When the Institute for Palestine Studies (IPS) invited Vijay Prashad, Tareq Baconi, Toby Jones, Bassam Haddad and IPS Senior Fellow Mouin Rabbani to participate in its fall panel on the “impact of regional realignment in the Middle East on the next U.S. administration,” it was not likely that the policies of Donald Trump presidency needed serious consideration. But with less than sixty days until Election Day, how the real estate-cum-reality TV star will handle relations with Israel and the Palestinians is no longer a fantasy exercise. As a prelude to our panel in Washington, D.C., on October 14, moderated by Journal of Palestine Studies Editor Rashid Khalidi, Palestine Square is offering a review of both the presidential candidates’ relevant statements on the campaign trail, as well as those of their advisers. This week we look at Donald Trump.
For all his tough talk, Trump has reserved his harshest words for politically weak constituents. Neither undocumented Mexican immigrants nor Muslim-Americans have deep-pocketed political champions and or formidable lobbies; but, on Israel, Trump has to reckon with Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino-owner who donated $93 million to Republican candidates in 2012 and demands unconditional support for Israel, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), one of the America’s most influential lobbies. Israel is also hugely popular among the Republican rank-and-file. Not surprisingly, after coming under attack by rival candidates, who accused Trump of being anti-Israel because of his erstwhile intention as president to be a neutral arbiter between Israel and the Palestinians, Trump adopted the course of least resistance.
In March, Trump spoke to one of the largest US gatherings of pro-Israel partisans at the 2016 AIPAC conference. After remarking on his courageous role as the Grand Marshall of NYC’s 2004 Celebrate Israel parade (“Many people turned down this honor. I did not. I took the risk.”), Trump stated he wasn’t there to “pander to you about Israel,” but, rather, “to speak to you about . . . our strategic ally, our unbreakable friendship and our cultural brother.” Arguing that, “each side must give up something,” he praised Israel as the only party “willing to deal.” He pointed to the Camp David negotiations in 2000 when, as Trump tells it, Israel offered the Palestinians an agreement that was not only “incredible” but “maybe even too generous.” Eight years later, an “equally generous offer” was also spurned by the Palestinians, Trump said. In 2014, when “John Kerry tried to come up with a framework,” the Palestinians demonstrated insolent rejection “even to the secretary of state of the United States of America.” All this was evidence that successive American presidents were coddling the Palestinians at Israel’s expense. “When I become president,” he thundered, “the days of treating Israel like a second-class citizen will end on day one.” The predictable cheers and applause cued right in.
Trump went on to pander to those who hold that a primary reason for the ongoing conflict is the alleged itch for violence in Palestinian culture rather than Israeli settler-colonialism and Israel’s unwillingness to end the occupation. “Every single day you have rampant incitement and children being taught to hate Israel and to hate the Jews,” Trump claimed. “In Palestinian society, the heroes are those who murder Jews,” he added, repeating the old trope that Palestinian textbooks teach prejudice. All of which, Trump argued, illustrates Israel’s moral superiority: “Israel does not name public squares after terrorists [sic].” Taking the Palestinians for dupes, Trump insisted that they “must come to the table knowing that the bond between the United States and Israel is absolutely, totally unbreakable” and he promised to drive home the point by moving the American embassy to Jerusalem and endorsing Tel Aviv’s demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state.”
“It’s a very difficult situation,” Trump conceded, but he would get it solved, “one way or the other,” by standing with Israel until “there is no daylight between America and our most reliable ally.” And just before closing, Trump professed his ardor, not once but twice. “I love Israel. I love Israel,” he exclaimed.
In an interview two months later, Trump opined that illegal Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank should “keep moving forward,” seeming to imply that the enterprise was proper retaliation for Palestinian rockets fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip. And at a rally just before the Republican convention in late July, Trump rebuked an audience member for calling for an end to US military aid to Israel. “Israel is a very, very important ally of the United States and we are going to protect them 100%,” Trump said.
All politicians have advisers, but when it comes to the Middle East, Trump leans heavily on his staff’s guidance. Being a campaign adviser is the starting bench for future White House staff and the April announcement of Trump’s Middle East policy advisers – real estate attorneys Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman – suggests President Trump would depend on the counsel of individuals firmly aligned with the Israeli far-right.
Both Greenblatt and Friedman have deep pockets, which they use to back the Israeli settler movement, and the latter serves as president of American Friends of Bet El Institutions, an organization supporting illegal settlement of privately owned Palestinian land. Greenblatt has otherwise been mute on his views, but Friedman (who claims to have known Trump for 15 years and is rumored to be his choice of U.S. ambassador to Israel) has been quite outspoken. As a columnist for Arutz Sheva (owned by the Bet El settlement), Friedman has accused Palestinian citizens of Israel of “seditious behavior”; quoted the Bible to chastise Jewish critics of Israel as “‘destroyers . . . from within'”; and boasted that Jerusalem is Israel’s exclusive dominion because the city was a Jewish capital “at least 600 years before the Muslim religion came into existence!” The only Israeli policy Friedman finds objectionable is the portrayal of settlement construction as a response to violent Palestinian unrest. Such a policy, Friedman lamented, signals that the occupied West Bank does indeed belong to the Palestinians and that violence will be rewarded with a cessation of settlements. But luckily for him, Israel continues to builds settlements, as it should “in all cases,” Friedman advised. (Like his mogul-boss, Friedman shares an affinity for Russia’s Vladimir Putin and supports subjecting Muslims in the US to a surveillance regime.)
After becoming campaign adviser, Friedman told Ha’aretz that a President Trump would leave it up to Israel to determine whether to end the occupation. “[Trump] does not think it is an American imperative for it to be an independent Palestinian state,” Friedman related, adding that he’d expect Trump to support Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, and probably not object to the annexation of the entire territory. Still, Trump “would expect Israel to continue seeking peace.”
Since joining the campaign, Friedman has dismissed the idea of a two-state solution and has argued that Israeli annexation of the West Bank would favor a Jewish majority because “nobody really knows how many Palestinians live there.” (The Palestinian population of the West Bank is estimated at 2.8 million.) According to Friedman, while his “position is not a one-state solution,” Trump has observed that “a two-state solution . . . has been attempted over and over again and has been a failure.” More recently, when Netanyahu made the ironic claim that Palestinian calls for removing Israeli settlers from the West Bank was tantamount to “ethnic cleansing,” Friedman rushed to the Israeli prime minister’s defense. “Netanyahu makes exactly the right point,” he told Ha’aretz. Lastly, Friedman has echoed Netanyahu’s idea of an “economic peace” improving Palestinian quality of life as an alternative to self-determination.
Many Israelis as well as American supporters of Israel believe that Trump would be Israel’s dream president, especially if he hits it off with Netanyahu. A survey published earlier this month by the Israel Democracy Institute reveals that Israelis think Trump would be better for “Israeli government’s policy” by a margin of 38% to 33% over Clinton. Trump, the thinking goes, would be guided by his pro-Israel advisers to let Israel off the hook regarding settlement activity and land annexation, and endorse Tel Aviv’s demands in future peace negotiations.
At the same time, Trump’s larger foreign policy vision suggests an isolationist retreat. In an interview with the Washington Post, Trump questioned American involvement in NATO and sounded a similar note by suggesting that the U.S. should downsize its military commitments to its allies in the Pacific. The Post summed up Trump’s foreign policy as an “unabashedly non-interventionist approach” with “a light footprint in the world; an America that will “look inward and steer its resources toward rebuilding domestic infrastructure.” Might this all herald a reduction in America’s massive annual military aid package to Israel which is currently 3.8 billion a year?
Thus far, the United States has quashed any effort at the UN or in other international bodies to hold Israel accountable for its violations of international law, but an American embrace of isolationism could mean that a Trump administration would be less likely to leverage its clout to protect Israel in international fora. An America less concerned with the outside world might signal that there would be little consequence for seeking to hold Israel accountable. Simply put, Israeli impunity is heavily, albeit not exclusively, dependent on a preponderance of American global power.
By Khelil Bouarrouj.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of the Institute for Palestine Studies.
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