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Making America’s Mideast Policy Great Again?

Originally published in Huffington Post

Back in February 2016, a New York bankruptcy lawyer named David Friedman published an opinion piece in a far right wing Israeli outlet, entitled “End the two-state narrative.” Friedman postulated that the two-state narrative is “an illusion that serves the worst intentions of both the United States and the Palestinian Arabs. It has never been a solution, only a narrative. But even the narrative itself now needs to end.” He argued that Palestinians don’t want peace, but use the two-state process as “a masterful game of extortion played out on the world stage.” He averred that “Fostering a Palestinian middle class is the solution of the 21st century and it has nothing to do with two states.”

Thirteen months after he wrote that article, Friedman was confirmed as the new United States ambassador to Israel – the first ambassador nominated by President Trump. He headed to Israel with a status unlike any ambassador who preceded him. Representing a president known to rely on advice from a handful of advisors who, over the course of years, had proven their loyalty, Friedman arrived vested with Trump’s personal trust, confidence and authority. More than that, as the primary voice of the Trump campaign on Israel-Palestine, Friedman had already laid out, with great candor, his ideas and intentions for how U.S. policy needed to change, with the tacit approval of Trump, who had previously demonstrated little interest in or knowledge of the issues.

Today, 10 months into the Trump Administration’s tenure in office and six months after David Friedman took up his post as U.S. ambassador to Israel, things are going exactly as one should have expected, if one had taken seriously both Friedman’s special role and his extensive record of policy statements made over the course of the 2016 campaign and in the years preceding it. Consistent with Friedman’s views, the Oslo agreement and the peace process it inaugurated have been eliminated as touchstones of US foreign policy. American commitment to a two-state solution has been replaced by a vague promise to support whatever the parties agree on. Fealty to core U.S. positions, like respecting the volatility and sensitivity of Jerusalem by leaving its formal status untouched until there is a peace agreement, is gone. And without any fanfare, U.S. policy has shifted 180 degrees on settlements, both at the symbolic level – starting with Ambassador Friedman’s attendance at a wedding in a West Bank settlement in May 2017 and inviting settler leaders to the Embassy’s July 4th party – and at the concrete policy level, with the U.S. remaining virtually silent as the Netanyahu opens the settlement floodgates in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

As for the Palestinians, back in August 2016, Friedman told an Israeli reporter:

“I personally think putting the Israeli leadership on a common level with Abbas is a mistake. In one case you have a sovereign nation that is democratic, and in the other case you have a leader who is hanging on by a thread, who does not have an actual mandate and who funds stipends to pay to families of terrorists while they are in jail. These are difference [sic] types of governments — if you even want to call the Palestinian leadership a government.”

True to this view, today the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington has been reduced to beggar status, its existence no longer a reflection of the Palestinians’ position as a people with international legitimacy, but rather explicitly conditioned on whether the Palestinians play ball with whatever “peace initiative” the Trump Administration proposes. In this context, the United States’ commitment to negotiations as the sole means to resolve the conflict appears to have disappeared, replaced by an strategy of coercing the Palestinians back to talks that will be based on terms divorced from previous agreement and imposed on them by Trump and Netanyahu. Should that fail, the region is abuzz with gossip of plans, cooked up by the United States and Saudi Arabia, for a peace process that bypasses the Palestinians. And in parallel, Congress is moving ahead with legislationthat will, in effect, label the Palestinian Authority a body that supports terror.

This is the reality under the Trump Administration, and it should surprise nobody. Anticipating the direction this Administration would take on Israel-Palestine was not a matter of reading tea leaves, or straining to hear dog whistles. Perhaps more than with any policy issue during the Trump campaign, the plans for Israel-Palestine were explicitly laid out for all to see by Friedman and his fellow travelers, before, during, and after the campaign. Expecting anything different could only have been the result of wishful thinking; believing things were not already going very much in this direction, well before Trump’s Jerusalem decree, could only be the result of selective hearing and seeing.

What will replace the Oslo paradigm – which was no doubt deeply flawed – remains to be seen, but the outlines are already becoming clear. Trump believes, or is being led by people close to him to believe, that he can “Make America’s Middle East Peace Efforts Great Again” through his favored strategy: elevating far right-wing ideologues and sycophants over competent professionals; blowing up all the policies that came before him; and adopting new policies that all rational experts and historians warn won’t work and will likely backfire. It is impossible to predict where this will all lead, but historically speaking, injecting chaos into a volatile foreign policy arena does not tend to produce good outcomes. The last time the United States tried this approach in the Middle East was with the invasion of Iraq — the United States, and the world, are still reckoning with the far-reaching and devastating unintended consequences it unleashed.