Who sets US policy on Israel and Palestine?
The president of the United States normally sets the broad objectives of the country’s foreign policy, which largely follow his party’s platform on the various issues. Day-to-day implementation is normally the domain of the US State Department, with the secretary of state traditionally being the person to lead the process and clock the required air miles to project the policy and attempts to deliver it.
Donald Trump, however, is no ordinary president and, while he set out his foreign policy during the election in the same way previous presidents have, he has acted differently when it comes to implementation. This has been the case on issues such as Iran and North Korea, which have caused tensions between the White House and the State Department, with political observers characterising Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s role as “clearing up the mess.”
Trump is certainly committed to bringing peace to the Palestinians and Israelis. It would be, he said, the “ultimate deal.” He promised Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas: “We want to create peace between Israel and the Palestinians. We will get it done. We will be working so hard to get it done.”
However, unlike his predecessor, Barack Obama, who effectively passed the pursuit of peace between Israel and the Palestinians to his Secretary of State John Kerry, Trump appointed his son-in-law Jared Kushner as a senior adviser on the Middle East. His other key appointments in relation to this were his company lawyer, Jason Greenblatt, as special representative for international negotiations, and his bankruptcy lawyer, David Friedman, for the sensitive position of US ambassador to Israel.
All three key appointees have a strong record of supporting Israel but none of them had experience in foreign policy. They were appointed to a task that has frustrated countless individuals who were far more experienced.
Kushner’s family’s foundation has donated tens of thousands of dollars to the illegal West Bank settlement of Bet El. Greenblatt and Friedman are also strong supporters of the settlement enterprise. While Abbas has met with both Kushner and Greenblatt on several occasions, he has refused to meet with Friedman because of the ambassador’s determination to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Tillerson has made two visits to the Palestinian territories and Israel since his appointment. His visit in May ahead of Trump’s July visit to the region was his first to the Holy Land. Greenblatt and Kushner have made repeated visits.
None of the three has made a substantial announcement on how Trump’s “ultimate deal” would be reached or whether there would be a substantial change in US policy. They claim to still be in an “exploration and listening” mode.
However, Friedman has been outspoken since his appointment. He recently referred to the “alleged occupation” of the West Bank and followed it with the astonishing claim that Israel only occupies 2% of the West Bank and that the two-state solution “is not a helpful term” and “has largely lost its meaning.”
He further stated: “I think the settlements are part of Israel” in comments that seem at odds with decades of US foreign policy. These statements could easily have come from Israel’s Foreign Ministry website. It was left to a State Department spokeswoman to reiterate there was no change in US policy.
With Trump, Tillerson, Trump’s advisers and his ambassador seemingly working in an uncoordinated manner, it may be a case of too many cooks spoiling the peace broth.