ISSUE BRIEF

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Background

The November 2016 election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States has seemingly disrupted the decades-long, bipartisan consensus surrounding the major policy positions on Israel, Palestine, and peace negotiations between the two. While some have welcomed Trump’s new approach to a failed policy agenda, more are concerned President Trump is signaling a move to an even more ardently pro-Israel, anti-Palestinian, peace-ambivalent position. President Trump campaigned on several such shifts during his campaign for president, including relocating the U.S. embassy and offering support for Israeli settlement growth. The rhetoric from President Trump and the team he assembled to lead this agenda has disrupted traditional U.S. policy without yet changing it in a meaningful way.

While the Trump administration formulates a strategy for negotiations, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s long-held prominence in the international community continues to be overshadowed by a myriad of regional crises that are redefining the balance of power in the Middle East. Those crises include the Iran nuclear deal and its reception by leery Gulf Arab states, the tragic wars in Syria and Yemen, and the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). All the while, much of the long-held status quo and facts on the ground have changed for the worse to include: new violence, unabated settlement growth in final status dependent areas, consolidation of Israeli control over far-flung settlements, and a prolonged string of violent attacks.

The Problem

We are poised to see a major shift in Presidential attitudes regarding Israel. Former President Obama walked a fine diplomatic line in touting the strength of the “U.S.-Israeli special relationship” while being increasingly critical of settlement growth and suspicious of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s commitment to a two-state solution. President Trump has demonstrated an increasingly softening position toward Israel as evidenced by his appointment of pro-Israel advisors---Nikki Haley as U.S. Ambassador to the UN, David Friedman as U.S. Ambassador to Israel, and Jared Kushner as Senior Presidential Advisor---his publicly friendly relationship with Netanyahu, and his ongoing criticism of the United Nations, a long-standing proponent of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

At their first press conference together, President Trump and Netanyahu delivered a show of unity, even as Trump walked back on his support of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. Shortly before this, Press Secretary Sean Spicer read a statement declaring that settlements are not an impediment to the peace process---later saying the President has not yet taken an official stance on settlements---breaking with Obama’s firm condemnation of them. These inconsistent positions and the ambiguity towards the prevailing U.S. support of a two-state solution means the United States’ credibility as a negotiator continues to be further compromised.

The new administration’s positions mean supporters of peace now face the challenge of navigating both an inconsistent White House and an extremely pro-Israel Congress. Congress is unlikely to pressure Israel on any score, and recently succeeded in outmaneuvering the Obama White House to undermine longstanding policy on the status of Israeli settlements. They included language in two trade related bills that effectively erased the green line and asserted Israeli ownership of Palestinian land on which settlements and outposts were illegally built. The settlement language – which was packaged with a measure to restrict trade with any company that participates in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement (BDS) – represents a major overreach in Congressional authority, as foreign policy is made solely in the Executive Branch with Congressional oversight. Under President Trump, members of Congress may feel emboldened to propose even more radical legislation at the urging of Netanyahu & further-right politicians in the Israeli government, particularly as the issue of Palestine gets sidelined by the reemergence of a regional strategy in the Middle East.

At home, there are real domestic implications of a continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We have already seen many states pass anti-BDS bills to limit political speech and participation in non-violent boycotts, both of which are protected under the First Amendment. Additionally, Israeli influence on U.S. policies are becoming more common as policymakers continue to add exceptions to U.S. laws for Israel and its supporters.

In the meantime, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, blockade of Gaza, and unapologetic violation of the equal rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel and Bedouin are only worsening, causing suffering for people on both sides of the conflict. These issues must return to the forefront of the international community’s peace agenda. Until serious efforts for a just resolution are underway, the reality of occupation and discrimination will continue to erupt in tragic violence---violence that must be understood as a symptom of a prolonged and asymmetric conflict and 50+ years of brutal occupation.

Moving Forward

We encourage Congress and the White House to:

  • Take up one of the following courses of action to reach a just solution:
  1. Assert U.S. leadership to achieve a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The U.S. can and should set out a list of U.S.-backed, non-negotiable principles for the conflict. Those principles should include: the end of the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine; the lifting of the blockade on Gaza; a robust aid package to assist the Palestinian people in building a stronger economy to address their society’s needs; and, equal rights for every citizen of Israel regardless of ethnicity or religion.
  2. Allow the negotiation process to be “internationalized” by empowering the the UN Security Council members to increase their leadership role in bringing about resolution. After decades of exclusive U.S. leadership of the peace process and no results for the Palestinians, it is time to try a different approach. The U.S. should refrain from thwarting Palestinian efforts taken at the United Nations General Assembly or any resolutions that come before the UNGA during future sessions.There should be resolutions laying down consensus red lines in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And the United States should push its partners in the Middle East Quartet to propose concrete consequences for actions that undermine the viability of the two-state outcome for both sides as determined by the UN Security Council.

• Hold Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu accountable for his rhetoric and racist policies impacting Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and Palestinian citizens of Israel. 

• Make a considerably larger allocation of assistance to international organizations leading the reconstruction of Gaza given the extraordinary and urgent need for humanitarian relief and infrastructure materials.

Download the AAI Issue Brief: Palestine (2017)


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