Over the last week, leading US government officials have continued to engage with President Donald Trump’s recently unveiled proposal for achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The administration asked observers not to write off the plan immediately but to take time to understand its details. To garner support, administration officials and their sympathizers in Congress have been defending the plan as one of the most detailed and realistic put forth by any US president in the decades-long conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. However, detractors pan the administration’s vision as undermining the “foundations of international law” and as filled with poison-pill proposals that almost seem designed to alienate the very Palestinians the administration says it hopes to win over.
For the administration’s part, senior-level officials including Senior Advisor Jared Kushner, Ambassadors Kelly Craft and David Friedman, and National Security Advisor (NSA) Robert O’Brien made efforts to defend, clarify, and justify the contents of President Trump’s plan. On February 6, Kushner appeared before a skeptical UN Security Council to brief all in attendance on the proposal he calls “Peace to Prosperity.” Kushner repeatedly defended the plan as the only realistic path forward, arguing that the world must now recognize the glaring power disparity between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories—a reality that the international community itself has helped to nurture and grow. Kushner also railed against Palestinians in general, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas specifically, while his colleague at the United Nations, Ambassador Kelly Craft, used her platform in New York to try and sell the plan to Abbas himself. Although Craft tried to employ charm to entice Abbas, the United States at the same time was undermining his efforts by whipping votes against a scheduled UN Security Council resolution aimed at expressing the body’s opposition to the plan.
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, for his part, spent the week defending the plan as one that “presents a firm offer from Israel to the Palestinians for statehood based upon detailed conditions, economic opportunity and specific territorial dimensions.” However, the ambassador again found himself clarifying the Trump Administration’s position—or attempting to—on issues related to Israel’s plan to annex up to 30 percent of land in the occupied West Bank. As Arab Center Washington (ACW) previously detailed, the ambassador was forced to backtrack on earlier comments he had made about the administration’s support for annexation. Now, Friedman has told Israel to essentially slow down and undertake annexation in the appropriate manner—that is, with the Trump Administration’s blessing and cooperation. At a think tank event later in the week, Friedman elaborated on the administration’s position, stating very plainly that it supports Israel’s “right” to annex occupied territory and that Israel, as a sovereign state, can act in whatever manner it sees fit. The ambassador also warned that if Israel did not undertake annexation in the appropriate manner and did not hew close to the administration’s preferred method of operation, then the Trump team could drop its support for the move.
Finally, at events in Washington this week, NSA O’Brien discussed the so-called peace plan and aspects related to its viability, including Israel’s continued settlement expansion in the West Bank. Regarding the future of the two-state solution, O’Brien was blunt, arguing that now might be the only time for the Palestinians to attain a state—if that is how some would like to call what Kushner’s vision sets forth—because of future Jewish migration to Israel and the occupied West Bank. O’Brien said that because the population of Jewish Israelis is growing and Jews from outside of the region are moving to the territories, there may not physically be enough space for a Palestinian state in the future. O’Brien ignores, of course, the fact that the Palestinian birthrate exceeds that of the Israelis’ and deploys a “use it or lose it” argument to compel the Palestinian leadership to engage with a plan that, by reasonable standards, is a catastrophe for Palestinians. O’Brien also made the case for the vision by arguing that the broader Arab reaction to this plan has been an unprecedented show of support. Even more, he confidently stated that King Abdullah II of Jordan—a key player in any possible peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians—would eventually come to support President Trump’s vision.
Others in Washington and around the world are suspicious of the plan. One hundred and seven House Democrats signed on to a letter expressing their disapproval of the president’s plan and lawmakers were quite frank in the letter they sent to President Trump. The Democrats explained that this is not a “serious or good faith attempt to bring such a durable peace” between Israelis and Palestinians because the “proposal effectively paves the way for permanent occupation of the West Bank.” The letter also explains how the plan’s endorsement of the unilateral annexation of Israeli settlements and the Jordan Valley and carving of Palestine into “a collection of disconnected Palestinian enclaves – surrounded by settlements and settlement infrastructure annexed by Israel, and still under Israeli control” is anathema to the idea of creating two viable states living side by side. The Democrats concluded with an assessment of what many observers always knew would be the fatal flaw: that the plan was “crafted by a team that has long indicated its animosity to actual Palestinian statehood” and thus the “proposal attempts to make a genuine two-state solution impossible.”
The Trump Administration urged observers to take some time and review its proposal before deciding whether or not to support or reject the measures. After more than two weeks, the battle lines have been drawn. President Trump and his team are defending their proposal on Capitol Hill, in the media, and before the world at the United Nations. The Palestinians, with many others in the international community—including the Arab League, Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and African Union—and Congressional Democrats have all recognized the plan for what it is and have opposed any kind of path forward based on its controversial parameters.
Also Happening This Week in Washington
1) Personnel and Correspondence
Republican Senators Suggest Twitter is Violating Sanctions on Iran. On February 6, GOP Senators Ted Cruz (Texas), Marco Rubio (Florida), Tom Cotton (Arkansas), and Marsha Blackburn (Tennessee) wrote a letter to Twitter’s founder suggesting that the company is violating US sanctions on Iran by providing a “service” to Iranian officials (i.e., by allowing them to operate Twitter accounts). As such, the lawmakers are calling on Twitter to close accounts run by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to ensure that the company is not running afoul of US sanctions.
Senate Confirms Shea as Ambassador to Lebanon. This week, the full Senate agreed to confirm Dorothy Shea as the new US Ambassador to Lebanon. According to one report, Beirut is bracing for Shea to bring a new approach to the country, one that is more staunchly in line with the president’s policy goals and that will be stricter on sensitive issues.
II. Executive Branch
1) White House
President Trump Unveils Fiscal Year 2021 Budget Request. The White House released its budget proposal for fiscal year 2021. Presidential budget proposals are largely symbolic gestures, as Congress has the prerogative to craft federal spending plans, but for the fourth consecutive year the Trump Administration has released a list of budgetary cuts that are dead on arrival on Capitol Hill. First, the president proposes cutting the State and Foreign Operations budget by roughly 21 percent, including eliminating or significantly cutting provisions that support some Middle East states like the economic support fund, billions of dollars of government development assistance, and billions more for refugee assistance programs.
In total, however, the administration left US assistance packages to states in the region unharmed. The White House proposed large sums of money to support Egypt, Israel, and Jordan, as is usual, as well as to Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Lebanon, and Iraq. However, the administration did propose that Congress completely eliminate bilateral assistance to the West Bank and Gaza and instead provide support for security cooperation with Israel through a diplomatic fund. This is seemingly an effort by the administration to tie US economic and security assistance to the Palestinians’ acquiescence to the so-called peace plan. Regardless of the contents of the budget proposal, in no way will it be used on Capitol Hill as a template for 2021 spending levels. House Democrats have already dismissed this budget proposal and, if history is a guide, even Senate Republicans oppose steep cuts to diplomacy.
NSA O’Brien Discusses White House Strategy Towards Syria, Iran. On February 11, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien attended an event in Washington to discuss the state of the National Security Council, which he currently oversees. In his opening remarks, O’Brien lauded President Trump’s Middle East policies as successes, specifically highlighting the administration’s campaign against the Islamic State, maximum pressure approach against Iran, and the White House’s efforts to forge peace between Israel and the Palestinians. When asked about the ongoing fighting in Idlib, Syria, O’Brien said that the administration decries the chaos unfolding there and blames actors like Iran, the Syrian regime, Russia, and Turkey for destabilizing the area. However, he was steadfast in refusing to commit to a US intervention to alleviate the humanitarian crisis unfolding due to the fighting.
O’Brien also discussed the administration’s policy toward Iran, though he declined to comment on whether the United States sabotaged a recent Iranian satellite launch that failed. He repeated President Trump’s refrain that Iran would never have a nuclear weapon during his administration—this despite the fact that there is no evidence to support the claim that Tehran is actively pursuing a nuclear weapon.
2) Department of State
Ambassador Jeffrey on the Situation in Syria, Iraq. Ambassador Jim Jeffrey delivered remarks this week on the situation in Syria and gave an update on the US position in Iraq. Like NSA O’Brien, Jeffrey spoke of the Trump Administration’s opposition to the events unfolding in Syria’s Idlib. Jeffrey told reporters that Russia is a primary cause of the destabilizing fighting happening in Idlib, but he also cited the Syrian regime’s and Lebanese Hezbollah’s actions in and around the city as causes for concern, too. Interestingly, both Ambassador Jeffrey and UN Ambassador Craft appeared to side with Turkey in its clashes with Syrian regime forces. Craft put it bluntly, telling the United Nations that Washington supports Ankara’s efforts. On a related note, later in the week Ambassador Jeffrey and Special Envoy for Syria Joel Rayburn traveled to Turkey, Germany, and “locations in the Middle East” to meet with foreign officials from different states.
Secretary Pompeo is Orchestrating Israel-Saudi Arabia Meeting. The Israeli press has reported on the efforts of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to initiate a bilateral, public meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. However, more recent reports note that there will likely be no such meeting until after Israel’s March elections.
3) Department of Defense
Secretary Esper Speaks on AUMF, Soleimani Slaying. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper appeared before Johns Hopkins University this week to deliver a keynote address about the administration’s National Defense Strategy (NDS) at year two. Despite his focus on the NDS, Esper spent ample time taking questions and he eventually touched on two issues related to US policy in the Middle East. First, Esper continued to justify the administration’s assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, repeating—but leaving uncited—the claim that Soleimani was actively plotting against American citizens and that the strike was an act of self-defense.
Though he did not spend as much time on the latter topic, Esper did confirm that the Pentagon is not seeking to update any of its legal authorities for the use of force and it is not requesting the repeal or amendment of any of the active authorizations for the use of military force (AUMF). This is interesting because, as ACW illustrated in a recent report, the administration has broadly interpreted the 2002 AUMF against Iraq to justify action against Iran.
US Kills Head of AQAP in Yemen. The White House confirmed this week that the Pentagon undertook an operation that killed Qassem al-Rimi, the head of the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) branch in Yemen. According to one report, the drone strike also killed a leading deputy of al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.