Donald Trump entered the White House promising to be ‘the most pro-Israel president ever’. This hyperbolic bombast gratified what is certainly the most right-wing Israeli government ever, which is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Israel’s crushing victory over Arab armies in 1967, and half a century of occupation of the West Bank and Arab east Jerusalem it has no plans to end.
President Trump, the self-described dealmaker, keeps hinting and tweeting he is on course to do ‘the ultimate deal’ that has eluded his predecessors: never spelt out but assumed to mean an Arab-Israeli peace encompassing a deal for the Palestinians, who have sought in vain the state proffered tantalisingly by the Oslo accords of 1993-95.
This most erratic of US presidents, meeting Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, in February, threw the international consensus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since Oslo to the winds, saying that the two-state solution, meant to offer security to Israel and justice to the Palestinians, may not be the way to resolve it. ‘I am looking at two-state and one-state [solutions], and I like the one that both parties like,’ Trump said, to nervous chortles from Netanyahu and general bemusement.
Trump may have got something right: that the extent to which Israel has colonised occupied Arab land with Jewish settlements has placed a Palestinian state beyond physical as well as political reach. Yet nearly all Israeli Jews and most Palestinians oppose a one-state alternative.
Jews see a demographic time-bomb, in which Arabs would eventually outnumber them in the cramped space between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean (the two peoples are now roughly level-pegging at about 6.3m each). Palestinians, fed up with their corrupt and feckless leadership, would only opt for one-state if they got the same rights as Israelis, including the vote. That isn’t going to happen. Remaining as second-class citizens, under occupation in a de facto single entity, holds little appeal.
The Trumpian blur of empirical impressionism—talk of ‘a much bigger deal’ that would ‘take in many countries’—is starting to come into focus, if not feasibility. After last month’s inaugural foreign trip, starting in Saudi Arabia and then Israel, his plan seems to be to get Sunni Arab states to join Israel in an alliance to isolate their shared enemy in Shia Iran, and in passing solve the century-old question of Palestine.
It’s hard to see this “grand bargain” as serious, much less getting very far.
It’s true that Arab leaders have long colluded and collaborated with Israel, despite ritual outpourings of brotherly solidarity with the Palestinians. But an Arab peace initiative, backed by the 22-member Arab League and all 57 states in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, has been on the table since 2002. It offers Israel peace treaties with full diplomatic relations in exchange for its withdrawal from all Arab land captured in 1967, and the creation of a sovereign Palestine on the West Bank and Gaza, with east Jerusalem as its capital. Israel has always refused to discuss it.
Things have moved on. The common threat to the rule of Arab autocrats posed by the turmoil of the so-called Arab Spring, which opened new opportunities for jihadi extremism after 2011, and a shared hostility towards an Iran that has hardened its Shia axis since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, extending it through Syria to Lebanon, and branching down into the Gulf—all this has relegated the Palestine issue.
But Arab rulers do care above all about survival, and the mood of their peoples, for whom Palestine—and above all Jerusalem—are emotive issues. Mr Trump’s musings about a single state have encouraged annexationists in the Israeli cabinet such as Naftali Bennett, education minister and leader of the far right Jewish Home party. He’s pushing to foreclose decisively on any two-state option by annexing Ma’ale Adumim, a settlement east of the Holy City whose municipal boundaries exceed those of Tel Aviv, and expand its built-up area to put in place the last ramparts that enclose occupied east Jerusalem and encircle Bethlehem.
Saudi players such as Mohammed bin Salman, the young deputy crown prince in whom King Salman, his ailing father, has invested extraordinary power, will sound conciliatory. But the House of Saud ultimately must look to its legitimacy, and Jerusalem is a ticking bomb. Saudi rulers, who style themselves as the custodians of the holy places of Mecca and Medina, cannot ally openly with an Israel that refuses to share any part of Jerusalem, which contains the third holiest place in Islam—the al-Aqsa mosque in the Noble Sanctuary, on what Jews know as Temple Mount.
The larger point is that the domestic costs to Israel of uprooting its 50-year settler enterprise to make way for a Palestinian state far outweigh the benefits of satisfying the episodic strictures of an international community that isn’t willing to change this cost-benefit equation. Nathan Thrall, an International Crisis Group analyst who makes this case almost irrefutably in his recent book, says: ‘so far Israel has proven quite capable of living with the decades-old label of “pariah”’.
The growing opprobrium of subjugating a people, colonising their territory, and appropriating scarce resources such as water and arable land hasn’t impeded Israel from building a sophisticated and world-class economy. For Israel’s current extremist rulers, talk of a peace dividend is abstract in the extreme.
It’s important to remember that at the halcyon height of the Oslo peace process Israel got a peace dividend, without ending the occupation. Diplomatic recognition of Israel doubled in 1992-96, from 85 to 161 countries, leading to doubled exports and a six-fold increase in foreign investment, while per capita income in the occupied territories fell by 37 per cent and the number of settlers increased by 50 per cent.
President Trump, moreover, is trying to better Barack Obama, who was really ‘the most pro-Israel president ever’. His personal antipathy towards Netanyahu masked this, but Obama was the only US president since 1967 never to have allowed Israel to be condemned at the UN Security Council (last December, as a parting, shot, he abstained on a vote against West Bank settlement policy). Obama also signed the biggest military aid package the US has ever given Israel.
It’s hard to believe Trump can improve on this. But it beggars belief he’s the man who will change the calculus of an Israeli occupation well set to grind on pitilessly.
About the Author
David Gardner is international affairs editor at The Financial Times based in Beirut.