“UnPresidented” is a new weekly column discussing the transition and first days of the Trump administration.
Say what you will about the current commander-in-chief, he doesn’t seem to lack confidence. Throughout his campaign and presidency, Trump has expressed boundless optimism about his abilities, disregarding the fact that the shaky foundations of his claims consist solely of braggadocio. Even in the face of a complex diplomatic reality, for example, Trump claimed last week after meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that there is a “very good chance” that the administration will be able to facilitate peace between Israel and Palestine. Just a little later he also said that the issue is “something that I think is frankly, maybe, not as difficult as people have thought over the years.”
With his comments, any hopes that four months of the presidency would enlighten Trump on some of the many intricacies of one of the most confounding diplomatic puzzles in modern times were quickly dashed.
Yet, since his ascendance to the presidency, there has been a marked change in Trump’s approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict. His campaign was characterized by its clear pro-Israel stance, as Trump continually praised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and promised to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Yet the symbolic embassy move has not materialized, and Trump’s hardline stance on Israel, to the dismay of many conservatives, has largely dissipated.
This is evidenced in part by last Wednesday’s meeting with Abbas. Trump tweeted, and later deleted, his comment saying that the visit was “an honor.” Trump also refused to publicly broach the subject of Palestinian financial payments to relatives of terrorists even in the face of Congress’ Republican-backed and recently introduced legislation that would prohibit some financial assistance to Palestine if the payments continue, though White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer says the topic was considered privately.
In many ways, Trump’s position on the conflict seems to change by the day, as he asked Netanyahu to temporarily stop building settlements in the West Bank, a proposition Israel promptly ignored as they approved the first new settlements in decades just weeks later. And then later that same day shed the two-state policy mainstay and expressed openness to a one-state deal.
It was with the latter that Trump shucked what has been presidential precedent since the Clinton administration. Though the country’s long been considered an ally, the U.S. has had a complicated relationship with Israel, since Harry Truman was the first world leader to recognize it as a state in 1948. Especially since the breakout of Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s and early 2000s, a two-state solution, in which the contested land is divided into two independent nations, while near impossible to implement, has been seen by many as the sole equitable solution.
Bill Clinton was the first president to endorse such a solution, saying in a 2001 speech that the conflict would never be truly resolved sans a “a sovereign, viable Palestinian state.” George W. Bush, and later Barack Obama, made the position the official foundation of the American approach to the issue, which is why Netanyahu and the Israeli political establishment were expecting a carte-blanche from the Trump administration after the endless supportive campaign rhetoric. Even cordiality would be considered a win for Israel after Netanyahu’s tumultuous relationship with Obama, which stemmed largely from conflicts over the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank that have been condemned by many world leaders and the United Nations itself. Less than a month before his inauguration, when the U.N. Security Council voted to condemn the settlements and demand that Israel stop construction, Trump angrily criticized the Obama administration for abstaining from the vote, rather than vetoing the measure.
It is reassuring that Trump has since conceded that the continuation of such settlement expansion will be an obstruction to the peace process. But it remains to be seen how Trump’s relationships with Netanyahu and Abbas will unfold. Just a day after meeting with Abbas, the Trump administration announced an upcoming trip to the Middle East, in which Trump will stop by Israel. It is important to note that Obama decided not to stop by Israel on his first Middle Eastern tour, something that may have worsened his relationship with Netanyahu.
Trump has made the facilitation of peace one of the most prominent goals of his administration. He recently assigned his top aide and son-in-law Jared Kushner, along with his longtime lawyer Jason Greenblatt, to head up negotiating efforts to quell the conflict. But few concrete plans of strategy have surfaced that outline an approach for the administration. And as of now, as Netanyahu is embroiled in corruption charges and pressure from far-right political elites and Abbas also faces a precarious political position, the chance for a comprehensive and peaceful solution is slim. Even as someone who has mastered the “art of the deal,” there is little evidence that Trump can somehow pull a settlement out of his sleeve.
In this manner, Trump’s constant assertions that he is able to negotiate peace between the two and his flip-flopping on the matter may hurt him politically in his relationships with pro-Israel Republicans. This lofty diplomatic endeavour will cost him a lot of time, and leave him with little payoff. That is not to say that Trump should simply give up on the matter, but that he should face the reality of the situation while working to achieve more feasible foreign policy goals.