Shibley Telhami: How Trump’s approach to the Middle East ignores the past, the future, and the human condition

President Trump’s son-in-law and top Middle East adviser, Jared Kushner, pushed back recently against suggestions that the administration should hold off on its expected “deal of the century” plan for Middle East peace over concerns that it’s likely to be dead on arrival. As part of the unveiling, the administration revealed plans to hold an “economic workshop” in Bahrain to discuss “potential economic investments and initiatives that could be made possible by a peace agreement.” Immediately rejecting the idea, the Palestinians called it an attempt “at promoting an economic normalization of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.”

While the specific details of the Trump plan remain unknown, we already know the troubling principles on which the plan is based.

Details aside, Trump’s approach not only breaks with international law and long-held U.S. policies, it also enshrines historic U.S. responsibility in an unjust process that will ultimately backfire against Israel, the Palestinians, and American interests.

Let’s start with the principles of the approach as revealed by Kushner and other members of Trump’s team. While ignoring prior peace agreements, U.N. resolutions, and international law, Trump’s approach is anchored on three flawed principles: “realities” on the ground as they are, appeal to ethnic/religious justifications of Israeli control of occupied territories, and economic incentives to appease Palestinian political aspirations. The first ignores the history of the U.S. role in creating these realities; the second ignores the future consequences of framing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as an ethnic/religious conflict, instead of a nationalist conflict; the third misses not only the nature of the Palestinian struggle, but of the human condition.

Without the weight of international law and United Nations resolutions, the “realities” on the ground are hugely advantageous to Israel: Palestinians remain stateless and under occupation. To varying degrees, Israel controls all Palestinian territories, with expanding Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. While the Palestinians have limited security forces and armed militias, Israel commands the strongest army in the region and its GDP is 23 times the size of that of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Some of these realities are in large part due to historic U.S. support for Israel. To be sure, multiple U.S. administrations have engaged in good-faith efforts to address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, sometimes promisingly. And the blame for failure must be spread, including to Israelis, Palestinians, and other Arabs. But the core American empowerment of Israel has remained largely consistent throughout.

Much is made of the $3.8 billion in annual U.S. aid to Israel—more than all of the combined American security aid to the rest of the world. But the biggest assistance to Israel is not financial. Three U.S. strategic assets have particularly shielded Israel from feeling meaningful regional or international heat over its occupation of Palestinian territories and constructing illegal settlements there.

One big asset favoring Israel is the American mediation of the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt 40 years ago and expending much leverage to maintain them since. These accords have arguably served Israeli, Egyptian, and American interests. They have also substantially reduced the chance of Egyptian-Israeli war (a good thing). But they also reduced the leverage in favor of Israeli compromise toward the Palestinians—the opposite of what President Jimmy Carter had hoped for, and an aspect over which he now expresses some “lingering disappointment.”

Second, the United States has shielded Israel at the United Nations. Since the establishment of Israel in 1948, a majority of vetoes employed by the U.S. at the U.N. Security Council pertained to Israel—43. It is reasonable to assume that, had it not been for the U.S. threat of veto, illegal Israeli settlements would have been sanctioned by the international community.


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