Team Trump’s Magical Thinking on Palestine
The administration has a predilection for disruptive gestures, but it’s not such a radical departure from decades of US policy.
This week marks 25 years since Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed the Oslo agreement on the White House lawn. It was also the week in which the United States effectively severed diplomatic relations with the Palestinians by ordering the closure of the PLO mission in Washington, DC, capping a series of punitive measures that have included the termination of US funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), the elimination of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) program in the occupied Palestinian territories, and the cessation of an American program that supports Palestinian hospitals in occupied East Jerusalem. At the same time, Washington has pointedly maintained US funding and assistance programs for the security forces of the Palestinian Authority, and Palestinian intelligence chief Majid Faraj was recently hosted by the Central Intelligence Agency.
Of greater significance than the above measures, the Trump administration has recognized Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and relocated the US embassy to Israel to the Holy City—both of which are in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions. The administration has also ceased to refer to the occupied Palestinian territories as occupied territories, effectively renounced US endorsement of a two-state settlement, and adopted a number of additional policies and informal measures intended to promote and normalize perpetual Israeli domination over the Palestinian people.
To denounce President Trump and his government for seeking to eliminate the Palestinian quest for self-determination and destroy the prospects of Israeli-Palestinian co-existence is of course entirely appropriate, but the administration’s actions over the past 18 months hardly constitute a reversal of US policy. While previous Republican and Democratic administrations have generally eschewed the shock-jock approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict currently in vogue in the White House, we are not in uncharted waters. Washington’s political class has for decades had UNRWA in its sights. And despite its illegality under international law, the unilateral US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem is rooted in Congressional legislation passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. Similarly, the United States has never rescinded the 1987 Anti-Terrorism Act that defines the PLO as a terrorist organization and makes it illegal for the organization to operate in the United States in any way, shape, or form. The difference is that whereas previous US administrations either, as in the case of UNRWA, ultimately made concessions to reality or, in the case of Jerusalem and the PLO mission, issued various waivers in order to operate more effectively in the Middle East, Team Trump has a predilection for disruptive gestures and magical thinking.
Indeed, Washington in 2018 seems to genuinely believe that it can eliminate the Palestinian refugee question by starving UNRWA of funds in order to compel it to either redefine Palestinian refugees so that they no longer exist or itself cease to exist. Similarly, the administration seems entirely convinced that it has resolved the future status of Jerusalem by pronouncing it “off the table,” and that the Palestinians will submit to Trump’s will in order to restore $200 million in USAID programs and an office in the US capital.
On these last points, the volume of deliberate misinformation has been nothing short of overwhelming. UNRWA, for example, was established by the UN General Assembly in 1949 to provide relief for refugees uprooted as a result of the 1948 war, and it continues to exist for the simple reason that seven decades on, the Palestinians remain a dispossessed and stateless people. UNRWA is not the custodian of Palestinian refugee rights, and there is nothing unusual in either international law or international practice in defining the descendants of refugees as refugees in the absence of conflict resolution. Similarly, the only direct budgetary and material support the United States has been providing to the Palestinian Authority is to its security services, and this assistance, much of it covert, is highly unlikely to be discontinued.
It was in fact a quarter-century ago, on account of the Oslo process, that the seeds of the most recent developments were planted. Often mistaken as a blueprint for a two-state settlement, Oslo was above all a formula whereby Israel was able to consolidate and perpetuate its occupation. It did so by sub-contracting essential civil and security functions to the Palestinians, and by insulating itself from meaningful international scrutiny through the mechanism of permanent negotiations, which as a matter of design consistently failed to resolve the core issues of the conflict. And it was above all thanks to American hegemony in regulating the Israeli-Palestinian relationship that the international consensus on the resolution of the conflict was replaced by Israeli power and impunity in exercising it.
Seen from this perspective, the Oslo agreements should be seen not as a failure but as an enormous success—not for peace or Palestinian rights, but for continued Israeli control of the occupied territories. So successful that Palestinians, virtually without exception, today consider themselves significantly further removed from the fulfilment of their national aspirations and ability to make ends meet than on the eve of the process.
While the Trump administration has, as with most issues, opted for a disruptive approach toward the Question of Palestine, there is an underlying logic to the belief that 25 years of Oslo have made Palestinians ripe for the ultimate fait accompli. Rather than wait for the Trump administration to present a diplomatic plan and invite the parties to negotiate terms, we would do well to recognize that the initiative is being implemented, unilaterally, before our very eyes.