WASHINGTON, November 13, 2016 – Exactly where Donald Trump would take U.S. policy in the Middle East remains less than clear. During the presidential campaign, he told us that fighting ISIS would be a key priority. He even said that he “knew more about ISIS” than the generals.
If his goal is to strike a blow at ISIS inspired terrorism, he would do well to heed the words of King Abdullah of Jordan who says that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by creating a Palestinian state would serve to defuse tension in the region, particularly hostility toward the U.S.
Instead, Trump seems to be moving in an opposite direction.
The U.S. Government, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, has declared that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem is in violation of international law. Our policy has been the so-called “two-state solution,” ending the occupation and creating a Palestinian state in these occupied territories.
While U.S. administrations have hesitated to push Israel toward implementing this policy, it has nevertheless been our stated goal.
What our goal will be under a Trump administration, however, seems to be something quite different. A year ago, Donald Trump said he was “neutral” on Israel. He quickly altered his position after criticism from pro-Israel groups. Speaking at an AIPAC conference in March, he made a commitment that he would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv.
In his AIPAC speech, he reminded his audience, “My daughter Ivanka is about to have a beautiful Jewish baby.”
One of Trump’s advisers on Israel policy, David Friedman, now says that Trump will be “the most pro-Israel president this nation has seen.” Friedman has discussed his opposition to a Palestinian state and has supported Israeli annexation of the West Bank.
“We’re taking the view that the Israelis have just as much of a right to Judea and Samaria as the Palestinians and when they sit down and talk to each other it will be on that basis. That is frankly a unique position of Donald Trump and one that we are very proud of. A Trump administration Israel relationship is going to look very different from an Obama administration.”
Friedman even said that the unprecedented $38 billion military aid agreement the Obama administration recently concluded with Israel was “too low,” and would be increased under Donald Trump.
Before becoming a Middle East adviser to the Trump campaign, Friedman was Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer from his Atlantic City casino case and a partner in the law firm handling Trump’s controversy with The New York Times. Without any experience with Middle East policy making, Friedman is one of two chairs to Trump’s Israel Advisory Committee, serving alongside Jason Greenblatt, a real estate lawyer and chief legal officer of the Trump organization since 1997.
Greenblatt also lacks any foreign policy experience. His most relevant credentials include heading a Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) group that raises funds for the Israeli army, and having once attended a religious school in a West Bank settlement and having authored a tourist guide on family holidays in Israel.
Israel’s right wing is pleased with Trump’s victory. The Times Of Israel (Nov. 10, 2016) carried the headline, “Trump Adviser: He Doesn’t See Settlements As An Obstacle.” Many right-wing Israeli politicians, who oppose a two-state solution, hailed Trump’s victory as an opportunity to expand settlement construction.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett said Trump’s election means that Israel could officially drop its commitment to establishing a Palestinian state. He said:
“Trump’s victory is an opportunity for Israel to immediately retract the notion of a Palestinian state. This is the position of the President-elect. The era of a Palestinian state is over.”
What Donald Trump and his Israel advisers seem not to understand is that the occupation is bad for Israel itself and its future as a democratic state, as well as for prospects for a greater Middle East peace. In September, hundreds of Israeli artists and intellectuals urged Jews around the world to challenge Israeli policy toward Palestinians in an open letter. It declares:
“We call upon Jews around the world to join with Israeli partners for coordinated action to end occupation and build a new future, for the sake of the State of Israel, and generations to come.”
The 480 signatories include 48 winners of Israel’s most prestigious awards (The Israel Prize and the EMET Prize); seven high-ranking IDF officers; 20’former Israeli ambassadors , ministers, senior government officials and members of the Knesset; and 160 professors at Israeli universities. Among the most well known signatories are authors David Grossman and Amos Oz, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and 20 former Israeli ambassadors.
“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,” the letter argues.
The organization “Save Israel, Stop Occupation” seeks to end Israel’s control of the territories occupied after the June 1967 Six Day War and establish a Palestinian state. The organization’s director Jessica Montell said that Israel’s military rule “harms Israeli society and it harms Jews around the world.”
A former AIPAC official, Greg Slabodkin, cIting “nearly half a century” of occupation, calls for conditioning U.S. aid to Israel on that country agreeing to freeze its settlements. He argues that Israel’s “oppressive discriminatory settlement policies in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem continue unabated.”
Writing in The Hill, Slobodkin notes that,
“Under Netanyahu’s watch , Israel clearly has no intention of ending its occupation…Netanyahu recently formed the most right-wing government in Israel’s history and has driven U.S.-Israeli relations to their lowest point in a generation by undermining the prospects for peace with the Palestinians by entrenching the Israeli occupation…”
Writing in the American Jewish newspaper The Forward, columnist Jay Michaelson asks,
“If Israel’s occupation is permanent, why isn’t it the same as apartheid?” He writes:
“I’m not clear how a one-state, Jewish-state-controlled solution isn’t apartheid…Israel’s occupation, like South African apartheid, which was intended to be permanent (Of course, the occupation has now lasted 49 years, more than the 46 years of apartheid). The occupation is unjust…We must ask anew what, if anything, differentiates the occupation from apartheid.”
In Michaelson’s view,
“Israel’s occupation, like South African apartheid, restricts movement, land ownership and other rights. Palestinians in the West Bank cannot enter Israel freely , and can travel through the West Bank itself only by negotiating a maze of checkpoints and inspections. Towns cannot expand, and indeed,,land that had for decades been part of Palestinian Arab villages is regularly expropriated for JewIsh settlement.”
The most important difference between the occupation and apartheid, Michaelson points out, is demographics:
“From its inception, apartheid was minority rule. Whereas, by the time Israel acquired (or conquered) the West Bank in 1967, there were more Jews than Arabs between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean , thanks to decades of immigration…Within a few decades, however, that will no longer be the case.
Without a two-state solution, the Jewish state will, like the white South African state, be a system of minority rule—the very opposite of democracy. Without a two-state solution, only through the permanent disenfranchisement of 5 million people can the ‘Jewish state’ even exist….Contrary to the left’s slogans, Israel isn’t an apartheid state today. But without a two-state solution, it will soon become one. As a temporary policy, the occupation is unjust. As a permanent one, it is apartheid.”
How much of this Donald Trump understands is impossible to know. But to put his Middle East policy in the hands of his tax attorney and bankruptcy lawyer, who happen to be Jewish, and have no foreign policy experience, seems unwise, at best.
Already, those in Israel who oppose a two-state solution and support annexing the West Bank, and some even urge the expulsion of the indigenous Palestinian population, are rejoicing. Let us hope that wiser heads prevail and that we do not embark upon a policy that will strengthen ISIS and further destabilize the Middle East, as well as bring Israeli democracy to an end.