At first glance, a Donald Trump presidency looks like a disaster for Palestine. In the short-term, it certainly is. Never before have such an extreme rightwing Israeli administration aligned with an equally extreme rightwing counterpart in America. Storm clouds are gathering.
Already, Trump and his hangers on are itching to unravel longstanding US foreign policy on Israel/Palestine, by supporting long-opposed settlement expansion and moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. Trump has appointed his own son-in-law as Middle East Peace Envoy, and a pro-settler hardliner with little political experience as his ambassador to Israel. Yet is it possible the increased US hawkishness towards Palestine could prove a blessing for the possibility of a future Palestinian state? This might sound crazy, but there are opportunities here. Overzealous cruelty and hawkishness from America and Israel could help Palestine build stronger allegiances in both Europe and America, if this disaster can be harnessed effectively.
The first thing to say is that it is clear that the current lackluster international consensus has failed to produce the long-vaunted ‘two-state solution’. While the peace process may have stagnated, the situation for Palestinians is only getting worse. For fifty years, Western policy regarding Palestine has been characterised by toothless criticism of Israel that has never been followed by concrete action. Negotiated peace agreements like the Oslo Accords have been far more detrimental to Palestinians than they’ve been beneficial. The Paris Protocol, intended to provide manifold economic benefits, has been an unmitigated disaster. International complaining has failed to end the occupation.
The failure of international efforts to resolve the Israel/Palestine question lies largely with America. Over the course of fifty years of military occupation, the United States has consistently criticised Israel’s flouting of international law in the weakest terms, while simultaneously lavishing it with military assistance and budget support unparalleled in any other context. Meanwhile, they have vetoed virtually every critical Security Council Resolution that might have inched Israelis and Palestinians closer to peace. Why this was expected to encourage Israel to change its ways is a constant source of mystery to any sensible observer. Frequently, the world has been left questioning whether the US has any interest in ending the occupation at all. With America’s unflinching support of Israel, any international peace negotiations have been a lost cause before they’ve even begun.
Even Obama’s recent period of frostiness with the right-wing Netanyahu administration, considered the rockiest patch of Israel/American relations in living memory, has seen Obama sign the biggest military aid package to Israel of all time. Frankly, a last-minute abstention, allowing an otherwise unanimous condemnation of Israeli settlement construction at the UN Security Council, is too little, too late. Had she been elected, infamously pro-Israel hawk Hillary Clinton would undoubtedly have continued this tried-and-failed approach unabashed. Husband Bill, as well as previous Republican candidates, have all called for the US embassy to be moved to Jerusalem, echoing Trump’s current policy pronouncements; the only difference is that Trump is likely to follow through with this destructive threat. So why would Trump’s lurch towards pro-Israel craziness make things better for Palestinians?
For a long time, Palestinian friends and colleagues have told me that they believe Palestine’s situation will have to become worse before it can become better. Negative as this might be, a Trump presidency that lavishes Israel with even greater support in the face of their grotesque human rights abuses has the potential to spur other international actors in the opposite direction. In particular, long beholden to America’s impotent Israel strategy (but with far less enthusiasm for it), the European Union has been showing increasing signs of frustration towards Israel is recent years. The failure of Israel to prevent a settlement labelling policy and symbolic recognition of Palestine at the European Parliament demonstrate increasing antipathy to Israel’s hollow rhetoric from European lawmakers.
Trump’s lack of credibility on the global stage makes Western allies unlikely to reciprocate his new, more extreme, support for Israel at a time when the EU has been moving increasingly in the opposite direction. Instead, increasing polarization between these two major powers may leave a hardline America almost totally isolated on the international stage. Western consensus on Israel policy is currently characterised by Europe’s tepid acceptance of American rhetoric. Trump’s breach of this could embolden Europe to formulate its own policy, which would likely take a more proportionate and human rights-focused approach, to Israel’s detriment.
This dramatic change in US policy may also stimulate a change in the US political landscape. Across decades of partisan squabbling, Democrats and Republicans have remained in virtually unanimous agreement for unparalleled and unquestioning support for Israel. Both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have called for the US embassy to be moved to Jerusalem as Donald Trump has done. Highly dubious narratives of ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ and ‘a staunch US ally’ have become accepted knowledge by lawmakers, US media and the American public. Debate has been totally stifled by unfounded accusations of anti-Semitism and highly effective pro-Israel lobbying.
However, as the Bernie Sanders campaign demonstrated, there is more room than previously accepted in US politics for a more questioning tone among Democrats over Israel’s behavior in the Occupied Territories. Attitudes among the American public are more diverse than you might think, with Democrats increasingly critical of Israel and its policies. As Donald Trump becomes increasingly hardline, there is a chance he may draw out a different approach from Democrats that could spark greater conversation about Israel, ending the political and social consensus that has stunted American debate. Emboldened by Trump, increasingly outrageous behavior from Israel may spark increased anger amongst the US public, as has already been seen as Obama broke with presidential tradition and publicly feuded with the Israeli leadership. Even greater public awareness of the issues surrounding the conflict would be a positive development on both sides of the Atlantic.
These are not golden tickets to the end of the occupation, nor can we even be certain they will happen. Yet, as fifty years of occupation have shown, current progress on the Palestinian issue is virtually nonexistent, and in many senses things have only got worse. As has been the case for decades, a shift in American politics has to be the major driver of peace between Israel and Palestine. Given that the stagnant international consensus has failed to achieve tangible results, a dramatic shakeup of international political dynamics could – just possibly – lead to a positive outcome for Palestine, sometime in the distant future.