Recent months have seen a series of dramatic steps by the Trump administration with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, defunding the agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, cutting West Bank aid, shutting down the PLO mission in Washington, and persistently promising to present its own peace plan. The flurry of activity comes even as the prospects of an actual deal seem increasingly remote. The Palestinian leadership has made clear it won’t so much as glance at any U.S. proposal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has suggested there would be no harm in taking more time before unveiling it, and Arab leaders whose support, or at least acquiescence, the administration deems crucial to the enterprise have voiced their own qualms and politely distanced themselves from the initiative. By now, it would be hard to find anyone serious who takes seriously the notion that the Trump administration will achieve the “ultimate deal.” Which raises the more interesting question: What, exactly, is the Trump team up to?
It being the Trump administration, the answer is not entirely straightforward. But this much is clear: Notwithstanding its repeated vows to the contrary, the primary goal of an administration that has given up on the current Palestinian leadership isn’t to encourage or pressure President Abbas to come to the table. By now, even the Trump team must know that won’t happen. Rather, the objective is to fundamentally reframe the U.S.’s understanding of, and policy toward, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, shifting the focus toward Palestinians’ material, economic concerns while downplaying their political and national ones.
There are other potential explanations for the administration’s decisions, including domestic politics, the president’s determination to live up to those of his campaign pledges that appeal to his natural base, and his team’s desire to align U.S. policies more closely with those of Netanyahu. But give the team at least this much credit: In its relentless, dogged assault against the foundations of traditional U.S. and international policy, it has shown remarkable single-mindedness and sense of purpose.
Its first target has been the two-state solution itself. The essence of the approach pursued by the three prior administrations (not to mention several Israeli governments) has been to promote such an outcome, based on the 1967 borders, with territorial modifications meant to address Israeli concerns. This, the current administration has stubbornly refused to endorse. Even if it eventually does so, its reluctance will have delivered a plain message: Palestinians are not necessarily entitled to a state of their own, and Palestinian statehood ought not to be viewed as the natural or inevitable outcome of this process.
The same goes for the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. It has moved its embassy there. It is acknowledging Israel’s long, deep historical and religious attachment to the city. It has done nothing of the sort for the Palestinians. True, it has said that Jerusalem’s ultimate borders and questions of sovereignty are subject to negotiation. Again, however, the meaning is inescapable: In the hierarchy of claims to the holy city, one side’s is indisputable and sacred. The other’s is negotiable and worldly.
Finally, there is its policy with respect to Palestinian refugees. Not content with defunding UNRWA, the organization that deals with Palestinian refugees, it has gone further, casting doubt on the salience of the refugee issue itself and claiming the number of refugees recognized by UNRWA is highly inflated. Last week, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, went so far as to suggest that the right of return—the Palestinian aspiration that refugees and their descendants be allowed to return to their homes within the pre-1967 borders of Israel—was now off the table.
Even in their most far-reaching proposals, no previous administration had genuinely endorsed the Palestinian narrative on any of these issues. The Palestinian state the U.S. has been ready to contemplate always came with caveats galore, so that its attributes were significantly less than those habitually associated with statehood. Limitations on its sovereignty tended to include lack of control over its airspace, demilitarization, restrictions on the parties with which it could enter into alliances, and acceptance of Israel’s right to intervene when it deemed it necessary. The future Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem would not include Jewish settlements that, since 1967, have been established in its midst, and it would not exert full sovereignty over the city’s holy sites. As for the return of refugees, the U.S. viewed it more as a matter of paying lip service than of implementing a right. A small number of Palestinians could reside in Israel, most would resettle in Palestine or in third countries, all would be compensated and their suffering acknowledged in some manner—and the world would describe the outcome as having upheld the right of return.
But giving these matters at least a symbolic nod, showing them a modicum of respect, or so these successive administrations felt, increased the odds of persuading the Palestinians the deal was fair. Without that, those odds were nil.
That the Trump team believes a solution that essentially pays these issues no heed at all eventually will work—not now, perhaps, but with a different Palestinian leadership—can only derive from a set of remarkable convictions. First, that those claims are stale dogmas—“false realities”—fueled and fed to the Palestinian people by an outdated leadership. Second, that past U.S. administrations and other Western governments inflicted grievous harm by humoring these mythologies, refraining from calling out the Palestinian leadership, and displaying boundless (albeit fruitless) creativity in seeking to accommodate these political demands. Third, that those illusory ideological constructs have stood in the way of a realistic, practical resolution to the conflict. And fourth, that the Palestinian people are more likely to be enticed by dangling the prospect of concrete, individual material improvements in their lives than by promising abstract, collective political achievements.
What a stunning reversal. Past U.S. peace efforts saw persuading Palestinians to acquiesce in the effective extinction of their original aspirations as the challenge, and offered symbolic indulgence as the solution. Instead of an actual right of return, they would achieve the appearance of it. In place of full-fledged statehood, they would receive only its trappings. In lieu of sovereignty over all of East Jerusalem, they would exercise it over some parts of the city. The Trump team’s approach turns this logic on its head. Seeking to cater in any way to these Palestinian demands, it insists, is not a pathway to a pragmatic deal but an insuperable obstacle to it. Only by stripping away any remaining Palestinian political illusions might a solution be reached. Only by directly presenting average Palestinians with the tangible economic benefits of a deal can they dispel the fanciful narratives that have obstructed it.
There is so much that is wrong-headed and ahistorical about this approach. Leave aside the irony of an administration that is at once so mindful of Israel’s existential, national concerns, and yet so cavalier in dismissing those of the Palestinians. More broadly, the Trump team’s theory is predicated on illusory notions—that the Palestinian people are more moderate than their leaders, and that their true preoccupations are bread, butter, and normalcy, as opposed to statehood, Jerusalem, or the fate of the refugees. Everything in the contemporary history of the Palestinian national movement supports the opposite conclusion: The current Palestinian leadership focuses on historical grievances not in spite of popular opinion, but because of it. As far back as the 1980s, Israel’s efforts to mollify Palestinians with quality-of-life promises were summarily dismissed as cynical attempts to gild their cage. Abbas lost legitimacy with his people largely because he is viewed as overly compliant, not excessively militant. If he has given up on U.S. efforts to reach a deal, that doesn’t mean the administration should look for another partner. It means there is nobody left.
The Trump administration’s punitive approach to the Palestinians is intended to tell them the era of coddling is over, and that they will pay a price for displaying hostility toward the U.S. or for raising unrealistic political demands. It is meant—as starkly signified by the closure of the PLO office in Washington, whose function always was more symbolic than real—to turn the page on the Oslo process. And it is intended to ensure that the next set of Palestinian leaders which comes to the table will not waste its time haggling over borders, statehood, Jerusalem, and refugees, but instead, will understand that their choice is between building a superior economic future or remaining mired in a grievance-filled past.
That’s the theory. The practice? Through its words and deeds, the administration has made it virtually impossible for even the most optimistic Palestinians to still believe in the peace process, negotiations, diplomacy, U.S. mediation, or even a two-state solution. Those beliefs, and all that came with them—the need to preserve good relations with the U.S.; to keep the Palestinian Authority afloat; to maintain security cooperation with Israel—have constrained Palestinian behavior for the past quarter century. There have been exceptions, of course: the second intifada the most glaring of all. But what Oslo gave the Palestinians in legitimacy and recognition from Washington it took away in freedom of action—no struggle, whether armed or non-violent; no independent diplomatic initiatives; no recourse to international justice mechanisms. By divesting itself of the burden of Oslo, in other words, the administration also has unwittingly unshackled the Palestinians. They have nowhere obvious to go. Their future path is uncertain, but it almost certainly will be different.
Boiled down to its essence, the administration’s message to the Palestinians seems to be: You’ve lost, get over it. Underlying its attempt to radically redefine the terms of the conflict is the conviction that all past attempts have failed and that its new approach therefore must stand a chance. The Trump team is indisputably right about the first part. It is dead wrong about the second.