President of the United States Donald Trump came into office as a self-described outsider and deal-maker seeking to disrupt the status quo and challenge prevailing political norms. At least with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, President Trump has stayed true to his word, as recent months have been marked by various shifts in United States attitudes in the region. For example, compared to past presidential administrations, the Trump administration seems much less committed to a two-state vision, places lesser emphasis on the importance of the peace process, and seemingly refuses to accept traditional “rules of the game,” such as considering Palestinian perspectives when making key regional decisions.
This attitude shift most clearly manifested itself on December 6, 2017, when President Trump announced his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Vice President of the United States Mike Pence had been scheduled to visit the Middle East two weeks after this decision, and as part of this trip, he had planned to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. However, following the decision and the hardline response from Palestinian leadership, the trip was postponed and a new political reality began to emerge.
While the White House publicly justified the postponement by stating that the vice president needed to remain in Washington DC to assist with an upcoming vote on tax reform legislation, one can safely assume that the delay was an attempt to allow Palestinian anger over the Jerusalem decision to subside, and possibly allow for a future meeting between the vice president and Palestinian leadership.
This attempt failed, as President Abbas refused to respond to overtures from Washington and moderate Arab countries to soften his rhetoric. Instead, President Abbas intensified his anger about the decision. In a now famous speech before the Palestinian Central Council, President Abbas personally chastised President Trump with the common insult “may your house be demolished.” In order to avoid any signs of weakness, the Trump administration responded to this insult by pledging to significantly cut financial aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
On January 21, 2018, Vice President Pence arrived in Israel as part of his long awaited Middle East trip. While he could have deescalated the existing tensions with President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, Vice President Pence magnified the conflict surrounding the Jerusalem decision. Specifically, he chose not to simply reiterate President Trump’s statement regarding Jerusalem, and the clarification that the United States did not intend to prejudge the vision of Jerusalem to be agreed upon by both sides. Instead, Vice President Pence stated on numerous occasions that the United States intends to implement its new policy by transferring its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by the end of 2019.
This reference to a specific timetable was a dramatic addition to President Trump’s original statement. Before explicitly outlining a timetable to move the embassy, President Trump’s decision could have been perceived as only a symbolic gesture to Israel, because in practice the United States embassy would stay in Tel Aviv for the foreseeable future, and the status quo would remain the same. However, in his speech to the Israeli Knesset, Vice President Pence made it clear to millions of people in Israel and in the Middle East, that within two years the region would face the new political reality of a United States embassy in Jerusalem. Unlike other diplomatic decisions, it will be extremely difficult for future United States administrations, even administrations led by a president from the Democratic party or one otherwise opposed to this move, to restore the status quo of the embassy’s location. Prime Minister Netanyahu clearly understood this reality and, by no accident, compared Vice President Pence’s remarks to the Balfour Declaration — the public statement issued by the British government in 1917 which would help lead to the establishment of the State of Israel. (A month after Vice President Pence’s trip, the United States announced that in May 2018 it would redesignate the current Consulate General office in Jerusalem as the official embassy. The United States Ambassador’s office will be moved at that time, but a new, fully operational embassy will be built at a later date and at a new location.)
Vice President Pence made two other notable stops on his Middle East trip. First, he met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and reaffirmed the countries’ close political ties and mutual cooperation in the war against radical Islamic terror. Given the Palestinian public’s opposition to the United States’ role as the mediator of the Middle East peace process, President el-Sisi’s meeting with Vice President Pence was viewed by many Palestinians as a “slap in the face” because the Palestinians had hoped that other Arab states would join in its criticism of the Trump Administration, and in its broader position regarding the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Vice President Pence also met with King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein of Jordan. King Abdullah’s statement following the meeting emphasized that although Jordan has a special position in Jerusalem, especially with respect to the Islamic holy places, and although the vast majority of its population is Palestinian, the country is not currently in a position to join the Palestinian boycott of the Trump administration. In other words, Jordanian leaders are indicating that they expect the Palestinian Authority to tolerate the United States’ new position regarding Jerusalem and try to make the best of the current situation. King Abdullah emphasized this point at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in which he stated “We’ve been at this [the peace process] for a while and looking at this always as a glass half full. We have to give the Americans the benefit of the doubt.”
Following Vice President Pence’s trip to Israel, the tension between the United State and the Palestinian Authority continued to grow. Both President Trump and United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley blamed the Palestinian Authority for the lack of progress in the peace process. President Trump went further, and explicitly threatened to stop all financial aid to the Palestinian Authority, and said that he was personally insulted by President Abbas’ decision not to meet with Vice President Pence.
During his annual State of the Union speech, President Trump also amplified his threats by calling upon Congress to “pass legislation to help ensure American foreign-assistance dollars always serve American interests, and only go to America’s friends.”
Despite this escalation, Vice President Pence and Ambassador Haley have been clear that the United States is still committed to the advancement of the peace process and the implementation of the two-state solution, if agreed upon by the two parties. However, it is also quite apparent that the Trump administration knows that any Palestinian leader will find it very hard (if not impossible) to accept its Jerusalem decision, or other proposals regarding a future peace agreement. According to one source (often attributed to Palestinian diplomat Saeb Erekat), the Trump administration will soon release a new proposal which will call for Israel to annex approximately 10 percent of the territory within the West Bank, and for Israel to be given “overriding security responsibility” in areas which will remain in Palestinian control, including full control of the borders with Jordan and Egypt.
Vice President Pence’s trip to the Middle East, and the responses of regional allies such as Egypt and Jordan, show that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the United States’ top diplomatic priority in the region. Instead, the United States seems far more concerned with the Iranian nuclear threat, and is determined to undo the Iran nuclear deal, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“JCPOA”), unless all the signatories can reach a deal on substantial, and not simply cosmetic, changes to the agreement. Among other demands, the United States (and Israel) want the current inspection procedures to be strengthened, and want the agreement to address Iran’s ballistic missile development program. To this point, Vice President Pence’s description of the JCPOA as a “disaster” reflects the United States’ view that the time for change is now, and cannot be postponed.
This is the new political landscape in which the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will take place — the United States is strongly determined to move its embassy to Jerusalem, tensions between the United States and the Palestinian Authority have escalated, and the Trump administration may soon release a new, controversial peace proposal. Most significantly, though, the United States and traditional Palestinian allies, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf States, now consider the removal of the Iranian nuclear threat to be their top priority. Consequently, these are now far less likely to intervene when Palestinians feel aggrieved by the United States or Israel.
As these new political forces converge, it is our estimation that the Palestinian issue will be brushed aside in the coming months, and Palestinian leadership will not be able to change this course. Sooner or later, the Palestinian leadership will realize that their attempt to replace the United States with the European Union as the chief peace mediator has failed, and further confrontation with the United States will come at a very high price. Furthermore, the deadlocked reconciliation process between Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, the growing criticism of Palestinian leadership by the Palestinian public, and continuing confrontations with the United States, could contribute to growing instability within the Palestinian leadership, and possibly lead to its downfall.
Not only will this scenario be a problem for Palestinian leadership, but also we believe that it would harm Israel’s desire for a Palestinian people ruled by a stable leadership capable of preserving the current period of relative tranquility and advancing economic growth within the Palestinian entity. Only with a pragmatic, stable and authoritative Palestinian leadership can an interim, and possibly long-term, agreement be reached — ultimately serving the interest of both Israel and the Palestinians.