“President Trump’s Policy Shift on Jerusalem: Impact on Arab-Israeli Peacemaking”
Arab Center Washington DC Executive Director Khalil E. Jahshan spoke on January 10, 2018, at a luncheon hosted by the Washington Institute of Foreign Affairs at the Cosmos Club in Washington, DC. Jahshan addressed the current situation in Palestinian-Israeli relations and the impact of President Donald Trump’s December declaration recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and directing the Department of State to begin the process of moving the American embassy there. Following is his speech as delivered.
I would like to thank the Washington Institute of Foreign Affairs (WIFA), particularly Jim Dandridge, Philip Hughes, and Sheila Schmidt for inviting me to be your guest today and to speak to you about the important topic of peacemaking in the Middle East.
I have great personal respect for the mission of WIFA, namely, “to promote greater knowledge and understanding of international affairs and problems,” and for its prominent founders, including some of the giants of US diplomacy who, 57 years ago, wisely dedicated the institute to engage in open “discussion and dialogue” about global issues. Those activities, in my humble judgment, are crucial to the preservation and flourishing of a democratic society. I am indeed honored to be with you today.
On June 5, 2017, the world marked the 50th anniversary of the 1967 occupation by Israel of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza, including Jerusalem. On November 2, 2017, we commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. These are two seminal and influential events in the modern history of the Middle East.
The 1967 occupation, initially portrayed as a temporary measure by Israeli leaders at the time, has become permanent for all practical purposes, notwithstanding the arrogant statement by Moshe Dayan on BBC, intoxicated by his own pyrrhic victory, that “we’re waiting for a phone call from the Arabs” looking for a peace deal. Needless to say, the phone never rang. Now, Dayan is no longer with us, but Israel’s military occupation remains as pervasive and as deeply entrenched as ever to the detriment of Arab, Israeli, and American interests alike. The realistic expectation of a comprehensive, just, and lasting peace today has become virtually an expression of utter naiveté and total disregard for facts on the ground.
The situation in Palestine, as we speak, is quite dismal. Most experts agree that the economic, humanitarian, political, and security situation in occupied Palestine is beyond untenable. The protracted dehumanization, internal colonization, and dispossession of the Palestinian people cannot and should not be tolerated indefinitely. This is not stemming from purely Palestinian analysis or wishful thinking on my part, but also from analyses by sane Israelis who have come to the same conclusion. For example, former Mossad Chief Tamir Pardo, no peacenik by any stretch of the imagination, declared on March 21, 2017, that,
Israel has chosen not to choose, hoping the conflict will resolve itself—perhaps the Arabs will disappear, maybe some cosmic miracle will happen … One day we will become a binational state because it will be impossible to untie the Gordian knot between the two peoples. That is not the way to decide … Israel has one existential threat. It is a ticking bomb. We have chosen to stick our head in the sand, creating a variety of external threats … Israel must deal with the demographic reality and [decide] which state we want to be. Life with alternative facts harbors a disaster for the Zionist vision….
Who Is to Blame for this Predicament?
Objectively speaking, there is more than sufficient blame to assign to all the parties to the conflict:
- Israel: For its intransigence and insatiable appetite for land, specifically other people’s land, namely Palestinian land.
- Palestine: For its political weakness and lack of internal cohesion to articulate an achievable, forward-looking vision and political strategy for ending the Israeli occupation.
- The Arab world: For its political and social paralysis and preoccupation with internal narrow interests and collective resignation from national commitments to the Palestine cause.
- The world community: For its ambivalence and abdication of responsibilities under international law.
- The United States: For losing track of its own national interests by reducing itself to a biased active party to the Arab-Israeli conflict, thus disqualifying itself from playing a constructive and effective leadership role in any potential political process that might emerge.
It is public knowledge that the United States has been dabbling with resolving the Palestine question since 1937, the date of the Peel Commission partition plan. Arab-Israeli peacemaking has been a national sport for every US administration since 1948. Washington has proposed more peace proposals than any other stakeholder in the conflict. Yet, in practical terms, the American contribution to effecting a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict has been lackluster, at best, lacking in vitality, political backbone, and even moral conviction. The same criticisms certainly remain valid and apply to the current administration and its declared objectives to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The Trump-Kushner-Greenblatt Plan
Throughout his campaign for the presidency, Donald Trump expressed his personal determination to tackle the Arab-Israeli conflict, and specifically the Palestine issue. He insisted publicly that a Middle East peace deal was “within reach” and “not as difficult as people have thought over the years.”
Yet, here we are one year later, left in limbo without a definitive plan or any specific terms of reference beyond good intentions by a president who never misses an opportunity to tell the whole world about his unmatched negotiating skills and unwavering personal commitment to solve this protracted conflict.
The parameters of the rumored Trump “ultimate deal,” like all Trump plans, remain vague, if not totally unknown. The ultimate deal has become, in reality, the ultimate hype.
The Jerusalem Policy Blunder
On December 6, 2017, President Trump surprised most observers at home and abroad by declaring Jerusalem Israel’s capital and ordering the US Department of State to initiate the process of moving the US embassy there. Many experts deemed the announcement ill-advised, ill-conceived, ill-timed, unnecessary, potentially catastrophic, and very dangerous to regional peace and stability. Most importantly, from my perspective, it dealt a deathblow to historical American mediation efforts between Israelis and Palestinians and ended the quest for Trump’s own “ultimate deal.”
The global condemnation was swift, harsh, and unequivocal. Most US allies in Europe, including France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and even the Vatican, condemned Trump’s policy. Arab allies like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco opposed it. The Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation representing 57 states denounced it. UN Secretary-General António Guterres questioned its unilateral character, hinting that it “would jeopardize the prospect of peace for Israelis and Palestinians.” The outcome was demeaning for US credibility as successive votes at the UN Security Council and General Assembly indicated.
I would like to conclude with a summary of the consequences of Trump’s Jerusalem policy:
- It undermined US credibility as the self-declared “sole” sponsor of Middle East peace.
- It isolated the United States from its key partners in Europe, the Middle East, and the Muslim world.
- It generated significant anti-American sentiment throughout the Arab world at a time when we could least afford it.
- It portrayed the US government, and not just the president, as inexperienced, unpredictable, and contemptuous of international law.
- It increased regional instability and put some of our key allies, like Jordan, in an untenable situation with their publics. It practically radicalized the whole region.
- It unleashed a new round of violence throughout the region that might not be as short-lived as it seems.
- It gave US enemies and competitors such as Iran, Russia, and Turkey—even ISIS and al-Qaeda—ammunition to undermine American interests in the region.
- It empowered radical elements in Israeli politics that moved quickly to cash in through legislative measures that render future peace difficult, if not totally impossible.
- It alienated and undermined the Palestinian Authority, a key partner in any potential peace effort in the future. Saeb Erekat, Secretary General of the PLO Executive Committee, declared on January 9 that, “The Palestinian leadership will not accept any offers for negotiations unless the American decision on Jerusalem is annulled.” The report of his radio interview continues as follows: “He said US President Donald Trump during his speech to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel removed Jerusalem from any negotiations … He stressed … that Palestinian leadership does not want to clash with the US administration, but Trump is the one who created the clash, stressing that ‘our peace will not be at any price’.”
- Most significantly, the Trump policy shift bungled its own quest for the so-called “ultimate deal.” The already moribund Middle East “peace process” is quite dead at this time. A growing number of analysts go even further and declare the very concept of a two-state solution as another victim of this ill-conceived move.