Trump proves that he’s no real friend to Israel

'Trump may be lauded by Bibi as Israel’s best friend, but his actions have only put a resolution of this bitter conflict further out of reach.'

June 27, 2019 16:55

Those of us in the political commentary business have learned an important lesson in recent years. After Corbyn, Brexit and Trump, we know that predictions are a mug’s game.

Nevertheless, I’m going to dispense with caution and make this prediction: this week’s Bahrain “workshop” – downgraded from a conference — which was once meant to launch the Trump peace plan for the Middle East, heralded by the US president as his bid to seal “the deal of the century” and stewarded by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, will not, in fact, bring peace to the Middle East.

Admittedly, that hardly makes me Nostradamus. Not only did the likes of Iraq and Lebanon announce they were staying away from Bahrain, whose supposed focus was on economic prosperity as the first step towards peace, along with Russia and China, both big economic players in the region, but so did the Palestinians and Israelis. It takes a special kind of skill to convene an Israeli-Palestinian peace summit with no Israelis and no Palestinians.

At first glance, it might seem odd that Israel would stay away from a meeting attended by representatives of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. Surely this would have been the ideal moment for Binyamin Netanyahu to demonstrate that there’s substance behind his constant boast that new alliances are reshaping the region, with Israel now best buddies with Sunni powers hostile to Iran. He could have had a photo-op featuring Israeli officials side by side with their Arab counterparts.

Except he couldn’t. The Arab states who sent (low-level) representatives to Manama did so on condition that no Israeli officials would be present. Israeli attendance was all but doomed anyway from the moment Netanyahu failed to assemble a new Israeli governing coalition, thereby triggering new elections to be held in September (unless Bibi changes his mind). Such is the scepticism among Israel’s most hawkish voters of anything that contains even a hint of a whisper of a peace plan, Bibi wouldn’t want to go anywhere near the Kushner effort until the election is over. Hence the current talk that the White House won’t so much as publish the political component of its plan until November or even a full year after that, once the 2020 US election is out of the way.

But that is merely the proximate cause for this failure. The more substantial reasons are more damning. First blame belongs to the Trump team. Plenty speak warmly enough of Trump’s special envoy, Jason Greenblatt, even if they are damning of Kushner’s ignorance and dilettantism. The key problem was not personalities, but strategy.

The Trump team decided that since all previous US-led efforts had failed, theirs needed to be different in every respect. While predecessors had relied on experts, they would turn instead to know-nothings. Out with the diplomats and seasoned geopolitical hands; in with the pampered millionaires, property developers and bankruptcy lawyers.

Out too went the past notion, often imperfectly realised, of Washington as an even-handed broker. Trump’s officials have been blatant in their bias. In a recent interview, the US ambassador to Israel, the longtime pro-settlement activist David Friedman, declared that Israel was “on the side of God.” It’s hard to be trusted to play referee in a match where you’ve decided one team includes the Almighty.

Above all, Trump decided that his predecessors’ error had been to treat this as a national conflict rather than a dispute over real estate. Team Trump approached Israelis and Palestinians as if they were squabbling over a condo on Queens. From that flowed the assumption that money could solve every problem and that every person, even every people, has their price.

The result is a document from the White House, Peace to Prosperity, which expects Palestinians to roll over in return for a few billion dollars and a 5G network. Contained here is a deeply patronising, even colonial insult to the Palestinians — that their longing for a national home is so weak, it will be dropped at the first glimpse of fast internet access.

This is not to say that the promise of economic progress can never play a useful role in a peace process. It can. But that requires trust, the belief that economics are not being used as a bribe or sop but as a first step towards an agreement that will also address the political roots of the conflict. The Trump plan did no such thing; it literally does not even mention Israel’s post-1967 occupation. How can you talk about accelerating the Palestinian economy if you don’t even nod to the fact that Palestinian entrepreneurs are often reduced to transporting their goods by donkey when an Israeli military checkpoint is closed?

Trust is the key word here. Palestinians have no reason to trust a White House that has slashed medical and humanitarian aid; that moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, sharply diminishing the possibility that that city might one day serve as the capital for two states, which remains the best hope for a resolution; and whose ambassador echoes the most right-wing elements in Israeli society. They have no reason to trust a US administration that dares to talk with a straight face of sacrosanct Palestinian property rights, apparently not noticing that another state, namely Israel, has seized much of that property for itself over the last five decades.

This is an insult to Palestinians, but it also does no favour to Israelis. Israel needs this conflict to be tackled. With a village named in his honour, Trump may be lauded by Bibi as Israel’s best friend, but his actions have only put a resolution of this bitter conflict further out of reach. Which makes him no friend at all.

Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

June 27, 2019 16:55

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