Almost immediately upon getting elected, Donald Trump declared his desire “to do…the deal that can’t be made.” He called an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan “the ultimate deal.” But, since getting elected, Trump’s moves seem to be self-defeating. His actions—and lack of actions—are not conducive to his declared desire.
Immediately following Trump’s inauguration, Israel announced the approval of a huge 2,500 home settlement expansion in the West Bank. Netanyahu called the expansion just “a taste.”
But the significance of the settlement expansion in terms of Trump’s Middle East policy was revealed in White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s choice of words. Netanyahu made the announcement only two days after talking to Trump on the phone. When Spicer was asked about Trump’s response to Israel’s expansion into the West Bank, he said:
“We’re going to have a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu and we’ll continue to discuss that,” he said. “Israel continues to be a huge ally of the United States, he wants to grow closer with Israel, to make sure that it gets the full respect that it deserves in the Middle East.”
The key word that went unnoticed is “continue”: “we’ll continue to discuss that,” meaning that Netanyahu and Trump began to discuss it two days earlier on their first phone call. Netanyahu’s announcement, then, was made after receiving the green light from Trump. Hence, Spicer’s lack of a denunciation.
Israel began Trump’s second week with another massive settlement announcement, approving the construction of another 3,000 homes in the West Bank. And, again, the Trump administration seems to have had no comment, remaining silent while the building went on. The Chief negotiator for the Palestinians, Saeb Erekat, said that the lack of response from Trump translates into a sign of encouragement for Israeli settlement construction.
Trump stated his intention to initiate Middle East peace talks and pull off “the ultimate deal”. But his actions contradict his promise: you can’t negotiate a Palestinian state on land that you are giving to Israel.
And that is not the only act that contradicts the promise. So does Trump’s choice of his team. Trump has tapped his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as his chief negotiator for brokering a deal between Israel and the Palestinians. But, according to the Washington Post, Kushner is a director of the family’s foundation: a foundation that has made charitable donations to West Bank settlements. The appointment of a negotiator who finances one side of the negotiations renders impartial negotiation impossible. Mustafa Barghouti, a leader of the Palestinian National Initiative and a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council who has been involved in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks before, complained that “We need somebody who is impartial. There is no indication [Kushner] is interested in hearing from the other side.” The Kushner family foundation has also supported groups that support the Israeli military.
What’s worse is that the president of the American Friends in Beit El Yeshiva—one of the settlement recipients of donations from the Charles and Seryl Kushner Foundation—is David Friedman, who is not just a benefactor of that West Bank settlement but Trump’s pick for ambassador to Israel. Consistent with his the role as underwriter for Beit El Yeshiva, but not with Trump’s promise to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty, Friedman supports Israeli annexation of the occupied territories and an end to the “two-state narrative.” Trump’s appointment of an ambassador who supports the Israeli annexation of the occupied territories and rejects a “two-state narrative” and his choice of a chief negotiator who is invested in one side of the negotiations are not consistent with the promise to initiate Middle East peace talks.
At the end of Trump’s second week as president, his position on Israeli settlements became, at once, more nuanced and more contradictory. Immediately after apparently giving the green light, Trump apparently flashed the amber one. While seeming to give Netanyahu the green light in private conversation, the White House gave the amber light in public.
On February 2, the White House broke its silence, declaring that “unilateral” settlement announcements “could undermine our ability to make progress” on a peace deal. The statement came the day after Israel announced the establishment of the first new settlement in years. It also came after a brief meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan.
But the contradictory amber light contains a contradiction within itself. Though the White House did not totally deflate the warning, it did let some of the air out. Within the very statement that seemed to say the Trump administration was critical of settlement expansion, came the caveat that the president “has not taken an official position on settlement activity.” So, the public position is not yet an “official” position.
Trump’s position became more confusing still with White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s explanation that, “While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal.’’ Not a contradiction, but not clearly helpful either.
The choice of the word “unilateral” is also curious. Who is the absent bilateral partner? Not the Palestinians. It’s not as if the Palestinians are going to be a partner in agreeing to settlement expansion. Does that mean that what is not helpful is confined to Israeli announcements of new settlements without consultation with its American partner? This interpretation may be supported by the Jerusalem Post’s reporting that a senior administration official told them that “the White House was not consulted on Israel’s unprecedented announcement of 5,500 new settlement housing units. . . .” Further support may also come from former U.S. Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross, who told the Jerusalem Post, “I think it’s designed to chill some of the exuberance of those on the Israeli Right who think they have a blank check. I think that exuberance got their attention. I just don’t think they want any announcements that will surprise them, and they’re still in the process of formulating what their policy is going to be.
Certainly, the Israeli reading was sensitive enough to pick up the contradictions and nuances. Interpreting the White House’s statement as a softening of the position of previous presidents, Israel read Trump’s message as a green light. “Netanyahu will be happy,” a senior Israeli diplomat said: “Pretty much carte blanche to build as much as we want in existing settlements as long as we don’t enlarge their physical acreage. No problem there.” Others in Netanyahu’s Likud party saw it the same way: “It is also the opinion of the White House that settlements are not an obstacle to peace and, indeed, they have never been an obstacle to peace. Therefore, the conclusion is that more building is not the problem.”
And then, unafraid, they acted on that interpretation. On Feb. 6, the Knesset passed into law a bill that allows Israel to declare private Palestinian land on which settlements or outposts were built to be government property. Proponents of the bill celebrated the continuation of settlement and the expanding of Israeli sovereignty over the West; opponents mourned the legalizing of seizure of Palestinian land that further clarifies the death of a Palestinian land and of the possibility of a peace deal. Netanyahu said that he informed the Trump White House of his intention to put the bill to a vote.
Though Trump had been informed of the vote on a law that would retroactively legalize the taking of Palestinian land, the White House, once again, said nothing. Noting that the new law will likely face a challenge in the Israeli Supreme Court, a White House official said that the Trump administration “will withhold comment on the legislation until the relevant court ruling.”
Trump both wants to make “the ultimate deal” and is “withholding comment” on an Israeli law that pulls the plug on “the ultimate deal”.
Days later, on the eve of Netanyahu’s trip to Washington for his first meeting with Donald Trump, a “White House official” who asked to remain anonymous floated the idea that the U.S.’s role was not to impose a two-state solution: “Maybe, maybe not. It’s not for us to impose that vision.” He explained that “Peace is the goal,” but that a two-state solution is not necessarily the path to that goal.
Trump’s foreign policy is still unsettled. But his early statements, absence of statements, and Middle East appointments seem to be self-defeatingly at odds with his expressed desire to be the president who finally closes “the ultimate deal.”