Donald Trump’s election victory was a real shock, not only for decision-makers in every single capital in the world, but also for experts and observers who saw nothing but a win for the Democrats and Hillary Clinton. Shortly after his victory, Trump announced his readiness to meet with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Many Israeli officials weren’t shy about saying that the Trump White House will signal a golden age for Israel-US relations, and that the chances of establishing a Palestinian state had now all but disappeared.
In Israel, many politicians said that they expect Trump to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Education Minister Naftali Bennett believes that there is a chance for Israel to “retract the notion of a Palestinian state.” In fact, with Trump’s victory, the negative repercussions of the so-called Arab Spring and the ongoing chaos in the Middle East combined to increase the doubt hanging over Palestine, leading many Palestinian observers to bleak conclusions about the prospects for the peace process and their cause in general.
They had good reason to be pessimistic. During the election campaign, Trump not only committed to moving the US embassy, but also praised the Republican platform that forgets past support for a two-state solution and calls the Holy City Israel’s “undivided” capital. Trump and his aides added that Israel’s illegal settlements are not an obstacle to peace.
The main characters of the president-elect’s campaign team were staunch advocates and flagrant supporters of Israel and its prime minister’s policies; people such as John Bolton and Rudy Giuliani, candidates for state department roles, not to mention Newt Gingrich and Michael Pence. Needless to say, Trump has been elected as a representative of a party that enjoys a majority in Congress; his administration’s policies will receive support from both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Despite this, I think it is too early to judge what the Trump presidency will look like, and whether his election will be a disaster for the Palestinian cause.
For a start, Israel’s official statements tend to exaggerate, especially regarding the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state. Such statements are part of the mind games intended to put pressure on Trump to fulfil his campaign promises. They are also aimed at the Palestinian president in order to weaken his moderate stance, which has embarrassed Israel internationally. That being said, I would not have expected vastly different Israeli statements if Clinton had been elected.
Furthermore, the establishment of a Palestinian state does not depend solely and exclusively on the name of the US president; there are other factors, such as the Palestinian dimension itself. Internal conditions such as unity and steadfastness in the face of Israel’s systematic efforts to end the Palestinian presence on their own land altogether are also factors. And it depends on the Palestinians’ resilience and ability to cope with the international U-turns and regional polarisation. It likewise hinges on the international will and desire to end this conflict, and I don’t see that this moment has come yet. Israel’s readiness to compromise and exchange peace now with unforeseen future threats in such a turbulent region also has to be taken into account.
It is true that the United States has the most influential role in the peace process, yet old habits die hard. In effect, US foreign policy neither counts on the name of the president nor is subject to drastic changes. US presidents usually have but a small margin for manoeuvre which might allow them to shift from the well-known foreign policy lines that are well entrenched. How much will differ slightly depending on whether the president is a Republican or a Democrat.
Although Trump will enjoy a Republican majority in Congress, he has neither been within the party elite nor its political structure. Until recently, his statements prompted dissatisfaction and dismay amongst many traditional party activists. Moreover, the role of the deep-state which establishes the aforementioned policy lines cannot be ignored. His most critical challenge – should he decide to take a different route – will be to distance himself from his predecessors’ support for America’s long-time allies, especially in the Middle East, not least Israel. If he succeeds in doing so, it would be unprecedented.
Any change in America’s “traditional” foreign policy will be evident not only in Palestine-Israel but also across the whole region. If this happens, it will usher in a period of uncertainty in international affairs, with knock-on effects around the world and an impact on all US relations with foreign states; we may be about to witness a revolution in international relations.
Can Trump match his campaign rhetoric with deeds? Many US presidents have said during their election campaigns that they would, for example, move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, but when they take office they understand that such a move crosses those broad foreign policy lines. If Trump breaks the mould, this would prove to be a significant turning point and an unprecedented deviation from traditional US policy.
The early signs are that realpolitik will dictate what happens, and Trump will not stray far from the path. His recent statement that he will work to reach a peace agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis confirms that he has already started to read the White House manual for new presidents.
In short, pragmatism asserts its rights. While it may be too early to make proper judgments, it is crucial to accept that a Palestinian state is part and parcel of the internationally-recognised two-state solution: the state of Israel existing alongside the state of Palestine. Any US president who is eager to see a more stable Middle East must work on making this solution a reality. Disregarding the realistic demands of either party, though, would lead to this being degraded even more; eventually, it would drive the final nail in the coffin of the already-waning Middle East peace process.