There has been some shock and awe at how, within the space of two years, the Trump administration has turned accepted orthodoxy on Israeli-Palestinian peace on its head. The awe is understandable, given the depth and breadth of the policy shifts. The shock, however, makes less sense.
After all, the duo responsible, David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, and Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special advisor on international negotiations, are the same two who drafted Trump’s campaign position paper which outlined exactly what the administration intended to achieve.
Their success thus far may not be all that they bargained for, if bipartisan support for Israel is a key priority. Regardless, they should be credited for being both transparent and consistent in an administration that is generally viewed as less than such.
Most visibly, they promised that the U.S. would recognize Jerusalem as "the eternal and indivisible capital of the Jewish state" and move the embassy there. Sure enough, on May 14, 2018, the anniversary of the dispossession and exile of 750,000 Palestinians from what became the State of Israel, Trump moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
On the two-state solution, in that position paper, they said that since Palestinians could not be expected to renounce violence and recognize Israel as a Jewish state, sovereignty would not be in the offing. The land had "belonged to the Jewish people for 3500 years," and thus, they intended to dispel "the false notion that Israel is an occupier."
Though many have faulted Trump for his wishy-washiness on the two-state solution, it was not for his team’s lack of foreign policy acumen; the campaign position paper shows it was by design. Trump’s recent statements that he thinks a two-state formula "would work best" stand in opposition to the policy his team is pursuing.
If there’s no occupation, then why shouldn’t the State Department remove all references to "occupied territories" from its reports?
And as problematic as it is for the U.S. to fail to speak out against the Knesset’s passage of the Jewish Nation State Basic Law - which gives Jewish nationality constitutional primacy over Israeli citizenship, and encourages settlement construction in the occupied territories, it is entirely consistent with Friedman and Greenblatt’s position paper.
Why should the Trump administration be concerned with the ramifications of this Basic Law on the political and civil rights of Israel’s indigenous Palestinian Arab citizens, representing 21% of the population, or the human rights of five million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, when the land has belonged to the Jewish people for over three millennia?
Without a commitment to Palestinian statehood, or recognition of a Palestinian right to some part of the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, Trump’s closure of the PLO office in Washington has some logic, as does his recent decision to merge the US consulate handling Palestinian affairs with the U.S. Embassy to Israel.
And if the Trump administration doesn’t recognize that Palestinians have a right to a home in historic Palestine, then UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for providing humanitarian relief to Palestinian refugees pending a political solution, is a nuisance that must be dismantled, enabling the world to forget their claims and Israel’s responsibility for their condition. The refugees and those living in island enclaves in the occupied territories are the political and financial problem of Arab governments, not of the Jewish state.
A less well-known fulfillment of Friedman and Greenblatt’s well-flagged promises is the appointment of Kenneth Marcus to head the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Education. Friedman and Greenblatt view nonviolent, First Amendment-protected activity, like boycotts to compel Israel’s compliance with human rights standards, as "inherently anti-Semitic." Therefore, their position paper provided that a Trump Justice Department would investigate campus activism that might be intimidating to students who support Israel.
Soon after taking office, Marcus, a champion within the movement to redefine anti-Semitism to include criticism of Israel, reopened an investigation against Rutgers University involving students supporting Palestinian rights, a case found meritless under the Obama administration years earlier.
In the international arena, Friedman and Greenblatt promised that Trump would oppose efforts perceived as anti-Israel.
True to their word, the Trump Administration has vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning the U.S.’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, threatened retribution against countries voting against the U.S. and Israel at the UN, has withdrawn the US from the UN Human Rights Council and the Optional Protocol to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations following a complaint brought under the convention before the World Court by Palestine, and has threatened to prosecute judges of the International Criminal Court if they pursue the U.S. or Israel for war crimes.
Thanks to Friedman and Greenblatt, the Trump campaign position paper was largely incorporated into the 2016 Republican Party Platform. Though the platform is not the Republican Bible, it is indicative of the way Republicans have been trending. Republican electoral energy lies with an evangelical base that is committed to notions of a Greater Israel even as Israeli policies drive Palestinian Christians and Muslims out of their homes.
While the Republican base has embraced Israeli policies, those same policies, along with the perceived U.S. complicity, are pushing Democrats toward a day of reckoning.
Will the party leadership continue to unconditionally support an Israeli government that has enshrined ethno-religious supremacy into constitutional law, or will an energized progressive base push the party towards a rights-based foreign policy?
Some poised to take House seats next year have already answered this question for themselves. Buoyed by the 2016 presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders, this new crop of progressive Democrats speak openly and often about the need for a more balanced U.S. approach, one that upholds human rights and takes Israel to task for abuses.
Though some have cautioned against the idea that Democrats are divided in their support for Israel, these new Democrats are the canaries in the coal mine. In this age of polarized politics, the way of the energized base has become the way of the party.
This is unfolding in real time at the state and local level, far away from the Washington echo-chamber of well-resourced, pro-Israel advocacy groups. Significantly, among those calling for a new approach in the face of Trump Administration and Israeli policies which have moved hand-in-hand are Jewish Democrats.
So a Jewish civil rights activist in Oregon protesting Trump’s Muslim-ban faces no cognitive dissonance in speaking out against Israel’s ideologically-based entry bans.
And a Latina in Arizona opposing the construction of a wall through her border community also opposes Israel’s separation wall even though she may have never traveled to the region.
And an African-American in Ferguson sees the parallels between the unlawful use of deadly force against unarmed young people in his community and the gross violation of the human rights of Palestinians in Gaza sniped at by Israeli soldiers standing behind razor wire hundreds of meters away.
Progressives are challenging old-school Democratic Party orthodoxy on Israel and making the connections with civil rights and political struggles for human dignity. Intersectionality has become the buzzword and call to action within progressive circles. This will have long-term ramifications for the party.
Trump and his Middle East Team may be celebrating each item they check off their list of campaign promises now, but they may not realize how they’ve ensured a new dawn in U.S. foreign policy toward Israel-Palestine. This may be where they most deserve credit.
Zaha Hassan is a human rights lawyer and Visiting Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; She was formerly a Middle East Fellow at New America, and coordinator and senior legal advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team (2010-2012). Twitter: @zahahassan
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now