Paul Pillar

Trump Goes All In With the Settlers

Presidents-elect of the United States generally have hewn to the dictum that the country has only one president at a time, and that this is especially important with foreign policy.  The incoming president plans, appoints, announces, and does anything else he wants to indicate what his course will be after noon on January 20th, but until then it is the incumbent president who makes and executes U.S. policy and who negotiates with and makes demarches to foreign governments.  Donald Trump has been behaving differently.  But even some of his previous moves during this current transition period, such as breaking with protocol on relations with Taiwan or telling the Chinese to keep the marine drone they stole, did not go as far in interfering with the execution of current policy as he now has gone regarding a United Nations Security Council on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and matters in the occupied territories.

It is not only that Trump issued a statement that constituted an attempt to pressure the current administration into a course of action that would do the bidding of a foreign government.  His operation met with a delegation organized by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, so secretly that Israeli press that learned of the visit describes it as “clandestine”.  Trump also, following Netanyahu’s lead, pressed President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt to withdraw the UN  resolution that his country had introduced.

Even just as a matter of procedure, this violation of the one-president-at-a-time principle ought to have provoked outrage.  That it did not provoke much may be due to Trump’s mastery of the art of diverting attention from a subject by quickly saying something else that is at least as likely to grab headlines.  In this case the attention diverter was Trump’s comment about starting a new nuclear arms race.

As a matter of substance, Trump’s posture toward the UN resolution should be occasion for deep dismay.  Long forgotten is his promise to be a "neutral guy" in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Since he made that pledge he has come to terms with Sheldon Adelson and, through other statements and appointments, has made clear that he will be anything but neutral.  In case there was any remaining doubt about that as of a couple of weeks ago, all such doubt was erased with his appointment as ambassador to Israel of bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman—who, by his own words, including likening liberal U.S. Jews to Nazi stooges, and by his personal connections to the settler movement, is firmly opposed to peace and in favor of indefinite occupation.  It would be less incredible for Friedman to become Israeli ambassador to the United States rather than the other way around, although even then he would be representing only an extreme right wing rather than the people and interests of Israel as a whole. 

As for the newest UN resolution, Trump’s statement, echoing a familiar formulation that the Netanyahu government uses whenever the possibility of Security Council action arises, says that “peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians will only come through direct negotiations between the parties, and not through the imposition of terms by the United Nations.”  There is absolutely nothing in the draft resolution that Egypt had introduced that precludes or impedes direct negotiations between the parties or that suggests in any way that such negotiations will not still be necessary to set the terms of any final peace agreement.  Far from “imposing” terms, the resolution declares the need to get beyond the obstacles that are preventing effective direct negotiations from taking place and being able to achieve a two-state solution that will be a lasting basis for peace between Israelis and Arabs.

That the resolution specifically mentions Israeli settlements in occupied territory simply reflects how this unilateral altering of facts on the ground has been steadily closing the negotiation space and making it ever more difficult for direct negotiations to set the terms of peace and arrive at a solution with two viable and secure states.  That the resolution declares the colonization through settlements to be a “flagrant violation of international law” simply restates long-established principles of international law regarding the responsibilities of an occupying power in territory conquered through military force.

The draft resolution was comprehensive in identifying the obstacles to effective direct negotiations. It’s not just the settlements, and it’s not just what Israel is doing.  The resolution “calls for immediate steps to prevent all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terror, as well as all acts of provocation and destruction, calls for accountability in this regard, and calls for compliance with obligations under international law for the strengthening of ongoing efforts to combat terrorism, including through existing security coordination, and to clearly condemn all acts of terrorism.”  The resolution further “calls upon both parties … to observe calm and restraint, and to refrain from provocative actions, incitement and inflammatory rhetoric”.

In light of all the above, Trump’s statement that the resolution “is extremely unfair to all Israelis” is baseless.

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