The Trump Term: An Israel-Palestine Damage Assessment

Shortly after he was elected as president in November 2016, Donald Trump quickly got to work on advancing his Israel policy. In fact, he might have focused more swiftly on this issue than any other. David Friedman, Trump’s personal bankruptcy lawyer, was the very first political appointee the president-elect chose to be US ambassador to Israel. A settlement financier and right-wing fanatic, Friedman would play a massive role in shaping US policy toward Israel/Palestine. The stage was promptly set for Israel to take full advantage of the Trump Administration’s first term; indeed, a laundry list of requests that the Israelis could only have dreamed of previously was handed to them by the Trump team. Below is a review of some of the most important—as well as some of the lesser known—gifts the Trump Administration granted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The stage was promptly set for Israel to take full advantage of the Trump Administration’s first term; indeed, a laundry list of requests that the Israelis could only have dreamed of previously was handed to them by the Trump team.

The giveaways during the Trump years, in large part, fall generally into several interrelated categories: recognition and unrecognition of territories; norm shattering and precedent setting; economic cruelty; diplomatic moves; and a host of other pro-Israel measures.

Recognition and Unrecognition of Territories

Some of the biggest gifts came on the recognition front. President Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Both moves reverse decades of US policy relating to Israel and the acquisition of territory by force. The Jerusalem decision also led to a break in US relations with the Palestinian Authority (PA), a relationship that continued to devolve further. In addition to the recognition of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, the Trump Administration also unrecognized the Palestinian Territories, removing any mention of them on the State Department website as an area served by one of its bureaus.

Norm Shattering and Precedent Setting

Any doubt about the direction the Trump Administration would take was removed by Nikki Haley, the president’s first ambassador to the United Nations, when she blocked a nomination for a UN role simply because of the Palestinian identity of the nominee. That person, Salam Fayyad, was once considered as Washington’s man in Ramallah and was in the good graces of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama Administrations for years. Anything or anyone Palestinian, no matter how compliant or America-friendly, was on Trump’s trash list.

Donald Trump became the first US president to visit the Middle East on his first foreign trip. Usually reserved for American neighbors Mexico and Canada, these visits signal the foreign policy focus of an administration. Trump’s initial trip in May 2017, which first took him to Saudi Arabia in an event that coincided with apparent plans by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt to isolate Qatar, also brought him to Israel shortly afterward. The trip would ultimately become an agenda setting one, as much of Trump’s first term was spent building from that point toward normalization agreements just ahead of the November 2020 election.

Trump further shattered norms and broke precedents around Jerusalem when he authorized moving the US embassy there from Tel Aviv. He became the first US president to visit the Western Wall while in office.

Trump further shattered norms and broke precedents around Jerusalem when he authorized moving the US embassy there from Tel Aviv. He became the first US president to visit the Western Wall while in office. In addition, US diplomatic staff began to meet and work with Israeli settlers during the Trump Administration which formally announced that it no longer believed Israeli settlements contravene international law. To be sure, no US administration has done more to normalize Israeli settlements.

Economic Cruelty

In addition to major steps around recognition, shattering norms, and setting new precedents on Israel/Palestine, the Trump Administration has taken several financial steps that have had a profound impact as well. In 2017, as soon as he took office, Trump put an immediate hold on monies ($220 million) that the Obama Administration had earmarked for the PA, which ultimately were redirected elsewhere. In 2018, Trump signed the Taylor Force Act, a law that prevents US financing of the Palestinian Authority until it ended its policy of social welfare for the families of martyrs and prisoners. Further, the Trump Administration halted funding for UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, as part of an effort to further marginalize the refugee issue, thumb Washington’s nose at the United Nations, and inflict further economic pain on vulnerable Palestinians.

Diplomatic Moves

The Trump Administration did damage on the diplomatic front as well. Trump’s State Department seems to have revoked valid visas for Palestinians, from civil society leader Omar Barghouti to PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi. The PLO General Delegation, which has had a presence in Washington, DC as the official representative of Palestinians in the United States for decades, was forced to shut down with the staff expelled or forced to cease activities.

The Trump Administration also attacked international institutions in great part for Israel’s sake. The United States withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council and went on to attack the International Criminal Court, ultimately placing the prosecutor working on Israel/Palestine under sanctions. The international prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, who had worked for years with the ICC after contributing to the International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda, was astonishingly placed on the “Specially Designated Nationals” list, one that the US Treasury Department notes is generally used for “terrorists and narcotics traffickers.”

Other Pro-Israel Measures

The Trump Administration took several anti-Iran steps that were packaged as pro-Israel measures. The president withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, on which the previous administration devoted years in diplomatic effort and political capital. Washington adopted a “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran that, at best, achieved minimum results. Further, Trump carried out the extrajudicial assassination of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, ramping up tension throughout the region and especially in Iraq, where the United States is now considering shutting down its embassy in Baghdad—the largest and most expensive embassy in the world—nearly two decades after invading and occupying the Arab nation.

On the domestic front, Trump also advanced a number of steps that would surely please the Israelis as well as advocates for a “no daylight” approach to US-Israel relations.

On the domestic front, Trump also advanced a number of steps that would surely please the Israelis as well as advocates for a “no daylight” approach to US-Israel relations. Key to this dynamic is how the United States would handle domestic dissent toward US-Israel policy, specifically in the form of Palestinian rights activism. During the Trump Administration, Republicans continued to push anti-BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) legislation, weaponizing anti-Semitism as a political cudgel with which to beat Democrats and provide cover for a president and a party that often engaged in anti-Semitic rhetoric of their own. In this vein, President Trump appointed Ken Marcus, a pro-Israel institutional leader and attorney who has zealously weaponized anti-Semitism to advocate against and silence Palestinian activism on campus, through the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education. Marcus used the opportunity to push his own ideological agenda and intimidate universities whose students and faculty engaged in Palestine activism. Though he resigned in disgrace, Marcus spent three years using his platform at the federal agency to discriminate against student activists for Palestinian rights and punishing pro-Palestine advocacy. Trump also issued an executive order to support this approach in late 2019.

Additionally, Trump appointed Elan Carr as the “Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism,” who similarly weaponized anti-Semitism for political purposes and sought to advance the institutionalization of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism throughout US government agencies. The innocuously named alliance’s definition incorrently defines criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic in certain circumstances; this has been deliberately weaponized by supporters of Israeli government policy to silence dissent. Even the author of the definition has spoken out in opposition to its use for these purposes, but this has not stopped Carr or the Trump Administration from taking such an approach to its logical trajectory. In fact, as recently as last month, they announced they sought to label human rights groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Oxfam International as anti-Semitic organizations.

Four Years of Pain…and Clarity

If one considers a pro-Israel position as a zero-sum stance, one that gives Israeli leaders what they want while causing great harm for the Palestinians, then it is hard to point to a more “pro-Israel” president in American history. Donald Trump not only granted the Israelis various items on their wish list, but he also inflicted pain on Palestinians in the cruelest fashion. It was not merely enough for Trump to make the Israelis happy; he sought, in the process, to make Palestinians wince. Given the history of staunch US support for Israel, Trump seemingly aimed to distinguish himself clearly from his predecessors as a president who tried to go above and beyond the call of duty to put himself squarely on Israel’s side.

During the past four years, this approach has been made possible by a number of factors. First and perhaps most important, Trump cultivated a close circle of right-wing Zionist ideologues who sought to advance a right-wing Zionist agenda. Second, their effort was made easier because they were able to successfully convince the president of the positive domestic political implications of such a policy with his base, among whom white evangelicals were the core building block. Third, polarized American politics created the conditions in which pursuing a highly polarized approach to Israel continued to have a political payoff. As in 2016, approximately 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2020 and validators in those communities often touted his support for Israel. (For context, George W. Bush, himself a born-again evangelical with the blessings of Billy Graham, received only 68 percent of the white evangelical vote in 2000.) Trump’s ability to make gains in this constituency as well as hold—and indeed dominate—it built the foundation of a viable candidacy.

The two-state solution, the very goal of President Mahmoud Abbas and PA leaders, has never looked more unrealistic, in good part because of the steps Trump took to recognize Israeli claims and legitimize settlements, which the Israelis built and expanded aggressively during the Trump years. 

For Palestinians, these have been difficult years and the most tense since official relations were established between the PLO and the US government over three decades ago. As a result, the Palestinian leadership is facing a deeper financial and political crisis than ever before. The two-state solution, the very goal of President Mahmoud Abbas and PA leaders, has never looked more unrealistic, in good part because of the steps Trump took to recognize Israeli claims and legitimize settlements, which the Israelis built and expanded aggressively during the Trump years. The Palestinian Authority’s coffers are drying up and fewer donors are willing to help. The Americans under Trump pulled the plug; Gulf Arab states have been warming to Israel and their transfers to the PA have been dwindling as a result. For their part, the Europeans increasingly question the benefits and worth of their investments.

Politically, the Palestinians are in a deep morass. The leadership has not held elections for 14 years, and many question its representativeness. It is clear that the Palestinians’ main objective has been rendered impossible by the very partners who are supposed to help them achieve it. Mahmoud Abbas seems to have survived the Trump era but at 85, he surely represents the Palestinian past more than its future, at the very moment the nation sits at a pivotal junction in its liberation struggle.

While the Trump Administration inflicted great pain on Palestinians, it may have also afforded them a clarifying moment. Never before has Israeli apartheid been so deeply institutionalized. Never before has the strategy of negotiations through Washington proved more fruitless. Never before has the goal of an independent Palestinian state seemed more fanciful. Palestinians may not have a clear sense of where they should head from here, but if Trump has done anything for them, he has given them an unmistakable opportunity to realize that the one place they cannot go is back to the politics, vision, and strategy that brought them to the present situation.

Furthermore, some Palestinian leaders might think that a Joe Biden administration would bring back better days and reverse the impact of Trump. However, this is not a conclusion one can draw from objectively assessing the current reality. What a Biden administration can and might try to do on Israeli/Palestine will be the subject of a second piece to follow.

Yousef Munayyer is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Yousef and read his previous publications click here