Are Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts getting enough credit?

ByADAM BASCIANO
March 16, 2017 20:38

With a keen eye toward international affairs...we must approve of the White House’s actions that are indeed worthy of approval.




Trump and Abbas

Trump and Abbas. (photo credit:REUTERS)

To the more overtly liberal, likely predominantly Jewish audience reading this: bear with me for 900 words. Nearly two months into the Trump presidency – with a reminder that there are 46 more to come – it is time for our community to reevaluate the #NeverTrump, anti-normalization efforts against the sitting US president.

With a keen eye toward international affairs, and specifically Israeli-Palestinian peace and Middle Eastern stability, we must approve of the White House’s actions that are indeed worthy of approval.

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Let’s begin with what has been done by the Republican president thus far, starting with the preliminary steps taken before assuming office. Even before his filling of top State Department posts – which notably do remain vacant – Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, two of Trump’s closest confidants, were officially announced as the president’s adviser and envoy, respectively, to Middle Eastern peace negotiations.

In any serious effort at US-brokered talks, it is imperative for the American representatives of the president to truly reflect the views and weight of the White House. With Kushner and Greenblatt, this is indeed achieved. And perhaps signaling maturity in the administration’s approach to diplomacy, Amir Tibon of Haaretz reported yesterday that two career diplomats with extensive experience on this issue, Yael Lempert and Michael Ratney, will remain in senior positions at the White House and State Department.

With regard to Israeli policy, two key pieces of legislation are worth examining. The highly controversial Regulation Law, which retroactively legalizes illegal Israeli settlement outposts in the West Bank in return for compensation to Palestinian landowners, passed by a slim majority in the Knesset with the backing of the prime minister.

Trump’s White House was alerted to the vote by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before it was passed, although Israel’s High Court of Justice remains likely to block its implementation.

Days prior to the vote, however, Trump released a statement announcing that “the construction of new settlements or [their] expansion... may not be helpful in achieving” the goal of peace.

In the broader context of the law and Israeli settlement construction, Trump has remained roughly in the bipartisan American tradition.

American and international advocates against the settlement enterprise may not have approved of Trump’s tacit yielding to the legislation, but the Israeli people and government remain able to debate issues, enact legislation, and confront consequences at their sovereign will.

The second newsworthy Knesset law of the Trump era is the Ma’aleh Adumim annexation bill. Again at the behest of Bayit Yehudi’s Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu has struggled to appease the right-wing flank of his constituency by retaining the status quo vis-à-vis the West Bank. Here, Trump’s approach with Netanyahu has been highly effective at stalling what otherwise would be potentially disastrous for Israeli legitimacy and security.

First delayed prior to the Trump-Netanyahu meeting at the White House, and now delayed after Jason Greenblatt’s five-hour meeting with the prime minister on Monday, it is clear that the Knesset, or at least the prime minister, is wary of controversial moves that may risk a confrontation with the White House. For the future of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, strong American leadership and redlines for Israeli demands must remain intact and genuine.

Beyond the Green Line, the White House has kept its word on engaging the region’s Arab leaders, while reneging on some of its major campaign promises. After the Obama tenure ended on sour terms with nearly all of the Middle East’s heads of state, the Trump administration has hosted King Abdullah of Jordan twice and more recently spoke with PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

On the surface, these conversations appear to have been fruitful. The American Embassy remains in Tel Aviv, and the Palestinian media have reported favorably on the Trump-Abbas phone call. Currently, Jason Greenblatt is touring the West Bank and is set to meet with Abbas, having even emphasized with Netanyahu the shared strategic interest of improving the Palestinians’ quality of life.

None of these developments suggests an ideologically driven foreign-policy hawk, but rather a pragmatic and careful White House that is weighing the options of what is feasible for future negotiations.

To understand what Trump has indeed achieved and undertaken – which, although limited, does represent a strong foundation for a future Middle Eastern peace initiative – requires envisioning an alternative scenario. Envisage a Democratic American president who in his or her first two months of leadership has appointed two principal advisers to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian issue; called on the Israeli government to hold back on settlement construction; engaged Palestinian and Arab leaders; and has avoided any notable scandals on this particular front.

In this scenario, would the reaction of the world’s governments, civil societies, and media be different than it is now? Would the American Jewish community embrace this new momentum toward peace-making; would Washington’s foreign-policy establishment applaud the relative pragmatism and fairness towards the issue; and would Europe’s governments and institutions capitalize on the opportunity to move forward with an otherwise highly stagnant process? These questions may not have answers, but the conclusion is clear: It is possible to achieve results, particularly in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, by distinguishing the good from the bad.

It is possible to object to the majority of the policies emanating from the White House, while simultaneously embracing those initiatives that are grounded in practicality and empirical experience.

Observers and commentators on the Israeli-Palestinian issue should do so by cautiously highlighting positive developments, which further incentivize a working, democratic relationship with the White House. To continue along the current path would otherwise signal four complete years of partisanship and opposition that would dissuade progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front, which Israelis, Palestinians, and world interests simply cannot afford.

The writer is a program associate at the Israel Policy Forum, based in New York City.

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