Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him @aarondmiller2. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Two events this week reflect stunning and unprecedented trend lines in US Middle East policy. First, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley blasted the remarks that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas made against the United States last week. And President Donald Trump in Davos praised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and threatened the Palestinians with aid cutoffs – shortly before his formal meeting with Netanyahu.
Never has any US administration so purposely or willfully aligned itself with the interests and politics of the Israeli government nor orchestrated a campaign of pressure against an already dysfunctional and directionless Palestine.
These policies are largely seen as good politics in “Trumpland” and reflect the President’s preternatural tendency to think about his base and how to preserve it. But they are likely to have significant foreign policy implications.
Without some significant course correction, Trump’s pursuit of his ultimate deal is almost certain to turn into the ultimate failure. Still, how much he cares about this issue is arguable, and as long as the politics turn out right – Palestinians taking the hit instead of Israel, particularly in an election year – the Trump administration may not care all that much.
Hand in glove: My own prediction at the start of this administration was that it was only a matter of time before Netanyahu and Trump – both with large and brittle egos – would eventually annoy the hell out of one another, most likely on some issue related to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Not only has that not happened, but on most every issue, from Iran to the peace process to recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital to defending Israel at the United Nations, the Trump administration has sided with Israel.
All US administrations argue with Israel about something. At the very least, the Trump administration has managed to keep whatever disagreements exist – and they don’t appear to be major – out of the public space.
When Trump remarked on Thursday at Davos that relations have never been stronger, it wasn’t just a throwaway. Trump is the first US President to visit Israel so early in his term; the first sitting President to pray at the Western Wall; the first to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel and likely next year the first to open a US embassy in Jerusalem.
Blasting Palestinians: I remember former Secretary of State James Baker hammering Palestinians on the way to Madrid in an effort to get them to accept an invitation to come as a non-Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) delegation; and George W. Bush’s refusal to deal with Yasser Arafat unless the Palestinian Authority was reformed and ceased its support for terror and violence.
But those paled in comparison with the triple-down pressure campaign the Trump administration has waged against Palestinians.
Haley’s speech in New York on Thursday reflects a fundamental deal-breaking bias. Although she appropriately called Abbas out on his intemperate anti-Israeli and even anti-Semitic remarks last week, Haley failed to even mention the fact that Israeli actions and policies had anything to do with the current impasse.
The administration is demonstrating an acute sensibility to Israeli interests – and rarely to Palestinian requirements – with threats to close the PLO office in Washington, restricting US assistance to UNRWA, a UN relief fund for Palestinian refugees, unless the PA returns to the negotiating table, and failing to acknowledge Palestinian claims to Jerusalem. These all reflect a campaign of pressure to bring them to heel and impose consequences unless they accept the US view on any number of issues.
Trump’s threat at Davos that US money to the Palestinians is “now on the table” and “that money’s not going to them unless they sit down and negotiate peace,” is virtually unprecedented even in the toughest of previous administrations.
Domestic politics as the driver: Pro-Israeli and Anti-Palestinian positions clearly play well with the President’s base. Foreign policy considerations have taken a back seat. The recent visit of Vice President Mike Pence to the Middle East reflected these priorities. The visit achieved almost no concrete foreign policy agenda in Israel, but clearly reflected Pence’s deep Christian faith and pro-Israeli sensibilities, which were bound to play well with millions of Evangelicals.
When Palestinians refused to see Pence, Trump had more material to blast them. Indeed, Thursday in Davos, the President criticized Palestinians for disrespecting “our great Vice-President.”
All of this plays into one of the key domestic motivators of the President’s foreign policy: the desire to demonstrate, certainly on the Israel issue, that he is the “un-Obama” and that his administration is light-years away from the quarrels and tensions of the Obama-Netanyahu years. Thursday, Trump praised his personal friendship with Netanyahu, something that, had Obama said it, nobody would have believed.
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Where is all this going? Given tensions with the Palestinians, one would have to conclude that any hope of a breakthrough in future talks between Israel and the Palestinians would be virtually impossible. The only conceivable logic, apart from domestic politics – and there’s no evidence to support it – is that the Trump administration is showering the Israelis with honey to make it virtually impossible for Netanyahu to say no to the tough decisions the Trump administration will ask him to make when its peace plan is presented.
Together, with pressure on the Palestinians from the Saudis – on which the administration is counting but Palestinian officials are denying – Trump may believe that Netanyahu may be persuaded to give something significant. He said as much in Davos, opining that “Israel is going to do something that’s going to be a very good thing.” Maybe.
But what is more likely to happen, given what’s been set into motion, is that the Palestinians will reject what Trump puts on the table; Israel will say yes, but no amount of pressure will bring the Palestinians around.
To quote my former boss, James Baker, the “dead cat” will be left on the Palestinians’ doorstep, which should play well politically at home, particularly among Republicans. As for the peace process, it will likely remain in limbo – trapped between a two-state solution that’s still too important to abandon on the one hand, but still too difficult to implement on the other.