The regional tour of Donald Trump’s primary Middle East envoys—his lawyer, Jason Greenblatt, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner—has concluded. So, it’s an appropriate time to take stock of the peace plan the Trump team seems to be formulating.
Only the Trump team seems particularly eager to see this plan come about, which is telling. It is hard to be optimistic about the deal, given that the Kushner & Greenblatt Traveling Road Show met with everyone involved except the Palestinians. No matter what Jason and Jared may have heard, none of their Arab interlocutors is in a position to move forward on a deal that the Palestinians have summarily rejected.
Trump approaches the entire question of Palestine transactionally, in line with his approach to most issues. This view was reflected in an interview Kushner gave to the Palestinian newspaper, al-Quds. He told reporter Walid Abu-Zalaf, “At the end of the day, I believe that Palestinian people are less invested in the politicians’ talking points than they are in seeing how a deal will give them and their future generations new opportunities, more and better paying jobs and prospects for a better life.”
If Kushner believes that a slight uptick in average household income will obscure Palestinian concerns about settlements, refugees, Jerusalem, and the very nature of their national existence, he is gravely mistaken. But the entire interview seems to reflect just such a view. Referring to Palestinian spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh’s statement that the US efforts were doomed, Kushner remarked that the “Palestinian leadership is saying those things because they are scared we will release our peace plan and the Palestinian people will actually like it because it will lead to new opportunities for them to have a much better life.”
These statements make it clear that Kushner has not only misunderstood the Palestinian leadership, but Palestinians in general. US negotiators have routinely, and justifiably, been accused of being deaf to the pulse of the Palestinian people, but Kushner seems even more hard of hearing than usual. And there is virtually no chance that Greenblatt, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, or certainly Trump himself know any more about Palestinian sentiments than Kushner does. Continue reading at Lobelog
“This is bonkers. Israel’s government says don’t overreact to neo-Nazis in the US because it could hurt relations with Trump. Totally insane.”
So said Dr. Brian Klaas, a Fellow in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics on Twitter. Klaas has frequently tweeted his criticisms of U.S. President Donald Trump, but has only occasionally commented on Israel, though he clearly has a background in the subject.
Klaas was moved to tweet this comment by the words of Israeli Minister of Communications, Ayoub Kara. Kara told the Jerusalem Post that “We need to condemn antisemitism and any trace of Nazism, and I will do what I can as a minister to stop its spread. But Trump is the best U.S. leader Israel has ever had. His relations with the prime minister of Israel are wonderful, and after enduring the terrible years of Obama, Trump is the unquestioned leader of the free world, and we must not accept anyone harming him.”
Kara added that Trump has “a proven track record in opposing antisemitism and religious extremism.”
Kara is not a marginal figure, even though very few Americans have ever heard of him. Although he is Druze, not Jewish, he is among the most right wing of Likud politicians and is a staunch supporter of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His position as Minister of Communications, and his very close relationship to Netanyahu, reflect the fact that he is often speaking Netanyahu’s mind, and can usually be counted on to say nothing the Prime Minister would not agree with.
Kara was an outspoken critic of Barack Obama, and his strong support here for Trump should come as no surprise. But just as Trump has refused to credibly condemn the extreme right wing, so has Netanyahu refused to make anything but the most minimal comment on the incidents of public anti-Semitism. And Kara is surely speaking for Netanyahu as to why.
It’s important to note here that even Israeli leaders who have spoken out about the white supremacist demonstrations in the United States have, with few exceptions, either avoided mentioning Trump’s response or only barely alluded to it. But Netanyahu made the weakest statement of all, when his position demands the opposite.
The obvious reasons for this are the ones that Kara listed. Trump has largely ignored the Israel-Palestine conflict, with his envoys having a few meetings and the president himself making an occasional comment. Netanyahu has been mindful not to draw attention to Israeli actions recently, but there is no sign that he is at all concerned about having to negotiate in any substantive way with the Palestinians.
Meanwhile, the strangulation of Gaza continues, settlements keep expanding, the occupation becomes more entrenched, and no one Netanyahu cares about is saying very much.
Israel’s Concerns Ignored
The cynical use of anti-Semitism by the Israeli right is, by now, such an old story it is almost passé. But there’s a very interesting contrast between Trump and Obama that is even more telling than Netanyahu’s lack of response to growing anti-Semitism in the United States.
In early July, Trump had one of his few successes when he and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to a ceasefire zone in southern Syria. Israel’s dissatisfaction with the arrangement was well known, even before the agreement was finalized. Netanyahu worked the phones with both Trump and Putin, making it clear he did not consider having Iran’s ally, Russia, as the guarantor of Israeli concerns in southern Syria satisfactory. These concerns were heard and summarily ignored by both Russia and the United States.
Some may see in this a parallel to the Iran nuclear deal, where President Obama heard Netanyahu’s opposition but proceeded with the deal regardless. But there is a crucial difference.
Obama believed, and stated numerous times, that the Iran deal was not only in the best interests of the United States, but also Israel. While that was not a universal opinion, it was, crucially, shared by Israel’s military and intelligence communities, who continue to support the deal to this day. Indeed, it was Netanyahu who, ignoring the advice of his own military and intelligence experts, was endangering Israel’s security for political gains. Now he has a political ally in the White House, rather than someone who shows legitimate concern for Israel’s security.
Trump stated, in response to Netanyahu’s objections, that Israel’s concerns would be addressed. But he didn’t elaborate on that statement, and no aspect of the ceasefire agreement has changed. In contrast to the Iran deal, Israel’s military and intelligence communities are deeply concerned about the potential for Iran to establish a long-term presence in southern Syria. A report last week indicated that the effort to alter the cease fire agreement was much wider than the Prime Minister’s office, and included the military and intelligence leadership. Ongoing Israeli engagement on the issue with the Trump administration by these leaders is not yielding results.
The support of Israeli defense and intelligence leaders was a crucial part of Obama’s ability to sell the Iran nuclear deal. Had these leaders been opposed to the deal, it is quite possible the talks would have failed, not least because Obama himself might have been less committed to them. Despite the actions Netanyahu took to undermine Obama (actions which long preceded the Iran deal) and the often insulting attitude he displayed, Obama never wavered in his commitment to Israel’s security. This was so much the case, even Netanyahu had to repeatedly admit that security cooperation and coordination with the United States reached all-time highs during Obama’s presidency.
Yet when Trump abandons Israeli security, it’s still not enough to get Netanyahu to criticize the President’s tacit support for white supremacists. Instead, Kara, certainly speaking the mind of Netanyahu, praises Trump for opposing what he clearly has not opposed.
It is understandable that Netanyahu would enjoy having a man like Trump in the White House. In many ways, the two are kindred spirits. But more importantly, Trump has essentially given Netanyahu a free hand. He rarely mentions settlements, only occasionally alludes to reviving a peace process, and has a team of right wing American Jews leading what little diplomatic effort there is.
But that does not sufficiently explain Netanyahu’s willingness to ignore both Trump’s tacit support of white supremacists and his total disregard of Israeli security concerns.
What does explain it is much subtler. It is a growing normalcy.
Today, Turkey and Jordan issued a joint statement urging the resumption of peace talks according to international resolutions and with a “precise timetable.” It is unlikely that this call will even merit a comment, let alone any support or action, from any corner. The situation as it stands today is one where Israel has essentially segregated the Arab parts of East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank and maintains its siege on Gaza. Those conditions have held for years now, and have become the new normal. Only the efforts of the Obama administration prevented their normalization previously.
For Netanyahu, there are both short and long term benefits to this that are very significant. In the short term, the only defense he is likely to have against the corruption charges being readied against him is the claim of his purported popularity, which will certainly be bolstered by an extended period during which Israel is not being attacked on a large scale either physically or politically.
Already, Israelis have seen months go by without any pressure to engage the Palestinians. Meanwhile, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement is seeing legislation being passed in many US states to marginalize it and criminalize support for it, while in Congress, a bill to do the same has faced significant opposition, but could still pass. In Europe and in the Arab world, the Israel-Palestine conflict continues to drop lower on the agenda, all the more so as concerns (or, in some cases, perceived opportunities) over Trump’s policies or lack thereof occupy more and more space.
So, Netanyahu can credibly claim to have not only achieved the greatest calm Israel has seen in its history, but to be continuing to build on and entrench it. He has shown in the past that he can make such claims without sacrificing his demagogic ability to frighten the populace when he needs to.
Of course, Netanyahu also knows that he is merely holding a lid on a pressure cooker. Gaza cannot long survive in the condition it is in. The West Bank will only remain sedate for so long, as Israel strangles its economy and smothers the rights of the Palestinians living there. The hopelessness and frustration of another generation that has grown up without human or civil rights, without freedom, and without any reason to believe things will get better will eventually lead to another round of violence. But when that does happen, Netanyahu will have established a new status quo, with settlements being seen as parts of Israel and Gaza cut off, that the international community will help Israel get back to, even as they press for final status talks again.
That’s the prize that Netanyahu sees. He has, for years, worked to shift Israel’s American support to a farther right wing base, so he has minimized the damage his silence on Charlottesville caused. And he knows too that, apart from a major regional war, Israel is quite capable of dealing with any threat Hezbollah or Iran might pose in Syria without the help of the United States. He can feel secure that Trump, and very likely his successors, will back any action Israel takes against an Iranian-backed militia.
In exchange for his acquiescence on these matters, Netanyahu believes he will reach an endgame with the Palestinians. He believes he can explode the notion that endless occupation is unsustainable. Obama would never let him test that idea. Neither would George W. Bush, his previous “best-ever president for Israel.” But Trump will. That’s why Netanyahu loves him so much that he is willing to overlook anything.
Given the frequently bombastic rhetoric that has come from the new President of the United States in his first two weeks in office, it is not surprising that many observers are reading the statement from the White House about Israeli settlements as being much sterner than it is. Expectations (and fears) have been raised in some quarters that President Donald Trump would be even more supportive of settlements than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the statement has been read by many in that context.
As Israeli analyst Gershom Gorenberg said in a tweet early Friday, “(The) previous Israeli attitude was ‘The dogs bark and the convoy rolls on.’ Now (the) dog isn’t even barking.” Gorenberg is right, there was very little warning in this statement.The most important point made in the statement is an enormous gift to the Israeli right. The White House says that “…we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace.” That is a direct break with 50 years of fully bipartisan US policy on the matter. Following that with a statement that expansion of settlements “may not be helpful” in achieving peace is, contrary to what some have said, a much weaker statement than past presidents, including George W. Bush as well as Barack Obama, have issued.
There are, however, some things that can be reasonably read into it. First, Netanyahu’s announcements this week of moving forward with still more settlement units as well as proposing the first new settlement initiated by the Israeli government in a decade were made without coordinating with the Trump administration. Given that Trump met briefly with Jordan’s King Abdullah just yesterday at the annual White House Prayer Breakfast and that Arab heads of state as well as cooler heads in both the Israeli government, and the pro-Netanyahu wing of the pro-Israel community in the US have been urging Trump to be more thoughtful of regional concerns in his approach to Israel, it is not surprising that Trump would want to make it clear to Netanyahu that he isn’t giving a blanket green light to doing such things without coordinating with Washington.
Also, the much more careful and nuanced tone here stands in sharp contrast with most of the Trump Administration’s early statements. This suggests that the White House may have sought more input on this statement than they had on others.
Indeed, it is entirely possible that such input was gathered from Israel or supporters in the US. The statement serves a crucial purpose for Netanyahu that seems to have escaped the notice of many.
The evacuation of the illegal (according to Israeli law) Amona outpost has been a huge controversy for Netanyahu for quite some time. As the evacuation was carried out this week the controversy reached a crescendo. Even though pro-settlement forces in Israel have been handsomely compensated with a bill in the Knesset to legalize outposts built on privately owned Palestinian land, announcements of new settlements, and vows from Netanyahu for much more, the settler movement was still dissatisfied. They expected more from a Prime Minister who, they believed, was completely freed from the shackles of the Obama administration.
Trump’s statement provides badly needed cover for Netanyahu to push back against those arguments. He is now able to portray himself as both a great friend of the settlements and a wise statesman who will take advantage of the opportunities Trump gives him, but will also act as a good friend to the Republican administration and not go so far as to embarrass it. It doesn’t suit Netanyahu to have a US administration that, like David Friedman (the man Trump has nominated as ambassador to Israel), supports settlements more than Netanyahu. Trump has now avoided being portrayed that way.
True, the White House’s statement last night dampened some of the more salacious fantasies of the settlement movement. But it was the absolute perfect statement for Netanyahu. That it was less “Trump-ian” than most of the President’s statements may have caught some people off-guard. But there is no less to worry about in regards to the new administration today than there was yesterday. Hopefully, after the initial shock from the tone of the statement wears off, more observers will recognize that.
Gershon Baskin is the founder of IPCRI – Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, and served as its co-director until January 2012. He is a long-time veteran of both Israeli peace NGOs and second track diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinians, and has many key contacts on both sides. This gives him a particularly well-informed grasp of current events.
In July 2006, after Gilad Schalit’s abduction in Gaza he began unofficially, without governmental authorization or support, to open a back channel with Hamas. Baskin was involved in the ultimately successful efforts leading up to Shalit’s release for more than five years
Baskin holds a Ph.D. in International relations from the University of Greenwich.
All of this makes his insight into how to resolve issues particularly valuable. As this week of escalated violence in Israel and the West Bank came to a close, Baskin posted some of his thoughts to his Facebook page. The Foundation for Middle East Peace reprints them here with his permission.
Take a particularly provocative and grandstanding Israeli government and shift its focus from Hamas and Gaza to Jerusalem and you have a most explosive recipe. That potion is being stirred now, and the results could shake up the status quo in a way that we have only seen a few times in Israel’s history.
Much of the recent news narrative starts with the wounding of Yehuda Glick, a US expat who emigrated to Israel as child and became one of the leaders of the self-proclaimed “Temple Mount Movement.” In reality, this chapter of the endless and bloody saga of the Old City of Jerusalem began with the last Israeli election. That poll brought into power the most radically right-wing of Israeli governments, representing an odd mixture of zealous Zionism, modern Orthodoxy in Judaism and a curious impulse to completely disregard centuries of Jewish law regarding the Temple Mount. We’ll get back to that later, but first it’s important to recognize the potential fallout from further escalation.
The recall of Jordan’s ambassador to Israel is no small matter, and it reflects just how important this issue is to the Hashemite kingdom. Despite having lost the West Bank to Israel in 1967 and having relinquished its claim to it in 1988, Jordan is still the guardian of the Jerusalem holy sites for the Muslim world. This status is precious to the Hashemites, and the prestige it brings is a crucial element for their continued hold on power.
The Israeli threats have escalated steadily since the election and then ticked up sharply in the spring, when the Netanyahu government began its anti-Hamas crackdown throughout the West Bank, under the false cover of searching for kidnap victims the Israelis already knew had been brutally murdered. Tensions and demonstrations in Jerusalem were escalating throughout the summer, while everyone’s attention was, quite understandably, focused on Gaza.
This was the inevitable result of an intensely nationalistic government believing it had finally done away with the façade of negotiations in which Jerusalem was a central issue. Brazen statements, provocative visits, and then crackdowns and harsher limits on Palestinian worshippers at al-Aqsa Mosque were all to be expected.
One question that these events raise is whether this is the intention of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or the result of his unwillingness to challenge his coalition partners and members of his own party on a passionately populist issue. I tend to lean toward the latter belief, as Netanyahu has usually shown himself to be the sort of leader who does nothing unless he’s pressured by politics. In either case, the Israeli actions have raised concerns from Washington to Brussels to Cairo and, most resoundingly, to Amman.
Despite the peace treaty with Israel being massively unpopular in Jordan, where the majority of the citizens are Palestinian, it has not been a cause for major internal upheaval. For Jordan, peace has not only brought financial and diplomatic support from the United States, it has also opened up a new market with Israel, which exports goods to Jordan and thereby to the rest of the Arab world, despite the ongoing regional boycott against Israel.
But now there is unrest and unease in Jordan. King Abdullah’s support of the United States’ efforts against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) has helped rile some of the more radical elements in Jordan, adding to the tensions that already existed between the government and more mainstream Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The country is undergoing a severe economic crisis, with massive unemployment, even while it is also burdened with refugees from Syria and Iraq, many of whom have sharp complaints about their treatment.
These conditions make Jordan a tinderbox. And Jerusalem is just as sure a fuse for a Jordanian tinderbox as it is for an Israeli-Palestinian one. These are the factors that led King Abdullah to recall his ambassador from Israel. Only once before, when Israel attempted to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Jordan, has peace between Jordan and Israel been so threatened.
The Israelis have surely given this consideration, but they likely estimate that Jordan would not dare abrogate its treaty with Israel. Such a move would surely endanger Jordan’s support from the US, and that could be fatal if, indeed, internal conflict does break out in the Hashemite kingdom. Ultimately, Israel probably believes that unless it tries to threaten the authority of the Islamic Waqf, which is the body that administrates the Temple Mount, or otherwise officially changes the status quo of the area, Jordan will not withdraw from the treaty.
That’s a reasonable assessment, but it should not be banked on too strongly. Given the precarious situation in Jordan, its leadership’s main concern now is avoiding an outbreak of civil conflict altogether. Even though the Jordanian military is far superior to that of, say, Iraq, a popular uprising triggered by conflict over the Jerusalem holy sites could quickly spread to encompass the mass dissatisfaction with both the economic conditions and Hashemite rule in the country in general. Abdullah does not want to gamble on his ability to contain all of that anger. Though unlikely, that concern does give him a reason to potentially take the bold step of ending peace with Israel, and deal with the consequences of that step later.
For Israel, such an outcome would mean near-total isolation again. Even the Sisi government in Egypt would have a difficult time continuing to work with Israel all by itself. Egyptians remember well the isolation they experienced from the rest of the Arab world after their treaty with Israel was first struck. It took a very long time, even after they were re-admitted into the Arab League, for Egypt to regain a position of some stature in the Arab world.
The entire approach the international community has taken toward Jerusalem needs to re-evaluated, and quickly. For years, Israel has treated Jerusalem as a flashpoint it could manipulate for nationalistic reasons, and for a long time, young Palestinian Muslims (sometimes all of them under the age of 50, other times the cutoff age has been as low as 35) have been unable to go to pray at the al-Aqsa Mosque. To be sure, there have also been many incidents of Palestinians using Friday prayers as a launching pad for protests and stone-throwing, sometimes down the hill at Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall.
Israeli soldiers and police blocking Palestinians from one of the entrances to the old city in Jerusalem on March 14, 2010. Credit: Mel Frykberg/IPS
Now, Jerusalem is being used by different parts of Israel’s governing coalition. The further right elements are crystallizing nationalist fervor around it. Netanyahu, for his part, is using the violence that Israeli actions are stirring up to blame Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas as part of his campaign to convince people that all of Israel’s opponents—IS, Iran, Hamas, and the PA as led by Abbas—are essentially the same enemy of not only Israel, but the entire world. And, of course, Hamas, and Fatah as well, are using the Israeli actions as a rallying cry, spurring people to both organized and individual acts of resistance and/or terrorism.
But it’s high time reality set in and we understood this to be an issue of nationalism manipulating religion to its ends. Many of the Jewish Temple Mount activists claim that they are pursuing a civil rights issue. After all, they argue, if the Muslim right to pray at their third holiest site is sacrosanct, shouldn’t the Jewish right to pray at their holiest site be at least as high a priority?
Sorry, but that’s not what this is about. Religious Zionism has twisted many Jewish precepts over the years. But even Israel’s chief rabbis have reiterated continuously that Jews must not pray on the Temple Mount or even walk upon it for fear of treading upon the area of the Holiest of Holies, which was inside the Temple and where only the High Priest may enter.
Religious Zionists are split on this issue, as some religious leaders have, in a rather arbitrary fashion, decided that going up to the Temple Mount is acceptable. And, it must be noted, that this notion is an entirely modern phenomenon. It is only in recent years that even religious Zionists have tried to completely negate this particular tenet of Jewish tradition, which has been undisputed for most of our history.
As with so many issues regarding Israel, this is not about Judaism. In fact, it’s not about the terms of much of mainstream Zionism, either. It is a brazen effort by far-right nationalists, some because of a radicalized messianism, some with more secular motivations, to lay claim to Jewish rule over Jerusalem as a whole. It is of a piece with the escalating efforts by Jewish Israelis to spread the colonization of East Jerusalem in the hope of making a unified, Jewish Jerusalem a fait accompli.
Israel is playing with fire on a number of levels here, with the Palestinians and with the broader Arab and Muslim worlds. Thus far, the government has been justified in its belief that the United States and Europe would do nothing more than issue the usual condemnations, not recognizing that Israel’s actions could make compromise on Jerusalem a practical impossibility.
But at some point the US and EU must recognize that if Israel continues to increase its antagonism on the issue of Jerusalem, it’s going to radicalize a lot more than just the Palestinians in East Jerusalem, as well as complicate their efforts against IS and other concerns in the Arab World. If they don’t take some action to reign Israel in soon, they will also be paying the consequences.