Washington Conference Debates the Pros and Cons of Trump’s Israel Strategy
President Donald Trump believes that “Israel has won the historic struggle with the Palestinians,” stated University of Maryland Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, Shibley Telhami, on September 26. He and his fellow panelists at Washington, DC’s Center for American Progress mainly opposed Trump’s policies, and instead championed the failed policies of the Israeli-Palestinian peace “experts.”
Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP) President Lara Friedman noted that the Trump administration, in an “extremely effective way,” is “aiming at conflict redefinition” between Israel and the Palestinians. “The goal of US policy right now is not about getting a deal in the sense that we have all thought about it for years” with a “traditional two-state solution” of an Israeli and Palestinian state. Rather, she said, Trump “is an iconoclast, he is someone who relishes in shooting sacred cows and grinding them up for burgers.”
Friedman and the other panelists criticized Trump’s pro-Israel initiatives taken against Palestinian protests, such as ending aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Near East Refugees (UNRWA). UNRWA’s irredeemable character promotes a Palestinian refugee “farce” and corollary “right of return” that would demographically destroy Israel. Specifically, UNRWA defines ever-growing Palestinian millions as “refugees” merely because they descend from perhaps as many as 750,000 individuals who lost their homes in what became Israel in its 1948 War of Independence.
The Trump administration has also dismissed falsehoods that Israel has no legitimate claims to territory seized by Jordan in 1948 and won by Israel in the 1967 war, including the ancestral Jewish heartland of Judea and Samaria. “This is a massive blow to the Palestinian leadership,” noted Telhami’s Brookings Institution colleague, Khaled Elgindy. Contrary to popular misconceptions that Israel “occupies” the disputed West Bank, the “State Department has been instructed not to use the word ‘occupied territories.’ It is not yet using Judea and Samaria, but it’s early in the administration.”
Foundation for the Defense of Democracies Senior Vice President Jonathan Schanzer, the panel’s recognized sole contrarian conservative voice, noted that the Trump administration is “undoubtedly playing the role of disruptor.” Trump has “undermined almost every Palestinian negotiating position.” Friedman concurred that “we have taken Jerusalem off the table; we are taking refugees off the table. We are taking land off the table, because we now effectively say that Israel can build settlements” in the disputed West Bank.
Schanzer observed that Trump’s policies rightfully recognized Palestinian weakness in the conflict. Telhami concurred that there is an “incredible inequality of power on the ground between Israel and the Palestinians.” He analogized that Trump’s negotiating position is “like the Palestinians are bankrupt, if you are a bankruptcy lawyer, and they should settle for pennies on the dollar when they settle for a deal.”
Schanzer contrasted Trump’s partiality towards Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with previous American administrations:
Previous peace plans have brought the two sides together as equals or relative equals. The Israelis, even though they held most of the cards, were expected to give up territory and other key concessions. The Palestinians, even though they held fewer cards, understood that they were going to gain what they didn’t have.
Echoing the Middle East Forum’s Israel Victory Project, Palestinian advocate Elgindy himself noted how such arbitration produced no results. He accurately assessed that the frail 1993 Oslo Accords peace process had effectively died under President Barack Obama, and that the Trump administration has merely “thrown the last pile of dirt on the casket and kind of danced on the grave.”
Yet Trump’s policy innovation won little praise from the panelists like Friedman. She called “illogical” and “immoral” the Trump administration’s correct view that Palestinian “refugees” are an “illegitimate issue.” She also rejected the idea that Trump’s advisers “are doing the Palestinians a favor by ending” this issue, which for Israel is an unacceptable negotiating demand.
Worrying that Palestinians angered by Trump would turn to violence, Friedman concurred with the panel’s opening remarks by Congressman David Cicilline (D-RI). This “Jewish lawmaker raised to appreciate and love Israel” worried that Trump had “inflamed Palestinian leadership and popular sentiment,” she said. Ignoring the terrorism wave Israel suffered after the 1991 Madrid Conference initiated the current phony peace process, she falsely contrasted that “pre-Madrid was pretty ugly, and pretty violent” while “post-Madrid we got to a better place.”
Schanzer gave the panel a lone voice of reason, noting that the “politicization of the refugee issue” had been “incredibly damaging” to any prospects of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Under UNRWA’s definitions, “pretty soon the entire world is going to be a Palestinian refugee,” he joked. Meanwhile muted Arab responses disproved warnings that Trump’s embassy move “is going to set the entire Arab world on fire,” while he “actually defused some of the Jerusalem issue,” allowing for future negotiations.
The self-proclaimed Israeli-Palestinian “foreign policy pragmatist” Friedman cast severe doubt on the received wisdom of people like her as opposed to what Telhami condemned as Trump’s “insulated, inexperienced” Israel advisers. Her reference to “twenty-five years of an entire industry of people involved in peace efforts” under the Oslo Accords inspired no confidence in empowering this policymaker-think tank complex. Characteristic is Cicilline, who reiterated the consistently disproven thesis that jihad has socioeconomic root causes by stating that Hamas exploits “feelings that result from a life of deprivation, poverty, and restriction of movement.”
Trump and his supporters should drain the Israeli-Palestinian peace process swamp and spare the world future decades’ influence from this failed establishment. His administration should continue to pursue innovative strategies that reflect reality rather than the Washington beltway’s fantasies. As IVP analysis has demonstrated, this means continuing pressure upon the Palestinians to accept defeat in their century-long struggle against the establishment of a Jewish state.
Andrew E. Harrod is a Middle East Forum Campus Watch Fellow who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School. He is also a fellow with the Lawfare Project, an organization combating the misuse of human rights law against Western societies. He can be followed on Twitter @AEHarrod.