It is difficult to find serious differences between the last ten presidents both Republican and Democrat who ruled the United States in the last five decades, when it comes to the Palestinian issue. Indeed, Israel remained the cornerstone of US policy in the region, the major feature of which having been full bias and condonation of Israel’s occupation and practices, including by shielding Tel Aviv from pressure and accountability.
The controversial personality of Donald Trump, as well as his pragmatism, open up different prospects for future scenarios. However, the promises made by candidates on the campaign trail are often unfulfilled… The United States, meanwhile, has strong, stable, and influential governing institutions that are crucial in determining policies and decisions. Nevertheless, the president has a significant margin when it comes to influence and policy, especially if we take into account the fact that the Republican Party, on whose ticket Trump has won, now controls majorities in both houses of Congress.
When the Republican President Donald Trump is inaugurated in mid-January 2017, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip would have had lasted nearly half a century, during which ten different presidents would have occupied the White House, including four Democrats and six Republicans. The Republicans will have had ruled for 28 years and the Democrats 26 years, or on a nearly fifty-fifty basis between the two since the Johnson era throughout the Trump administration.
When analyzing the strategic features of US policy under the ten presidents, it is difficult to find significant differences with regard to the Palestinian issue. Soft and crude bias in favor of Israel is the dominant common trait among them. But will Trump’s administration undergo a tactical or strategic divergence from the dominant paradigm in US policy in the past fifty years, bearing in mind that the main components of US political forces are yet to see any drastic changes, while the powers of the president have not been meaningfully altered.
Three future scenarios can be explored in an attempt to answer this question:
This scenario makes a number of assumptions including:
1. President Trump will fulfill vows he made in interviews that he would be a “neutral” mediator between Palestinians and Israelis, and will act on his assessment at the time that Israel’s failure to make concessions would not help peace in the region.
In an interview with the Associated Press in December 2015, Trump claimed he didn’t want to show any bias in favor of one side or the other, and added “A lot will have to do with Israel and whether or not Israel wants to make the deal—whether or not Israel’s willing to sacrifice certain things,” then he explained, “They may not be, and I understand that, and I’m ok with that. But then you’re just not going to have a deal.”
In March 2016, he indicated that the issue of settlements in the West Bank was a point of contention with Israel, something that the Palestinian side sees as a positive stance albeit it marks the continuation of the traditional American position on this issue specifically.
2. The convergence of US and Russian policies in the Middle East, especially as Donald Trump has shown “understanding and respect” for Russia’s Putin. This means that the two sides may coordinate positions that put pressure on Israel in the framework of the International Quartet and the Security Council as well as bilateral engagements with Israel.
3. European countries affected by the refugee crisis in part resulting from conflicts in the region are vying to persuade the new US administration that stability in the Middle East is impossible without resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.
4. Trump is inclined to prioritize economic and financial interests of the US in the context of foreign relations. This is clear in his calls for Gulf countries to finance the US presence in the region, and the European countries to bear a larger share of NATO expenses, suggesting he may reduce US foreign aid including to Israel.
This scenario makes the following assumptions, based on maintaining the current US policy on Palestine:
1. Continuing US explicit bias, as clear from various statements made by Trump in contradiction of positions explained earlier. In a number of occasions, Trump has reaffirmed regarding:
a. The settlements issue: Trump told The Daily Mail in May 2016 that neutrality may not be possible, saying that Israel should keep building West Bank settlements. This contradicts stated US policy and the views of the US governments’ legal advisors on settlements. In the past, the US rejected Israel’s settlement policy, but did not place any real pressure on Tel Aviv to alter its policy. Here we find that Trump went one step further in appeasement of Israel.
b. In 2013, Trump endorsed Benjamin Netanyahu for the Israeli premiership. This means his positions as president could build on this under this scenario.
2. The Republican-controlled US Congress has a key role in foreign policy. The attitudes of the Republican parties do not indicate any change with regard to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which further reduces the possibility of a strategic shift under Trump even if we assume he has a desire to undertake one.
Third: Worst-Case Scenario for Palestine and Best Case Scenario for Israel
This scenario makes the following assumptions:
1. Trump undertakes strategic shifts on the Palestinian issue as follows:
a. Jerusalem: The US embassy is moved to Jerusalem, which Washington then recognizes as the capital of Israel as promised by Trump during his campaign, bearing in mind that a number of former US presidents had promised the same during their campaigns but did not fulfill their promises.
b. Abandoning the two-state solution: Trump’s advisor on Israeli affairs David Friedman told Israel’s daily Haaretz in June 2016 that Trump doesn’t support Israeli annexation of parts of West Bank and that he doesn’t believe Palestinian state is an American imperative. Friedman also said that Trump is not concerned over possibility of binational state, because “Nobody really knows how many Palestinians live there.” This contradicts official US policy declared under former President George W. Bush.
2. Based on his inclination to reduce foreign aid, this could affect aid to the Palestinian Authority. Such a bid would find strong support in Congress, which has often linked Palestinian concessions to aid since the signing of the Oslo Accords.
3. Trump’s opposition to the nuclear deal with Iran is consistent with Israel’s positions. This could mean an opportunity for Israel to attack Iranian-friendly resistance forces such as Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine (PIJ), and Hamas. There could be a new Israeli assault on Gaza Strip as a result, something that could find support from President Trump.
A number of factors determine which scenario has a higher probability of materializing as follows:
1. How long unrest continues in the region. Unrest is beneficial for Israel, and in the short term, even the reduction of unrest will mean Arab countries will focus inwards for several years to repair their economies, policies, and broken societies. As a result, the Palestinians will be isolated from their traditional regional depth, and this will impact their secret as well as overt negotiating hands, allowing Israel to fully capitalize on this state.
2. The continuation of the Palestinian division amid the parties’ inability to formulate a unified vision on the basis of which they can deal with the international community.
3. US financial pressure on Arab oil countries to help shoulder the burden of US military expenses in the region, amid falling oil prices and increasing pressure on Gulf countries’ budgets. This would further reduce aid to the Palestinian Authority.
Seeing as the Palestinian issue has become less central at the Arab level, and seeing that it is no longer an urgent issue for Russia at least in the near term, there is little justification for expecting a strategic shift in American policy on Palestine beyond the historical trends of the US policy adopted since 1967.
Furthermore, increasing US focus on the pivot to Asia Pacific at the expense of other geopolitical regions in the world implies a decrease in the importance of the Middle East for a multitude of reasons, too numerous to elaborate here, in US overall strategy. The implications have been confirmed by newspapers like The New York Times. At a time when the Arab regional order is collapsing, Israel can exploit these realities to deepen its infiltration of the Arab region, and indeed, this has been evident in a number of Arab countries in addition to those with peace treaties with Israel such as Egypt and Jordan, and the PLO.
Although Trump’s statements during his campaign carry contradictory messages, it is clear from his general attitudes that he has a pragmatic understanding of international politics. This means that the principles of justice, equality, and self-determination will not find traction with Trump. And if we add the nature of his advisors and the balance of power in the US decision-making institutions, expecting any meaningful change in US policy on Palestine is not based on solid grounds.
1. Not betting on the US administration for positive change in favor of the Palestinians or in pressuring Israel.
2. Reaffirming the need to shore up and reorganize the Palestinian home front in protection of Palestinian rights against potential pressures.
3. Activating political and media work in support of the Palestinian issue at the Arab, Islamic, and international levels, and creating a positive climate in support of Palestinian inalienable rights and fundamentals.
To access Donald Trump’s statements cited in this report, see the following:
1. Site of The Washington Times, 3/12/2015
2. Site of theguardian, 6/9/2016
3. The Independent newspaper, London, 20/5/2016
4. Sultan Al Qassemi, What a Trump Presidency Means for the Gulf, site of The Middle East Institute, 25/2/2016.
5. Haaretz newspaper, 9/11/2016.
6. The Independent, 9/11/2016.
7. The New York Times newspaper, 9/11/2016.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Prof. Dr. Walid ‘Abd al-Hay for authoring the original text upon which this strategic assessment was based.