Opinion

Worst U.S. - Palestinian Relations Ever? Blame Trump - but Blame Congress Too

It's legitimate to blast the U.S. president for alienating the Palestinians and distancing peace. But stopping there is a cop-out: Congress has consistently widened the power disparity between Israelis and Palestinians in almost every way

U.S. President Donald Trump and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands after their meeting at the Presidential Palace in the West Bank city of Bethlehem May 23, 2017.
MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS

Since the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords, relations between Washington and the Palestinian Authority have arguably never been worse.

In a remarkable diplomatic insult, the United States threatened to close the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s (PLO) office in Washington (that was last November), President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, infuriating Ramallah, and leading Palestinian officials to reject the U.S. playing a central mediating role in the peace process.

While pundits are rightfully critiquing Trump for this diplomatic crisis, many are ignoring the destructive role members of Congress – both Democrats and Republicans – have played in souring ties with the Palestinian leadership and making peace with Israel even harder to achieve.

Receiving little attention at the time, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed (90-0) a resolution in June 2017 "commemorating the 50th year anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem.” The Senate measure ignored numerous United Nations Security Council resolutions and nearly every country worldwide, which asserts that East Jerusalem is Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel’s takeover of this land is not recognized, let alone praised. Reaffirming the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, the 2017 Senate bill also stated: “Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of Israel."

The Congressional vote was considered critical for the Trump administration. In a Fox News interview shortly after the Jerusalem recognition, U.S. Ambassador David Friedman cited the June Senate vote as the first justification for Trump’s policy shift, saying the move expressed America’s “popular will.” Despite the controversial text, not a single Democrat voted against the bill.

With Trump repeatedly touting his campaign vow to relocate the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and alter an extremely sensitive status quo, senators provided the White House with additional ammunition to proceed with his contentious move.

The June vote was far from the only damaging Congressional intervention. In November, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that the U.S. planned to close the PLO mission in Washington. Policy makers shouldn’t have been surprised by this move since the Trump administration was merely adhering to a 2015 Congressional law that requires the Executive Branch to shut the Palestinian office if Ramallah "actively supports" an investigation of Israelis at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Then, too, a majority of Democratic senators supported this bill, which included this provocative section designed to weaken U.S. ties with the Palestinians.

Shortly afterwards, Tillerson reversed his decision allowing the PLO office to remain open. Yet this Congressional measure is still on the books and enables the Executive Branch to shutter the Palestinian mission once again if Abbas supports another ICC investigation, a political tool that enjoys wide popularity in Palestinian politics.

In another questionable move, the Senate approved (52-46) David Friedman’s nomination as U.S. Ambassador to Israel in March 2017.

The former bankruptcy lawyer appeared ill-suited for this sensitive diplomatic role. Before his appointment, Friedman had personally funded West Bank settlement projects – despite longstanding bipartisan U.S. opposition to settlement construction; rejected Palestinian statehood and compared the mass withdrawal of West Bank settlers to Nazi policies. 

As expected, Friedman has maintained his hardline views as ambassador, provoking a diplomatic crisis with Ramallah when he said that only 2 percent of the West Bank is considered occupied. By supporting his nomination, Congress paved the way for a flamethrower to serve in one of the most sensitive diplomatic spots. With Friedman working closely with the U.S. peace team, Congress ensured that one of the harshest anti-Palestinian voices would shape U.S. policy, making any realistic peace deal even harder to achieve.

Yes, some lawmakers have made productive contributions to the issue. 10 senators signed a November 2017 letter calling on Israel not to demolish Palestinian villages, and 21 House members co-sponsored legislation protesting Israeli detention of Palestinian minors. However, the overwhelming majority of Congress opposed these more balanced measures, ensuring that their impact remained only symbolic.

This stands in contrast to the unanimous passage of a House bill in December 2017 that would dramatically cut U.S. assistance to the West Bank and Gaza. Not a single House member, not one progressive Democrat, voted against the legislation that only hardened Palestinian attitudes towards the U.S. and the feasibility of Abbas to rely on Western diplomacy.

It is true that the Palestinian leadership continues with the problematic policy of funding terrorists’ families. Yet the U.S. has not cut aid to Israel after 50 years of West Bank occupation, numerous unlawful killings or beatings, even of American citizens. (Wealthier Israel receives approximately 10 times the amount of U.S. aid compared to the Palestinians). 

It appears that the vast majority of Congress has been, and still is, determined to widen the power disparity between Israelis and Palestinians in almost every way possible.

Assailing Trump’s Jerusalem recognition, five House Democrats issued a joint statement blasting the President for "undermining prospects” for peace and “recklessly endangering” U.S. and Israeli security.

While this criticism was legitimate, instead of merely blaming the White House, lawmakers should reexamine their own voting records to explain how U.S. ties with the Palestinians have crumbled, jeopardizing a peaceful resolution to a conflict perpetuated by longstanding U.S. involvement so heavily weighted towards Israel.

Aaron Magid is a Washington D.C. based Middle East analyst. His articles have appeared in Foreign Affairs, Al-Monitor, and Haaretz. Twitter: @AaronMagid