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Trump and the future of Israel-Palestine

Image credit: Susan Melkisethian (Flickr: Creative Commons)

Donald Trump’s position on Israel-Palestine has oscillated dramatically throughout the American election campaign. Early on, Trump ruffled many Republician, Tea-Party and Christian evangelical feathers by proclaiming that he was 'sort of a neutral guy' on the issue. Then at American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual policy conference in March, Trump played to the gallery, saying 'the days of treating Israel as a second class citizen would end from day one of his Presidency'. Trump has subsequently reaffirmed his desire for an inclusive peace deal, but has since also reiterated that settlement expansion does preclude such a deal from happening. There also appears to be little consistency in dealings with the powerful institutional interests that underpin America’s relationship with Israel. Whereas Trump has played up his relationship with key Pro-Zionist-American businessmen such as Sheldon Adelson, he has also publicly insinuated that the Israel lobby cannot buy him off. In short, incoherence and disjointedness rightly characterise Trump’s rhetoric on the issue thus far.

Going forward, there are three possible policy trajectories for Trump to follow on the Middle East’s longest standing conflict. First, if Trump attempts to actively pursue his so-called 'ultimate peace deal…for humanity’s sake', he will run into a hawkish Israeli ruling coalition, buoyed by political and demographic shifts in favour of the country’s religious-nationalist and pro-settler communities.

Positions of perceived religious significance – the push to enshrine Israel’s Jewish character in secular law, to reclaim Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to expand West Bank settlements – are increasingly central to the Israeli public discourse and will likely serve as non-negotiables in any future talks. Independent of its vehement opposition to the above demands, a Palestinian Authority (PA) apparatus battling for political legitimacy and basic control of the West Bank is also unlikely to consider further concessions to Israel any time soon.

Trump-the-negotiator will also be brought into line by the weight of pro-Israel institutions and interests within the US political establishment. Some have argued that this disciplinary process began during the course of the election campaign. Barack Obama’s trials and tribulations are also instructive in this regard. Despite promising to broker peace, professing support for a Palestinian unity government and repeatedly criticising Israeli settlement expansion, Obama never placed any punitive pressure on Israel to reverse its policies or make concessions. As Noura Erakat notes, it is telling that Obama-the-negotiator ultimately presided over three military incursions into Gaza, vetoed multiple UN Security Council resolutions criticising settlement-building and endorsed an unprecedented $3.8 billion annual military aid package to Israel over the next 10 years. In this context, it's hard to see Trump successfully kick-starting peace talks early in his tenure.

The futility of taking on the mediator role, let alone trying to broker a so-called ‘Two-State Solution', leaves two alternative trajectories. The first is an unabashed pro-Israel stance, which endorses all of Israel’s current positions and actively condemns the PLO’s international advocacy at the United Nations. Taking such a position will likely provide an added layer of legitimacy within Israel to policies already being canvassed and/or implemented on the ground. For example, Naftali Bennett, the leader of the religious-Zionist Jewish Home party recently proposed a Knesset bill to legalise settlement building in the West Bank in contravention of international law and in opposition to positions held by most states in the international system. For a US President to actively support such a bill would help rewrite the international-level parameters designed to constrain Israeli action in its occupied territories.

Offering Israel unequivocal and unconditional support will also disempower the embattled PA further, likely intensifying calls for alternative leaders – such as Mohammad Dahlan – and political strategies – such as organised violence – in the West Bank. The latter is something that no party necessarily wants, particularly with the recent re-emergence of salafi-jihadist groups in the area. Finally, such a position will also play into Hamas’ resistance ideology, with the likely consequence a significant spike in the movement’s popularity across the Palestinian Territories.

The second possible trajectory is what The Guardian’s Peter Beaumont calls a minimalist and disconnected, isolationist position, which would see less American diplomatic attention devoted to resolving the conflict. Stepping back in the diplomatic arena will have a similar effect to an outwardly pro-Israeli stance because it likely will not pressure Israel to reverse its policies on the ground. Indeed, the absence of American stewardship will allow Israel to stake its preference for direct talks with the PA at the expense of any alternative broker stepping into the fray.

Nonetheless, any sign of American retrenchment in Trump’s policy will drive Israel to further strengthen relationships with countries such as Russia and China. Russian preponderance in the Syrian theatre has already helped foster constructive ties between Putin and Netanyahu, and Chinese investments within Israel have grown significantly in the last five years. While a reduction in military and financial aid to Israel is almost inconceivable, Republicans have long called for aid to the PA to be cut off. But this kind of material retrenchment will not benefit Israel or Palestinians in the West Bank. Cutting off aid to the PA significantly weakens the only Palestinian proprietor of the Oslo Accords and its accompanying two-state model. The PA is also a key security buffer for Israel and one of the largest employers of Palestinians in the West Bank. Ironically, it is likely that such a cut back policy will serve to ease Israeli restrictions on the West Bank economy. It will also diminish the US’ influence with the PA and drive the latter to seek greater financial support from the European Union, Russia and China.

Ultimately, these are very early days and much about the Trump administration remains to be furnished and finalised. It's worth remembering, for example, that Trump’s key foreign policy appointees will play a significant role in shaping a definitive Israel-Palestine policy going forward. For now, it may yet be best to wait and watch.

Nishadh Rego is the Middle East & North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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