Populist rivalry: Trump’s impact on the future and politics of Israel

 

Trump_CPAC_2011

 Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 (creative commons).

 

By Laurien Vastenhout

 

After a period of disbelief and evasive responses, the world now has to face that Donald Trump is President of the United States. To the extent possible, Trump’s measured victory speech in November was ‘hopeful’; at least his tone had softened somewhat. It was not unthinkable that he had played a harsh election campaign, but in practice would be more appeasing. These were encouraging signs. However, the interview with the UK’s Times and the German tabloid Bild last week indicated that there was no moderation after all. With Trump’s support of the UK’s ‘hard’ Brexit, and China’s president Xi Jinping’s announcement to protect the world’s economy against Trump, it seems that the entire world politics and economy is about to change over the course of the coming months and years. One of the crucial topics that has to be examined in this context is the everlasting conflict between Israel and Palestine in the Middle East and the role of the United States herein. A friend and true (financial) supporter of Israel for many years, Trump is about to break with the decades of cautious US policy vis-à-vis the conflict. What can we expect from the Trump administration in the Middle East? And is Benjamin Netanyahu, current Prime-minister of Israel and chairman of the right-wing Likud Party indeed as happy with the Trump’s support as it seemed in his tweet of December, 28 2016, in which he thanked Trump for the warm friendship and clear-cut  support for Israel? This article seeks to create insight in the multiple dangers that lie ahead.

 

There are two individuals Trump nominated on central positions who we should investigate more closely: David Friedman, appointed ambassador to Israel, and his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Friedman is a pro-Israel hardliner, and strongly opposes the two-state solution. Being part of Trump’s advisory team, David Friedman co-authored a 16-point action plan in November last year in which his views on the difficult situation in Israel/Palestine are outlined. The Trump administration will ensure that ‘Israel receives maximum military, strategic and tactical cooperation from the United States’, the plan stated. Between the lines, one can read the rejection of the apparent ‘anti-Israel’ attitude of the United Nation (UN) members– see the recent United States Security Council resolution from which the US abstained –  and a strong support for an undivided Jerusalem capital. The latter is a highly sensitive topic as Palestine seeks to maintain the Eastern part of Jerusalem as future capital of Palestine, while Israel believes all of Jerusalem should belong to their country. The attempted relocation of the Main Office of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem therefore is an important indicator of the political line chosen by the Trump administration. Moreover, Friedman is president of the American Friends of Beit El, which supports Israeli hardline settlement movements and believes that Israel is legally entitled to annex the West Bank.

 

Trump’s son-in law Jared Kushner, who is appointed to orchestrate a deal between Israel and Palestine has no experience with politics in the Middle East at all. Although, as an orthodox Jew, he is undoubtedly concerned with the area, his complete unfamiliarity with both Israeli and Palestinian politicians is disquieting. Kusner’s links to a far-right Jewish settlement in the West Bank, to which he donated money, are not very promising either. Clearly, the settler movement will have solid backing in Trump’s administration. Palestinians and their allies have repeatedly called on the UN to force Israel to stop with the settlements as it causes hindrance to serious negotiations. As a result, one of Trump’s major political goals, to reach an agreement in the ongoing conflict, seems a utopian line of thought. All of these difficulties, added to his wish to pull out of the nuclear pact signed with Iran in 2016, raise concern about the position of Arab countries of the Middle East.

 

Ironically, Trump’s presidency does not only raise difficulties for Arab countries and Palestine in particular; Benjamin Netanyahu might in fact be not so happy with Trump’s involvement in the region either. Netanyahu’s policies on the settlements in the West Bank over the past years can be characterised by ambiguity and delay. By pretending to keep a two-state solution alive, Netanyahu has often safeguarded the support of the United Stated for himself at the cost of more right-wing politicians. Now important positions in the Trump-administration are taken by pro-settler politicians, this tactic has become ineffectual. Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev has somewhat ironically indicated that Trump is in fact making Netanyahu seem a ‘left wing defeatist’. In practice, this means that Netanyahu’s position is threatened by his far-right Minister of Education and political leader of the extreme right-wing party HaJehoedie (The Jewish Home Party): Naftali Bennett.

 

Bennett has suggested that Trump’s election signals the end of the two-state solution and the attempts to establish a Palestinian state. Obviously, he uses Trump’s to pressure Netanyahu to recognise the settlements as permanent. Through his statements, Bennett has secured the support of the majority of the Jewish settlers. For a right-wing political leader, this support is of key importance. Netanyahu’s recent aggressive response towards the UN resolution to end Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories at the end of 2016, indicates that he feels he has to win back right-wing voters. Both Netanyahu and Bennett are increasingly using right-wing, nationalistic discourse to prevail. In the case of Bennett, it is no secret that he aims to become Prime Minister himself. Not only is this an alarming development in Israeli politics, it also might cause that Jews around the world feel increasingly disconnected with the country. This, in turn, will result in an increasing isolation of the country.

 

The current situation in Israel and the proposed policies of the Trump administration, which do not favour a two-state solution, are thus worrisome. Although supported by the US, Israel will become a lone wolf in world politics due to its increasing hard stance vis-à-vis settlements in the West Bank. Both internal and external forces ensure that a solution to the long-standing conflict seems further away than ever, despite Trump’s genuine believe that his administration will broker an agreement. Bennett’s recent declaration that he will propose a bill to extent Israeli sovereignty to Maale Adumin, the third-large Jewish settlement in the West Bank, shows that a first major step has already been taken. The coming weeks and months we will have to wait and see how US policies unfold in the region. Without doubt, Maale Adumin will be the first test case and major determinant of America’s policies in the Middle East.

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