Hardly a day goes by without the Trump administration taking another harsh measure against the Palestinians. Its latest move, according to recent press reports, is a decision to lay off staff and eventually close the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) mission for the West Bank and Gaza.
This step follows earlier decisions to cut spending on USAID programs for the Palestinians, eliminate support for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which assists Palestinian refugees, close the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, and shutter the Palestine Liberation Organization’s mission in Washington. The reported decision to close the USAID mission is not much of a surprise. The fate of the mission was effectively sealed after the earlier decision to cut funding and the passage of the Taylor Force Act, legislation that calls for ending U.S. economic aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) until it ceases paying stipends to those who committed acts of terrorism, or their families.
Together, all these steps have destroyed the structure of the U.S. bilateral relationship with the Palestinians, built up over two and a half decades as a key element in the search for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. But is there an underlying strategy behind these steps? Does the Trump administration really believe that punishing the Palestinians can bring them to the table for the so-called “ultimate deal” promised by President Donald Trump, or does it have other objectives?
The rift between the Trump administration and the Palestinians began with Washington’s decision to relocate the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. To no one’s surprise, the Palestinians reacted angrily. The PLO cut off contacts with U.S. officials and Hamas organized a series of protests in Gaza that developed into violent clashes with the Israeli armed forces. In response, the administration began a series of punitive steps, cutting assistance and closing diplomatic offices.
Trump described his thinking in two tweets in January 2018:
It's not only Pakistan that we pay billions of dollars to for nothing, but also many other countries, and others. As an example, we pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect. They don’t even want to negotiate a long overdue...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2018
...peace treaty with Israel. We have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table, but Israel, for that, would have had to pay more. But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2018
As with most of Trump’s tweets, they were long on accusation and short on rational discourse. At first glance, the administration’s approach seems to be a crude effort to pressure the Palestinians into accepting a U.S. peace plan once it is tabled. In Trump’s art of the deal, after all, putting your opponent’s back against the wall is how the game is played. But if this is the goal of the United States, it has played its cards very poorly. By taking such severe steps at the outset of its effort to broker a deal, it has put the Palestinians in a position where they have nothing more to lose and little incentive to cooperate once a plan is presented. And even the Trump administration must understand that pressure is unlikely to work in this very old and bitter conflict. The issues at stake for the Palestinians are central to their sense of nationhood and cannot be easily negotiated away as if this were just another trade dispute.
Perhaps a better explanation would be that the Trump administration is not really trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but rather seeks to promote cooperation between Israel and the Arab states—primarily Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. Such an approach would be consistent with other administration goals vis-à-vis Iran and Syria. In this case, Arab leaders don’t need an actual deal between Israel and the Palestinians, only the appearance of a peace process to assuage their populations while they pursue shared interests with Israel. And since there is little the Palestinians can do to prevent regional rapprochement, there is no need to address their concerns.
But even this explanation doesn’t fully explain the harshness of the Trump administration’s steps. For the United States has not only stopped funding for the PA and politically sensitive activities such as the ones managed by UNRWA, it has also cut off humanitarian assistance to non-PA hospitals in East Jerusalem and people-to-people programs involving both Israelis and Palestinians. And it has closed channels of communication that once existed through the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem and the PLO mission in Washington.
All this suggests that the real motivation for the administration is more sinister: to reset the very basis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rather than continuing to treat this as a dispute between two national groups contesting land that they both view as their homeland, the Trump administration seems to be trying to recast the Palestinians as just an Arab-speaking minority within an enlarged Israel. Its policy has sought to squelch any activity or program that treats the Palestinians as a separate national group apart from Israel.
If the Trump administration’s objective is indeed to reset the fundamental basis of the dispute, its plan can be expected to bypass serious discussion of the historic permanent-status issues such as Palestinian statehood or Jerusalem and to focus instead on regional issues and economic cooperation. In such a scenario, the plan would likely avoid mention of a sovereign Palestinian state and make do with general references to “the Palestinians governing themselves” that are more consistent with autonomy than sovereignty. The logical outcome of this approach, however, is not peace between two peoples, but perpetual conflict in a single Israeli-run entity between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.
Trump’s apparent strategy is fully consistent with prevailing views on the right in Israel, including the recently adopted Nationality Law. But faced with such a harsh approach from the administration, the Palestinians have little to lose and no reason to cooperate with the United States or a right-wing government in Israel. Will the West Bank and Gaza continue to remain quiet under such circumstances?