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Trump and Netanyahu Scramble the Board

Allan Brownfeld
March 11, 2017

by Allan C. Brownfeld

AT HIS MEETING with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, President Trump abandoned decades of bipartisan U.S. policy and declared that the U.S. would no longer insist on the creation of a Palestinian state as part of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. In Trump's words, either a "one state" or a "two state" solution would be fine with him — this despite the fact that Palestinians will certainly not accept anything short of a sovereign state and that a single Israeli state encompassing the Palestinians would either leave them as second-class citizens or would no longer be majority Jewish, given the growth rate of the Arab population.

No one who has been involved in U.S. policy-making in the Middle East thinks that the Trump-Netanyahu meeting was a positive one. It showed Trump's lack of preparedness in many ways. Why, for example, did he and Netanyahu hold a press conference before, rather than after, their meeting? Why, at the meeting itself, was not a single representative of the State Department present? Instead, Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has no diplomatic experience, was given a central role. Acting Deputy Secretary of State Tom Shannon was officially scheduled to take Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's place, but was then reportedly shut out completely.

If Trump is serious about pursuing a peace agreement, those with experience in the region say that he must inevitably return to a two-state solution. "If you do a systematic analysis of the situation, there is no other option," said Daniel C. Kurtzer, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and Egypt. "There are Israelis who believe they could get away with giving the Palestinians minimal political rights, but they are fooling themselves."

Israel's rightwing forces, who oppose a Palestinian state and want Israel to annex the occupied territories -- which would be a clear violation of international law -- have been emboldened by Donald Trump's words and by his selection of David Friedman, a man with no diplomatic experience, as U.S. ambassador to Israel. Friedman has repeatedly called for Israeli annexation of the occupied territories and has referred to Jews who express concern for the rights of Palestinians as "kapos," Jews who enforced Nazi edicts during the Holocaust. At his Senate confirmation hearing, Friedman was opposed by five former U.S. ambassadors to Israel, in a letter that pointed out that "Mr. Friedman has accused President Obama and the entire State Department of anti-Semitism." In their view, Friedman is unqualified for the post because of his "extreme" and "radical positions." Rabbi Rick Jacobs, leader of the Union for Reform Judaism, joined with hundreds of other rabbis who opposed Friedman because of his support for West Bank settlements and because he held "extreme views" and will endanger "both American and Israeli security."

In the wake of Donald Trump's election, the Israeli government announced the construction of new settlements in the occupied territories. After the Trump-Netanyahu meeting, Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett declared: "We're talking about a new era. After twenty-four years, the flag of Palestune has been lowered and taken down from the post, to be substituted by the flag of Israel." Yuval Steinitz, Minister of National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Resources, and a member of the Security Council, declared, "There was implicit agreement from President Trump that it's possible that the Palestinians aren't at all ready for peace, that it may be that the two-state solution isn't relevant or applicable." Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev said, "The era of settlement construction freeze is over. Today a new political era has begun in Washington."

In his own statement, President Trump strangely said that, "There's no way a deal can be made if they're (the Palestinians) not ready to acknowledge a very, very important country." Does Mr. Trump not understand that the Palestinians recognized Israel in a formal treaty, the Oslo Accords of 1993?

THOSE IN ISRAEL and in the American Jewish community who want a genuine and just peace between Israel and the Palestinians have expressed dismay with President Trump's apparent indifference to the implications of what he has said. Peace Now called the Trump-Netanyahu press conference "terrifying," and declared: "The two leaders are not only depriving Israel of the very possibility of reaching peace but also undermining Israel's own future as a democracy and a Jewish state. They are delivering a huge victory to extremists on both sides." J Street, which describes itself as "pro-Israel and pro-peace," states that "there is no one-state configuration that leads to peace. There is no resolution to this conflict without full political rights and independence for both peoples. All so-called 'one-state solutions' are recipes for more violence that will ultimately threaten Israel's identity as a democracy and a Jewish homeland." The Union for Reform Judaism stated: "Only a two-state solution can achieve the goals of the Israelis and Palestunians. We see President Trump's abdication of the long-time, bipartisan support for a two-state solution darkly. It is potentially devastating to the prospects for peace and Israel's Jewish, democratic future."

The leader of the Israeli opposition in the parliament, Labor leader Isaac Herzog, called the exchange between Trump and Netanyahu "sad and embarrassing." He worried that a "one-state solution" -- from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, with equal numbers of Jews and Muslims -- would mean the end of the Jewish state."

Palestinians reacted in anger. "This is going to give Israel a free hand to do what it wants," said Mosheer Amer, an associate professor at the Islamic University in Gaza City. Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian chief negotiator, raised the specter of "apartheid," and called for "concrete measures in order to save the two-state solution."

In Israel, there is growing fear that the continuing occupation will create an apartheid state. Hundreds of Israeli intellectuals recently signed a letter urging Jews around the world to oppose the occupation: "The prolonged occupation is inherently oppressive for Palestinians and fuels mutual bloodshed. It undermines the moral and democratic fabric of the State of Israel and hurts its standing in the community of nations." Among the most well-known signatories are authors David Grossman and Amos Oz, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahnemann, and twenty former Israeli ambassadors.

THE GROWTH of Israel's settler movement and its supporters has stirred fears among many in Israel that the country is moving away from democracy. Zeev Sternhell, former head of the political science department at Hebrew University and a specialist in the history of fascism, was recently asked if Israel was now on the verge of fascism. He replied: "It's a gradual process. We have yet to cross the red line, but we are dangerously close. We are at the height of an erosion process of the liberal values on which our society is based. Those who regard liberal values as a danger to the nation . . . are the ones currently in power. They are striving to delegitimize the left and anyone who does not hold the view that conquering the land and settling it through the use of force are the fundamental foundation of Zionism. That's why universal values and universal rights are enemies of the state, in their view."

Just after Donald Trump's election, Israel's government felt emboldened to push through the Knesset a law declaring that wildcat Jewish settlers who had illegally set up caravans on private West Bank Palestinian land, and erected their own settlement there will have their settlements legalized. Even Israeli President Reuven Rivlin warned that Israel cannot just "apply and enforce its laws on territories that are not under its sovereignty. If it does so, it is a legal cacophony. It will cause Israel to be seen as an apartheid state, which it is not." If Israel abandons the two-state solution and annexes the occupied territories, argues Hebrew University philosopher Moshe Halbertal, the question to be asked will be, "Is the state worth defending in moral terms?"

There is no indication that President Trump understands all of the complexities involved in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute or that he consulted with those who do. His Middle East advisers seem to be his son-in-law and his bankruptcy lawyer. In less than a month, he has created total disarray in U.S. Middle East policy. Hopefully, wiser and more experienced men and women be able to put it back together, if they are given a chance to do so.

Allan C. Brownfeld is a nationally syndicated columnist and is editor of ISSUES, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.