The Trump Administration Needs a Pragmatic Israel-Palestine Policy
With knowledge of recent accelerations in Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, President Trump has continued Obama’s long tradition of discouraging any further expansion of Israeli presence in the area. Throughout his campaign Trump insisted that his foreign policy would differ dramatically from that of the Obama administration, and also appeared to be heavily in favor of maintaining strong ties with Israel. He suggested moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, calling it “the eternal capital of the Jewish people,” a move that would anger many Middle Eastern countries. His choice to appoint attorney David Friedman, a conservative in strong opposition to any ban on construction activity in the West Bank, as ambassador to Israel also seemed to reflect the position that he would take on the issue of Israeli expansion into Palestinian territory.
But Trump’s suggestion to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hold back on settlements does not seem in line with these actions, and it brings into question whether or not he will rise to the challenge posed by Netanyahu to distinguish his foreign policy from that of the White House that preceded him. In a recent meeting with Netanyahu, Trump did back away from Obama’s traditional two-state approach while still asking for a pause on settlement construction. On the subject of a solution, he stated that he “like(s) the one that both parties like” and is “very happy with the one that both parties like.” He can “live with either one.” His opinion was simplistic, and he does not seem to have a very nuanced view on the issue. This blase approach to foreign policy in such a contested region is jarring, drawing the ire of the foreign policy community. While it is true that the humanitarian implications of “letting things sort themselves out” puts thousands of lives on the line in a way previously unseen, it is also true that this approach, abandoning the hard-line position that the United States has usually taken, is new. And when it comes to Palestine and Israel, the old approach hasn’t been working. It remains to be seen if Trump and his administration will be able help negotiate a solution that is acceptable for both parties. Even if he is not successful in resolving the tense situation, as none of the three presidents before him have been, an inability to make the United States central to the resolution process could be the best strategy to come out of the White House yet: doing nothing.
Term after term, three U.S. presidents have reached no lasting solution despite their ardent support and pursuit of a two-state solution in the region. A two-state solution is usually painted as the ethical option among those typically discussed in conventional foreign policy, a discussion which is boiled down to two sides, a dichotomy which tends to eliminate the shades of grey. It comes down to a one-state or two-state solution; support for Israel or for Palestine. Interestingly enough, Trump seems to rest among the shades of grey in his approach, along with almost every other American politician who speaks on the issue. He is friendly towards Israel, or so he states, yet he has also echoed Obama in asking Netanyahu to hold back on expanding the West Bank settlements for the time being. Obama was similar, maintaining pro-Israeli legislation while being critical of their activities.
Obama’s outlasting legacy here is important to how the Trump administration should approach this foreign policy issue. Where Obama failed was in his steadfast obsession with the issue of settlements and not much else. The issue itself is as nuanced as approaches to dealing with it are. At this point, not much else can be said on the settlements. They are growing slowly, and around 90% of this is because of natural population growth. The opposition to settlements has become more relevant recently because of accelerations in construction, but still this should not be the only issue the United States chooses to focus on if its goal is truly to foster peace between the two nations.
Trump and his advisors should recognize this and focus their efforts on security and the future. If they are going to follow in Obama’s footsteps and reiterate solely an aversion to settlements, then perhaps it might be best for the United States to stay out of the issue entirely. Elliott Abrams from Foreign Policy says it best when he advises that “the better course for the new American leader would be to put an end to dreaming and instead seek pragmatic changes that can improve the lives of Israelis and Palestinians alike.”