenses of previous elections indicates the biggest spenders have consistently won since 2000. Clinton’s war chest worth $187 million is nearly four times the worth of the Trump campaign spending ($49 million).
4. There is an inclination in US society to vote in the first ever woman president after voting in the first African American one.
5. Clinton is politically experienced, having served in the US Senate and then as Secretary of State. Trump lacks the same kind of experience.
6. There is opposition among Republican elites to Trump (for example, 121 Republican foreign policy experts sent out a letter opposing the election of Donald Trump).
7. Although an academic study relying on a forecasting model developed by Professor Alan Abramowitz of Emory University in the US predicts a Trump victory based on some economic indicators (the model succeeded in all its predictions since the 1992 elections), Abramowitz himself predicts a Clinton victory.
It is crucial during election season in the US and the world in general to take any statement by the candidates on any given domestic or foreign issue with a pinch of salt and caution. Indeed, political propaganda aimed at mobilizing support is one thing, and a definitive stance upon assuming office as dictated by the facts is another. This requires a definition of the general features of the two candidates’ foreign policy, which should not be isolated from the analysis of the attitude on Palestine and other international issues.
Trump is less versed in international affairs compared to Clinton. However, one general characteristic of his foreign policy predilections is that he is inclined towards isolationism and non-intervention. He has called on US allies such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries, Japan, and the Gulf states to assume more of the financial burden in terms of defense. He is also a sharp critic of the United Nations (UN), which to him takes up too much of the US resources without tangible results. He has also called for a ban on Muslims entering the US, and appears to be more reserved with regard to the nature of Saudi-American relations.
Trump is generally opposed to the nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran, and has stated he would seek to block it particularly with regard to fulfilling US financial commitments to Iran under the deal. Trump has accused the US government of allowing itself to be tricked by an Iranian trap. In his AIPAC speech in March 2016, he said he would “dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran,” which he accused of financing Hamas, PIJ, and Hizbullah, and vowed to “dismantle Iran’s global terror network.”
By contrast, Clinton has interventionist tendencies, despite stating she regrets supporting the invasion of Iraq when she was senator. She is in favor of intensifying airstrikes in Syria and Iraq against ISIS, calls for a no-fly zone in Syria, and supports for the US to continue playing its international role despite the material and human cost.
However, there seems to be a small distance between the two candidates with regard to Palestine. Trump’s statements during the primaries, in which he said he would adopt a “neutral” position in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, raised some concerns in Israel and among its allies. Clinton was quick to reject this position at AIPAC, saying “America can’t ever be neutral when it comes to Israel’s security or survival.” An LA Times editorial explained Trump’s position as an attempt to encourage Palestinians to engage again in negotiations with Israel.
During her service as secretary of state (2009–2013), Clinton’s relations with Israel saw some differences, particularly with regard to the US criticism of Israeli settlement building in West Bank (WB).
Both candidates believe direct negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis should be the basis for determining the form of the final peace settlement, without a specific role for the UN or the international community in this regard. This would mean leaving the issues of Jerusalem, the refugees, and the borders up for negotiations between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel, and thus, prone to influence by the bilateral balance of power. This would create a climate where Israel is free to put all kinds of pressure on the Palestinian side to secure the largest possible number of concessions.
Trump believes that the American role in the negotiations should be as facilitator. He has criticized the UN for being weak and inefficient, and rejected the idea of resolving the Palestinian issue through the international organization. Trump even said he would veto any peace settlement adopted by the UN Security Council. This stance is backed by Clinton. She emphasized before AIPAC that the superiority of Israel’s qualitative military must be ensured, by providing it with rockets and detection technology for tunnels and smuggling weapons, and by preventing “terrorist” attacks. Clinton also rejects any solution imposed by the UN Security Council, and believes that “anti-Semitism trend” is growing in Europe, and says that she wrote a letter to the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations in 2015 confirmed the strict opposition Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.
Concerning the position of the candidates regarding Palestinian resistance: while both are opposed to the idea of armed resistance, Trump seems to have a bigger “hatred” of armed resistance and its Islamist character. He has accused Hamas and PIJ specifically of teaching Palestinian children “violence and hatred of the Jews.” He has also demanded the Palestinians to recognize the “Jewishness of the State of Israel,” and questioned the peace intentions of the Palestinian side claiming the Israeli tendency for peace is clearer.
Although both are opposed to the ongoing Israeli settlement building in the territories occupied in 1967, as Clinton stated at AIPAC, her 3301-word speech contained only 15 words of criticism of Netanyahu’s policy. She said both sides must do everything they can to avoid acts of obstruction, including settlement building. This is the same position Trump has voiced on settlement building. Yet neither candidate has mentioned a specific measure that could prevent its continuation. And while both are opposed to expanding settlements, they do not mention existing settlements and what their fate should be, and do not specify whether Jerusalem – in the Israeli definition – is part of the areas in which they object to build settlement in or not. Indeed, Trump has pledged to AIPAC he would move the US embassy to what he called Israel’s “historic capital,” a promise many US presidents had made during election campaigns but never fulfilled.
The candidates both state that they accept the two-state solution in general, but the details based on which this solution is to be implemented are not clearly defined by them. This means they are inclined to let the details be determined by negotiations between the two sides. Recall that Clinton in 2005, as senator, supported the construction of the Separation Wall. In 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, Clinton voted against a resolution in Congress that would have banned delivering cluster munitions to countries that use them against civilians, and expressed understanding of Israel’s blockade of Gaza Strip (GS).
Although some websites referenced a proposal by Trump in 2014 to transfer Palestinians to Puerto Rico during a press conference in Manhattan, after which they would be given housing and jobs, citing the fact that Puerto Rico is bigger than the WB and GS combined, the origin of the idea seems to have been a satirical article about Trump.
It is necessary to bear in mind that the American political system that gives the president broad powers, also imposes a lot of legal constraints on the president constitutionally and pragmatically, for example from pressure groups, public opinion, and media outlets. In addition, foreign policy is a less important issue for the American public compared to domestic issues such as unemployment, healthcare, taxation and so on.
The above suggests that if either candidate enters the White House, the following conclusions are valid:
1. The political distance separating either candidate and the Israeli position is very short. Perhaps the issue of settlement building marks the biggest divergence.
2. The possibility of either candidate actually putting pressure on Israel to curb settlement building or overturn the annexation of Jerusalem, define borders and, deal with resistance movements directly is unlikely based on the structure of US politics and the electoral platforms of the two candidates.
3. Clinton is the candidate most likely to try to activate the Arab Peace Initiative for the resolution of the conflict with Israel, but she might work to amend some clauses of the initiative to make it more acceptable for Israel. She could step up pressure on Arab countries to open up and normalize relations with Israel, particularly in the Gulf Cooperation Council bloc.
4. Trump, if victorious, might impose financial burdens on the Gulf states and force them to restrict aid to the PA in order to pressure the latter to make more concessions. He might also step up measures against resistance movements in GS.
5. The UN Security Council will have no significant influence on peace settlement plans if either candidate wins, which means leaving the Palestinian side vulnerable to the balance of power that is heavily skewed and not in its favor.
6. The fallout of the Arab unrests will be the most important issue for the US, whomever wins, at the expense of the Palestinian issue, even if the latter is visited every now and then depending on certain circumstances.
The Palestinian issue is facing very difficult conditions. It has declined down the list of priorities of both Arab and world states, regional Arab order has collapsed, and resistance movements are embarrassed due to their relations with Iran. This is in addition to the ongoing clampdown on Islamism in the Arab world and the collapse of oil prices, which had its impact on Arab financial support to Palestine. Thus, resistance movements must prepare themselves to deal with what may be the most difficult and complex situation in modern Palestinian history.
In light of these circumstances, it might be worthwhile to think about the following points:
1. The continuation of the Palestinian division remains a huge weakness, and the chances for ending this division are very slim, due to the fact that the political perspectives of the two sides are very distant.
2. It may be more useful for resistance movements to steer clear of any stances regarding the internal affairs of any Arab country at present. This must be reflected in their media outlets, where terminology and insinuations that could betray a bias to any sides in Arab countries, such as Egypt and Syria, must be avoided.
3. Bringing the Palestinian issue back to the forefront can only happen if resistance operations are continued, and the escalation of the Intifadah could be one of the key means in this regard despite adverse conditions.
4. The Palestinians must prepare for more Arab financial pressure and political pressure meant to cut relations between resistance movements and Arab, Islamic, and international forces that back them. Pressures that are set to increase under the new US president be it Clinton or Trump.
5. The US and Israel in the next stage may work to list Palestinian resistance groups as terror groups in UN Security Council lists. This must be taken into consideration and prevented in coordination with Russia and China, and Arab, Islamic, and other international parties.
6. It is crucial to develop a project to stop Palestinian migration in the WB from the rural areas to the cities, and encourage inverse migration. This phenomenon is paving the way for the emergence of Bantustans along the lines seen in South Africa, and facilitating settlement building in the Palestinian countryside.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Prof. Dr. Walid ‘Abd al-Hay for authoring the original text upon which this strategic assessment was based.