"The risk is that for the Palestinians and the wider Middle East give up on a diplomatic solution, and conclude that President Trump and the administration he leads are only paying lip-service to the idea of a renewed push for a peace agreement in the region"
A little over a year ago, I woke up in a hotel room in the Palestinian city of Ramallah on November 9th 2016 to find that Donald Trump was about to win the Presidency of the United States. I was leading a delegation of YF members through Israel and Palestine, and after meeting with members of the Israeli Knesset in Jerusalem the previous day, and we were about to begin a series of visits and meetings in the Palestinian West-Bank around what is the de-facto unofficial capital of the Palestinian Authority.
Many of us were shell-shocked and despondent. I’d had only had 4 hours sleep, and had slept on the assumption that early returns meant Clinton had the race. But since we were there in that part of the world on a formal delegation, we all tried to put it out of our minds. However I knew the ramifications that this far-away election might have far the divided and polarised region I was visiting would be huge.
The most symbolic of these ramifications was December’s decision to move the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. While the US Congress voted in 1995 to recognise Jerusalem as the capital, every President since that time has signed a formal waver to this law every 6 months to maintain the status-quo. The realpolitik here has been that Jerusalem is itself a divided city, with East Jerusalem still home to many Palestinians and notionally the capital of any future Palestinian state. Given the city’s historic importance to both nationalities, as well as to the often corresponding Jewish and Muslim faiths, this symbolism matters because it gives legitimacy to the claims of ownership both sides viscerally maintain.
So while to a casual observer this move in itself means nothing (and could not officially happen until around the 2020 Presidential election), in practice this has a potential to be a very destabilising statement of intent.
The risk is that for the Palestinians and the wider Middle East give up on a diplomatic solution, and conclude that President Trump and the administration he leads are only paying lip-service to the idea of a renewed push for a peace agreement in the region. Having seen many failures to get an agreement since the 1993 Oslo accords, the worst-case scenario is that the surrounding nations simply decide that it is time to break away from peace talks and fund extremist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. While that is unlikely to happen, after the failures of the past generation to get peace in the region, the actions of Donald Trump give an already cynical people a reason to turn away from diplomatic efforts to gain self-determination.
In many ways, that such a polarising move has been made by Trump is deeply ironic given his original positions on Israel/Palestine when running for President. As a candidate Trump initially claimed he was “neutral” on the issue, and in office he has alienated much of America’s Jewish community by way of his tone deaf message on Holocaust Memorial Day and the fact he’s been happy to refuse to condemn of far-right groups, not to mention the fact that many who count themselves in his own and support base in the so-called “Alt-Right” movement have regularly partaken in anti-Semitic rhetoric.
In that sense his decision to press ahead with recognition without any clear peace roadmap, a key goal of the hard-right parties keeping Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud government in power, feels more like political opportunism than one of political strategy or conviction. Indeed, I remember speaking to an Israeli diplomat of their British embassy around the time who said they were taken aback by the reception Trump got at the AIPAC Summit in Washington where he announced the embassy move policy. But despite that, the consensus from the diplomat that that Trump was not really a credible candidate and so couldn’t actually win, so it was all gesture, all for show. But he did, and this is one of the he promises he kept.
On the day after Trump won, we visited the Kalandia Refugee Camp between Ramallah and East Jerusalem. First set up following the 1948 Palestinian displacement following the creation of Israel, it was a dusty and somewhat run-down, but full of solid houses built to house those displaced ever since. Many people had been living there for two or three generations with no hope of returning home. For them, sympathetic or not, US and Israeli governments came and went with no material improvement in their situations. For them, the system had failed them. Little wonder that I found apathy and indifference met the result of the US election we were all so personally animated by at the time.
There are of course many other immediate concerns in the area post Trump’s election, not least of which are the growing tensions between the US government and the UN over the recognition, and the ramping up of settlement building in the occupied West-Bank since last year. But while many have been shocked by this news and deeply worried about its consequences, it shows that the direct and consequences of President Trump’s particular brand of authoritarian populism will not be confined to the United States. It underlines the need for new thinking about the situation in Israel/Palestine, and more serious thought to be given about the viability of the official Two-State solution that has been the international consensus for decades. Any serious solution to this often intractable conflict however will be far harder and may take far longer than it will to move an embassy.
Nathaneal is a Young Fabian member. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanealSansam