Trump’s position on Palestinians upending past US policies

Trump has undoubtedly made a political calculation that it is better to stay in good graces of Netanyahu rather than pressure him to make concessions.
Saturday 06/07/2019
A file photo shows US President Donald Trump shaking hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, 2017. (Reuters)
A file photo shows US President Donald Trump shaking hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, 2017. (Reuters)

Although critics of US policy have long maintained that Washington has been biased in favour of Israel, this did not mean that the United States — at least until very recently — had abandoned the Palestinians.

It should be remembered that, in 1947, the United States supported the first two-state solution proposal — the UN partition plan for Palestine that envisioned a Jewish and an Arab state, with Jerusalem under international administration.

The two-state idea went into abeyance after the 1948 war when the new state of Israel captured even more territory than the partition plan proposed and the West Bank and East Jerusalem came under Jordanian control while the Gaza Strip came under Egyptian control. After the 1967 war, those areas would be under Israeli control.

The 1948 war created about 750,000 Palestinian refugees but they were supported by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), with large grants from the United States starting in 1949.

From the perspective of US policymakers at the time, the Palestinians got the short end of the stick in the 1948 conflict and Washington was keen to show it would support them through UNRWA. With the Cold War brewing at the time, US officials also wanted to curry favour with Arab countries and economic support for Palestinian refugees was one way to do this.

From the late 1960s and through most of the 1980s, the United States took a strong stand against the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and more radical Palestinian groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine because of their use of terrorism and their ties to Moscow.

However, Washington soon realised that the PLO represented most of the Palestinian community and to pursue a policy of ignoring this reality was counterproductive. After PLO leader Yasser Arafat, with US prodding, stated publicly in 1988 that he recognised Israel and renounced terrorism, the United States entered into dialogue with the PLO.

Several years later, the Israeli Labour government under Yitzhak Rabin came to this same view, which produced the Oslo Accords. Although the United States was not part of the negotiations that produced the accords, US President Bill Clinton wholeheartedly supported them and hosted the signing ceremony at the White House that witnessed Rabin and Arafat shaking hands.

Clinton’s pro-Israeli sentiments were well-known but he became a friend of the Palestinians. He received Arafat several times at the White House, travelled to Gaza and supported large outlays of US economic assistance to the West Bank and Gaza.

Although the Oslo Accords failed — and Clinton grew angry at Arafat for not accepting the last Israeli offer at Camp David II — Clinton understood that political issues, not economic ones, were at the heart of the matter.

His successor, George W. Bush, even though he refused to deal with Arafat, called explicitly for a two-state solution and supported Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas. President Barack Obama’s peace process efforts also failed but he was the first US president to speak openly of the Palestinians enduring “daily humiliations” and said “America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own.”

US President Donald Trump is unique in that he has upended this policy. He not only recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the US Embassy to that city — which all previous US presidents had resisted — but he cut off US assistance to the UNRWA, dramatically reduced US aid to the Palestinians and closed the PLO office in Washington.

In his latest budget, Trump proposed just $35 million for the Palestinians in the West Bank — for law enforcement training only. Moreover, he seems to support whatever Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu wants.

This change in US policy led the Palestinian leadership to suspend talks with Washington.

Trump’s peace process plan, drafted largely by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, has yet to be unveiled but it is rumoured not to support a Palestinian state. The Palestinians saw the administration’s recent conference in Bahrain, designed to encourage pledges of economic support for them, as a way to circumvent and ultimately put off the issue of Palestinian sovereignty.

The Palestinians boycotted the conference and several Arab countries sent lower-level officials to attend it. Despite the Trump administration’s effort to tout the conference as a “success,” it was largely a failure.

It is hard to imagine that any other recent US president would pursue a policy aimed at “buying off” the Palestinians without a political process leading to Palestinian statehood.

Trump, however, is unlikely to reverse course and come up with a peace plan that would meet minimal Palestinian political aspirations. He has undoubtedly made a political calculation that it is better to stay in good graces of Netanyahu rather than pressure him to make concessions.

This policy will please his political base but it will do nothing to achieve peace or restore US credibility with the Palestinians, which several of his predecessors had pursued in the interest of achieving a genuine peace deal.

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