Trump’s Mideast policy: Diplomatic Darwinism in the quest for the ultimate deal

On Twitter, POTUS contradicts his own position on Jerusalem, threatens to bankrupt the PA and to make Israel ‘pay more’ — yet this does not mark an abandonment of his peace effort

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US President Donald Trump signs a memorandum after he delivered a statement on Jerusalem from the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House in Washington, DC on December 6, 2017. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP)
US President Donald Trump signs a memorandum after he delivered a statement on Jerusalem from the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House in Washington, DC on December 6, 2017. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP)

US President Donald Trump’s bombshell tweets late on Tuesday demonstrated once again just how unpredictable the leader of the free world is.

In under 100 words, he questioned America’s longstanding financial support for the Palestinian Authority, contradicted his own position on Jerusalem, and indicated that Israel would have to “pay” in future peace negotiations.

With a president as impulsive as Trump, nothing is impossible. Tomorrow he really could, as he threatened on Twitter, announce that the US will cease funding the PA or demand painful concessions from Israel, or declare he is abandoning his pet peace project altogether.

At this point it appears more likely, however, that US officials will somehow try to downplay the president’s surprising tweets, indicating support for the status quo and vowing that the White House will continue unabated in its efforts to bring about a lasting peace.

Still, Trump’s tweets do provide fascinating insights into how he views international relations and the application of his “America First” foreign policy in the Middle East. It’s all quid pro quo, a system of bilateral transactions in which the strongest player dominates weaker ones. Call it diplomatic Darwinism.

American taxpayers pay the PA hundreds of millions of dollars per annum but “get no appreciation or respect” in return, Trump lamented on his favorite social media platform.

Even worse, he noted, Ramallah — which reacted to his December 6 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by declaring it no longer considers the US an honest broker — refuses to enter US-sponsored negotiations with the Jewish state.

“We have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table, but Israel, for that, would have had to pay more,” Trump tweeted. “But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”

It’s a lot to unpack.

Who wants UNRWA?

Most disconcerting, for Palestinians and at least some Israelis, is the threat to withhold financial aid for the PA. A short while before Trump took to Twitter, his ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, warned the Palestinians that Washington would cease funding the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency, known as UNRWA, as long as Ramallah refused to negotiate with Israel.

“We’re trying to move for a peace process but if that doesn’t happen the president is not going to continue to fund that situation,” Haley told reporters.

Reviled as UNRWA may be by Israelis — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has even called for it to be disbanded — few Israelis would argue with the assertion that the agency provides vital services to the most vulnerable Palestinians.

“There are many problems with UNRWA, but cutting financial support to the organization hurts the weakest members of Palestinian society and is unlikely to bring the Palestinian Authority to the table,” tweeted Peter Lerner, a former spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces.

“What is the expected outcome?” Lerner proceeded to ask Haley, adding that UNRWA operates 363 Schools with 311,071 students and 65 health facilities throughout the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

“The refugee camps have historically been hotbeds for terrorist activities, weakening this population will only lead to more extremism and violence. This will not contribute to security or stability in the region,” he wrote.

Palestinians get haircuts at an UNRWA school in Rafah where they have taken shelter, August 17, 2014 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Netanyahu will likely publicly applaud Trump and Haley for their position as he seeks to remain aligned with the White House on regional issues. But it is possible that, via more discreet channels, Jerusalem officials will also politely convey to their US colleagues that bankrupting the PA is unlikely to produce desirable results.

The budget cut threat

The US has brandished the threat of budget cuts before, but few countries took it seriously. Governments that support a UN General Assembly resolution condemning Trump’s December 6 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital should brace themselves for reduced payments, the president and his UN envoy warned before and after the vote.

Still, 128 countries — among them the top recipients of US aid — voted in favor. Only nine nations opposed the motion, and 35 abstained.

So far, little is known about concrete punitive measures the US intends to enact against countries that supported the UN resolution.

The voting results are displayed on the floor of the United Nations General Assembly in which the United States declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was declared “null and void” on December 21, 2017 in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

Another potential ramification of Trump’s tweets, from an Israeli perspective, is in the implication that in peace negotiations Israel would have to “pay more” because of his Jerusalem declaration.

Following the president’s speech, officials in Washington and Jerusalem asserted that Israel was not asked for anything in return for the declaration. Indeed, as long as the peace process is frozen, Netanyahu has nothing to worry about.

If and when the Palestinians decide to enter US-sponsored negotiations, the prime minister knows that he will be asked to be especially forthcoming. But those who have been following Trump’s pronouncements on the Middle East won’t be surprised by that.

The Trump approach

For the president, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was always something to be solved by a good negotiator who knows how to get both sides to give and take. It’s the art of the deal, after all.

Members of Trump’s Middle East team say they expected the Palestinians’ angry reaction over the Jerusalem recognition. Sooner or later Ramallah will recognize that there is no peace process without the US, step out of the corner it painted itself into and consider entering negotiations under American tutelage, they argue. That calculus remains firmly in place, the president’s furious tweets notwithstanding.

US President Donald Trump reaches to shake Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s hand before a meeting at the Palace Hotel during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly on September 20, 2017, in New York. (AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski)

Trump on Tuesday also tweeted that he had taken Jerusalem “off the table,” contradicting his own assertion on December 6 that the city’s status and eventual borders needed to be determined by the two sides.

“We are not taking a position of any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders,” he declared at the time in a statement US officials have repeated on countless occasions since.

How will they now respond to questions about Trump’s tweet? Walking back statements the commander-in-chief made on social media is a delicate thing to do for civil servants. But administration officials have their ways to hedge, explain, relativize, qualify and play down their boss’s policy pronouncements, however emphatic and surprising.

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