FOR TRUMP AND ISRAEL, A BANNER YEAR
No fireworks mark the end of 2018 for the Trump Administration and Israel.
BY MICHAEL WILNER. DECEMBER 27, 2018. jerusalem post.
WASHINGTON – Israel rings in 2019 in rare quiet after closing out two years with high diplomatic drama.
In December 2016, Barack Obama fired his final salvo as president at the Security Council with a resolution condemning settlement activity in the West Bank, prompting the incoming Trump administration to take the extraordinary step of lobbying foreign capitals to intervene. One year later, in 2017, Donald Trump offered the world a preview of his vision for Israeli-Palestinian peace by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US embassy there.
No fireworks mark the end of 2018, a year that featured jolting movements in US foreign policy in the Middle East – including a shocking US announcement of retreat from Syria this month – but virtually no action on a peace initiative now two years in the making, still yet to face public scrutiny.
After repeated delays, Trump and the architects of his peace plan say they will release their proposals in the coming months. But the events of 2018 have made their path far more difficult. While the White House officials continue to say they will release their plan when the timing is right, it is hard to envision, given recent events, serendipity striking any time soon.
The year began with Trump’s top aides leading the peace team – Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt – expressing hope that anger within the Palestinian Authority over the Jerusalem decision would ultimately pass. Surely the PA knew that Washington is indispensable in the Middle East peace process, they said, having established for itself a unique track record of support for both Jewish and Palestinian self-determination.
And yet the Palestinians did not come around. Instead, insults grew harsher, with PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his longtime chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, calling for Trump’s house to burn and dismissing Kushner and Greenblatt as irreparably damaged goods.
The US peace team eventually began to return fire.
“President Abbas says that he is committed to peace and I have no reason not to believe him,” Kushner told Al Quds, a Palestinian newspaper, in an interview in June. “More importantly, President Trump committed to him early on that he would work to make a fair deal for the Palestinian people.
“However, I do question how much President Abbas has the ability to, or is willing to, lean into finishing a deal,” Kushner added. “He has his talking points which have not changed in the last 25 years. There has been no peace deal achieved in that time. To make a deal both sides will have to take a leap and meet somewhere between their stated positions. I am not sure President Abbas has the ability to do that.”
Greenblatt began publicly questioning what Erekat had accomplished in decades of negotiations, and Nikki Haley, Trump’s outgoing US ambassador to the UN, frequently hit back against PA officials who attacked her campaign against Palestinian statehood efforts in international bodies. While the Jerusalem decision proved toxic for Trump’s relationship with the PA, it gave him a popularity boost in Israel and a major political win with his base, which counts it among his greatest accomplishments. The administration has been working ever since to recruit additional nations to move their embassies – a campaign that has become something of a litmus test for small countries seeking to do right by the administration. The spat was followed by a series of retributive policies from the White House meant to pressure the Palestinians back to negotiations and punish them for refusing to engage with the president.
In the second half of 2018, the administration folded its Jerusalem consulate handling Palestinian affairs into its Israel embassy, closed the PA’s offices in Washington, cut $165 million in PA assistance over its practice of compensating the families of convicted terrorists and slashed aid to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, east Jerusalem hospitals, Israeli-Palestinian cooperation programs and direct assistance to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank itself.
White House officials claim this amounts to a comprehensive strategy: slaughtering sacred cows that have long obstructed a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. And while Ramallah has vocally disagreed, Arab capitals remain largely silent, insisting they will not prejudge the Trump plan until it is released in full. Announcing one of the aid cuts, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that Trump would soon “make a truly historic push for peace.” And Haley curiously stated that the plan would “take advantage of the new world of technology that we live in.”
“It is time we faced a hard truth: both sides would benefit greatly from a peace agreement, but the Palestinians would benefit more, and the Israelis would risk more,” Haley said in her final speech on the conflict as ambassador. “This plan will be different from all previous ones. The critical question is whether the response will be any different. Ultimately, as always, the final decisions can only be made by the parties themselves. Israelis and Palestinians will decide their own futures. They will decide what sacrifices they are willing to make.” While Israelis end the year deeply concerned with Trump’s withdrawal of troops from Syria, on the diplomatic front they enter 2019 successfully staving off a peace process they would rather avoid altogether and confident Trump will respect their “redlines” on security in any future agreement with the Palestinians. It was a banner year for Netanyahu’s Israel, but it is safe to assume the coming year will include plenty of surprises for Israel characteristic of the Trump presidency.