The Israeli-Palestinian dispute/conflict has been with us so long it seems to be a permanent part of the international landscape. It began with the founding of Israel on lands inhabited by Palestinians but seen by the Zionist movement as biblically promised to Israel. After years of often violent confrontation punctuated by two major wars and several more limited clashes, contemporary Israel occupies most of the traditional lands of the Palestinians. The result, not surprisingly, is endless anger coupled with demands for the creation of a state that Palestinians can call their own. For many Israelis, Palestinian aspirations are seen as an existential threat to Israel.
From the beginning, the United States has been caught in the middle of the dispute and has assumed the somewhat unlikely and thankless role of mediator. Entire careers at the State Department have been devoted to trying to devise a formula under which a settlement could be reached. Scholars, think tank mavens, European diplomats, plus Israeli and Palestinian officialdom have been consumed with the same problem. The extreme difficulty of the challenge has long been obvious. This is about land, religion, identity, pride/respect, fear — and vengeance, as each side has built up a blood debt from previous deadly encounters. At the end of the day, if a formula is to be found it will require Israel to give up some land it controls to the Palestinians — “land for peace.” This can never be easy; Israel is strong enough to be ever tempted by the thought that it can hold these lands indefinitely and create conditions where the Palestinians and their Muslim supporters simply have to give up.
Despite the daunting obstacles there have been moments when a settlement looked not only possible, but even likely. The most prominent came at Camp David in 2000 when President Clinton hosted Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in all-out effort to reach a formal agreement — a binding treaty. Clinton did everything a facilitator can do, mastering every arcane detail of a possible settlement and acting as a genuinely even-handed third party. A document was drafted and prepared for final signature. Clinton signed, Barak signed, and Arafat sat in his chair with pen in hand, but his nerve failed and he put down his pen even as his own aides urged him to sign. It was a catastrophic mistake.
Since then Israeli politics have veered to the right and power has gone to a Likud Party dominated by politicians who pay lip service to a “two-state solution” but don’t mean it. Many of the ultra-conservatives aligned with Likud are more candid; Israel must never agree to the creation of a Palestinian state. Meanwhile the international community remains very much committed to such an outcome, and repeated United Nations resolutions reflect that fact. For the Arab world, Palestinian rights and grievances remain a touchstone of regional politics. No Muslim leader can be seen as weak when it comes to the Palestinians. The most militant groups like al-Qaida, ISIS and Hezbollah regularly excoriate Arab governments as feeble or even duplicitous in their support. The harshest insult Iran uses against its bitter Arab rivals like Saudi Arabia and Jordan is that they are “Arab Zionists.”
It has long been a fundamental tenet at the United Nations, the European Union and in American foreign policy that an Israeli-Palestinian settlement can only be reached in step-by-step negotiations with the hardest issue, the status of Jerusalem, reserved till the very last. Both Israelis and Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital. If a settlement is possible, the city will somehow have to be divided along east-west lines with some sort of neutral status for the most contentious and sacred spot of all — the Temple Mount and Dome of the Rock. Consequently, all major countries have avoided the incendiary step of formally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s (or Palestine’s) capital. That will be determined as part of the “final status” negotiations. In 1995, in response to heavy lobbying, the Congress passed legislation calling for the United States to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as tangible recognition of Israel’s claim. But no president of either party has actually done so, recognizing that such a step would be incendiary and counterproductive. But now President Trump, overriding advice from his secretaries of state and defense, has done just that.
The results have been predictable – violence in Palestinian areas, demonstrations condemning the United States across the Middle East and explicit condemnation from virtually every American ally from Sweden to Britain to Jordan to Saudi Arabia. In predominantly Muslim Indonesia, the U.S. embassy has been subjected to daily demonstrations, with crowds exceeding 10,000 and growing. The almost universal reaction has included the judgment that the role of mediator and peace broker long played by Washington is over. Vice President Pence is due in the Middle East next week and his scheduled meeting with the Palestinian leadership has been canceled by the latter. Saudi Arabia, which had been prepared to invest heavily in a two-state solution, feels betrayed. Iran, the country the White House constantly identifies as an enemy, has been emboldened. Vladimir Putin has launched a whirlwind of visits to the Middle East to fill the leadership vacuum left by an isolated America.
Once again this President, whether it is in Europe, Asia, or now the Middle East, has demonstrated an uncanny ability to damage and weaken American standing and influence.