Paul Pillar

Palestine and the New Peacemakers

President Trump’s expressed desire to resolve, somehow, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is welcome, but the grounds for skepticism about this outweigh the reasons for hope.  The principal reason for skepticism is the lack of evidence that Trump has distanced himself politically from the position, embodied in the right-wing Israeli government and its most ardent American supporters, that favors perpetual Israel control of the occupied territories and, despite occasional lip service to the contrary, sees no room for Palestinian self-determination or a Palestinian state.  As a presidential candidate, Trump assumed this position after coming to terms with Sheldon Adelson and adopting AIPAC’s talking points as his own.  As president, this position was manifested in his appointing as ambassador to Israel his bankruptcy lawyer, a hard-right supporter of the Israeli settlement project in the occupied territories.  This week, in a joint appearance at the White House with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, Trump talked in general terms about working together to reach an agreement to live in peace, and in more specific terms about defeating ISIS and security cooperation with Israel, but said nothing at all about Palestinian self-determination or a Palestinian state.

One might also wonder whether this issue will be another one that gets the amateur hour treatment, in which the president comes to admit that, gee, this task is harder than he expected it to be.  With his bankruptcy lawyer having been sent off as ambassador, Trump has turned the Israeli-Palestinian policy portfolio over to his son-in-law and his real estate lawyer.  Of course, given the many years of meager results on this subject when in the hands of supposedly experienced professionals, it might not hurt to see what the amateurs and some fresh eyes might accomplish.  The real estate lawyer, Jason Greenblatt, received favorable marks from both the Israeli and Palestinian sides during a recent listening tour he made to the region.

But with the learning process for this president and this administration starting almost from scratch, Trump’s effort may already be behind the times.  The ground has changed, and changed unfavorably, during all those years of unsuccessful peace processing.  A substantial body of opinion, including opinions of many knowledgeable observers, holds that a two-state solution may already be out of reach.  Other observers hold a different opinion.  It is, of course, the unilateral creation of facts on the ground, in the form of Israeli colonization through settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem—something else that Trump did not mention in his appearance this week with Abbas—that may have put a two-state solution out of reach.

The meeting with Abbas had, for similar reasons, an obsolete quality.  Yes, the U.S. president must talk with Abbas in any serious attempt to make progress in resolving this conflict.  But Abbas is well past his “best if used by” date.  Events have been passing his part of the Palestinian leadership by, just as they have been passing by any would-be peacemakers whose understanding of the problem is based on where things stood a couple of decades ago.  Abbas has been in his position for several years beyond what was supposed to be his term of office, and in that regard his continued hanging around without benefit of re-election is an affront to the idea of democratic rule for Palestinians.  He has lost much support from the Palestinian populace, a reflection of his failure to make any progress in removing from his people the yoke of Israeli occupation.  Saying this is not to cast aspersion on the character, objectives, or good will of Abbas.  Rather, it is a consequence of the awkward situation thrust upon the strange entity known as the Palestinian Authority, which was supposed to be only a temporary transitional device when established in the early 1990s under the Oslo Accords.  Transition to Palestinian sovereignty never occurred, and many Palestinians subsequently came to see the PA, with good reason, as mainly an auxiliary administrator of the Israeli occupation.

If the Palestinian people are to have a brighter future, it might need to be reached through taking another direction.  We may be seeing a hint of that direction in the current hunger strike among Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.  This protest is led by Marwan Barghouti, whom many have long seen as a more credible and charismatic leader than Abbas or anyone else in the PA.  Barghouti has been described as the Palestinian Mandela; but because there does not seem to be an Israeli de Klerk among those in power in Israel, Barghouti’s stature as the most credible leader of a future Palestinian state is all the more reason for Israelis opposed to creating any such state to keep him securely locked up.  The hunger strike is about conditions in prison, but it sets an example for peaceful, nonviolent protest against debilitating conditions that Israeli control imposes on all Palestinians.  That raises the possibility of a major alternative to a push for a two-state solution: a struggle for equal rights for all in a single state embracing all the territory from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River.