Any Hope On The Israel-Palestinian Front?


Jewish critics of Israeli policy, like J Street and Americans for Peace Now, are right about this much: The “two-state solution” is the only realistic plan for achieving long-term peace with the Palestinians; Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t much interested in negotiations; the Greater Israel movement is bent on eliminating the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state; and the longer negotiations are postponed, the more distant the prospects of peace will become and the more likely it is that the deadlock will result in greater violence.

Jewish and other critics of Israel are wrong, however, on a more fundamental point. Palestinian leadership is completely uninterested in negotiating with Israel, except on terms that no Israeli government could possibly accept. Hamas is committed to the destruction of Israel.  The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, has long been trying to get the international community to impose Palestinian peace terms on Israel through action by the United Nations Security Council.

But under the Trump administration, Nikki Haley arrived at the United Nations to inform her colleagues that the U.S. government will henceforth frustrate Palestinian ambitions. 

So, as President Trump hosts PA President Mahmoud Abbas this week in Washington, will the Palestinians or the Israelis revise their strategies in light of the new administration in D.C.? 

Trump named a U.S. ambassador, David Friedman, known for his support of the settler movement. Relations between Prime Minister Netanyahu and the White House, hostile during the Obama presidency, are seen in Israel as greatly improved. Moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, promised during the campaign, may (or may not) have been placed on the back-burner. However, Netanyahu has been persuaded to promise restraint on settlement expansion, and Trump has commissioned his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and a Trump organization lawyer, Jason Greenblatt, to pursue Mideast peace, possibly in a regional context, along with Arab states like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.   

On the Palestinian side, meanwhile, there have been two noteworthy developments that have also clouded the picture. At the latest Arab summit, the Palestinian issue, normally a top priority, received little attention; in fact, Arab countries friendly to the U.S. have discovered a commonality of interests with Israel that calls into question their attachment to the Palestinian cause. Another intriguing but little noticed development likewise deserves mention. The Palestinian Authority recently picked a fight with the United Nations Relief and Works Administration (UNRWA) over the latter’s insistence that Palestinian schoolbook texts be revised to eliminate incitement. 

The potential significance of that disagreement requires some elucidation. Established in 1950, UNRWA is the agency whose sole mission is to support Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war, which Palestinians describe as al Nakba (The Catastrophe) and the Israelis call the War of Independence. Some observers would argue that UNRWA has been largely responsible for creating the “refugee problem,” which since 1967, if not 1948, has been at the heart of the deadlock over resolution of the conflict.

For 69 years, UNRWA and the Palestinians have been inseparable and, for the most part, mutually reinforcing. What explains the sudden split?

Likely, it has to do with uncertainty about what the U.S. intends to provide in its upcoming budget as financial support for the U.N. in general and UNRWA in particular. Contributions for UNRWA are voluntary. The U.S. contribution — $380 million — is by far the largest amount UNRWA receives toward the annual budget which supports the agency’s 30,000 employees.

One suspects that UNRWA’s leadership has been listening to Nikki Haley’s speeches as well as those of the new U.N. secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, who recently denounced reflex anti-Semitism in the U.N. system. “Incitement” has long been a major complaint about UNRWA-provided textbooks, and UNRWA officials may be reading the tea leaves.

In short, signs on the current situation are mixed and what they portend is uncertain. Prior to Trump’s election, neither party was much interested in negotiating a settlement. In July 2000, Yasir Arafat rejected “the Clinton parameters” because they would have required the Palestinians to give up the “right of return,” not just for the refugees from the 1948 war but for their millions of descendants. 

The “right of return” remains a non-negotiable demand by the Palestinians and a deal-breaker for the Israelis. Is there anything that the Trump administration can do to resolve the deadlock? What has been lacking all these years is significant and simultaneous pressure on both parties to come to the table. Might a regional initiative change attitudes in Jerusalem?

Might similar results be produced in Ramallah by weakening UNRWA and closing off the option to have the Security Council impose a settlement?

That might not be what the Trump administration intends and, even if it is, it might not make a difference. However, the longer the policy deadlock endures, the less likely it is that the two-state solution can provide the answer. Already the “one-state solution” has its advocates in both camps. But what Israeli advocates of the “one-state solution” mean is entirely different from what its Palestinian advocates mean.  This writer and many other observers believe that the “one-state solution” would be unlikely to result in reconciliation. The two groups are simply incapable of living together under a unitary government.  Putting them in a single political entity would merely perpetuate the conflict in a different form.

What’s going to happen in the next four years remains unclear. But the window for an equitable solution to the conflict will not remain open forever. Perhaps not even for the duration of Trump’s presidency.

Norman I. Gelman is a former journalist, congressional fellow and public policy analyst. He is at work on a book tentatively titled “What Every American Needs to Know About the Middle East.”