There is no agreement within the Trump government on the future of the Israeli-Palestinian arena. There is a dispute, and it is not yet clear how the president will decide whether and when a decision is made. Understanding the disagreement is necessary for understanding some of the president’s latest moves against the Palestinian leadership, including cutting aid funds and announcing the closure of the mission in Washington. Understanding the dispute is necessary to assess the likelihood that one day, if and when, similar American pressure will be exerted on Israel as well.
The dispute can be briefly explained as follows:
There are those in the Trump government who believe that the latest steps are a lever for exerting pressure on the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table. This is the official position of the administration, and also the position of some government officials. They want the Palestinians at the table, want to present a plan that will benefit, in their understanding, the people of Israel, the Palestinians and the Middle East. They want to crack the unceasing walnut and amaze the world with the deal of the century. In the eyes of these officials, the announcement of the closure of the Palestinian delegation is a tactical step. A reversible step. Come to the table, negotiate, accept the American proposal, and open the mission.
There are also those in the Trump administration who believe that the latest steps are a way to signal to the world the President’s real intention: a fundamental change in the discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian arena. In their opinion, closing the mission is not a tactical step of pressure, but a strategic step in keeping with the recognition of Jerusalem and the transfer of the American embassy to the capital of Israel. In fact, they say, the administration’s steps, including these last steps, should be seen as punitive measures, reflective of its overall position on the issue of Palestine.
There is a degree of consistency in the claim of those who expand: The transfer of the embassy, as the president said, has brought the issue of Jerusalem off the table. UNRWA’s budget cut promises to reduce the problem of Palestinian refugees on the table. The closing of the mission in Washington foreshadows the removal of the Palestinian state from the table. Each step is well tuned to one of the core issues that prevent progress. Every step signals to the Palestinians that whatever happened, Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel, and the Palestinians cannot prevent this with endless refusal. The refugees, who are mainly descended from refugees, will not return anywhere. They will have to recognize reality and be absorbed somewhere. As for the Palestinian state, this, as a senior official has said in the past, depends on the question of “how to define a state.” It would certainly be nothing more than a state minus. And perhaps only autonomy plus. Or a component in the Kingdom of Jordan. Either way, this is an entity that does not have to have representation in Washington.
The gap between the tactical approach and the substantive approach is a deep one. According to his public statements, the president is in the tactical camp – he is applying pressure in order to renew negotiations. According to his actions, he may be a member of the substantive camp – he is taking measures that will only make the likelihood of negotiations more distant, and raise the conflict on a new path of consciousness. Of course, there is also a possibility that the president does not care. Either way, he’s doing something, and it’s the reverse of what was done by the previous president, which irritates those he likes to upset. And there is a possibility that the president is tempted to take substantial steps under the guise of tactical measures. If this is the case, the maneuver is only possible thanks to the dedicated cooperation of the Palestinian leadership, which refuses to examine the seriousness of Trump’s intentions and has declared them irrelevant.
The president has a little more than two years. It’s a long time, a lot can happen. For a short time, it is hard to see how it will suffice to change an ancient conflict. If the Palestinians are right in their assessment, the president will go, and in his place will come another president, perhaps a Democrat. An important article by Clare Malone on FiveThirtyEight published this week shows that Americans, Republicans and Democrats, are tired of candidates willing to compromise or soften. They are looking for political purity. This is convenient for Israel when a Republican president strikes at the Palestinian leadership. It will be much less convenient when a Democratic president recognizes that his voters’ desire is to strike Israel.