Trump’s actions in the Middle East have only made things worse
President Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner attended last month in Bahrain a top-level conference on peace in Middle East aimed primarily at reducing tensions between Palestinians and Israel.
In the conference that was ditched by the Palestinian Authority and marked by Israeli absence too, Kushner presented what looked like a Middle East version of post-World War II Marshall Plan proposing a $50 billion economic assistance package for Palestine and neighbouring Arab economies as part of a Middle East peace plan.
Donor nations and investors would contribute about $50bn, with $28bn going to the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza, $7.5bn to Jordan, $9bn to Egypt, and $6bn for Lebanon. The White House hopes wealthy Gulf states will be among the biggest donors. Kushner told Reuters the US would also consider contributing.
This proposal comes in the face of a series of actions taken by Kushner’s father-in-law, President Trump, that were openly designed to not only placate Israel but also to trounce the slowly building hope for a two-state solution for Palestine and Israel over the last three decades.
The most egregious of Trump’s actions have been moving US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a city that Palestinians have been claiming to be its future capital, recognizing Israel’s ownership of Golan Heights (which a grateful Israeli PM renamed as Trump Heights), and before all this, reduction by half US contributions to the UN for Palestinian refugees (UNWRA).
A long-term solution for the Palestinian crisis that has festered since the creation of the Jewish state in 1948 has been a wish of every US president. Since there was not much progress or interest in resolving the crisis among the primary Arab stakeholders such as Egypt and Jordan, the crisis was left to linger with intermittent clashes between Israel and its Arab neighbours.
The first genuine attempt at finding peace among the warring parties came after the 1973 conflict (war of Yom Kippur), when the Egypt and Syria attack was repulsed by Israel leading to the former’s defeat. This was followed however by a historic accord in March 1979 between Egypt and Israel that was brokered by the US and it led to a diplomatic relationship between Israel and an Arab country for the first time.
But this was a peace negotiation between Egypt and Israel, not Palestine and Israel. In fact, the treaty annoyed and further enraged the Palestinians and other Arab countries in the neighbourhood such as Syria and Lebanon. Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestinian Authority, denounced the treaty as an act of treachery toward Palestine, which still remained under Israeli occupation.
But peace in the Middle East, in particular that between Israel and Palestine, is a strategic goal of US policy in the Middle East, because stability in the region is in US interest. Each US president pursued that interest with earnestness, even as Yasser Arafat denounced the treaty and kept his distance. However, he was not totally against a rapprochement with Israel, which led to his later acceptance of Israel as a state, and agreement for negotiations for peace with Israel under US mediation.
The Oslo accord that started in 1993 under US initiative began a long process of secret meetings between PLA and Israel for negotiations on territorial division and long-term relationship between the two hostile parties.
It peaked in 2002 with the famous peace summit under US President Bill Clinton’s initiative in Camp David attended by Yasser Arafat and Yahud Barak of Israel. The summit, which had tabled a proposal for a Palestinian state comprising 90% of the West Bank, and all of Gaza in lieu of Palestinian recognition of Israel and its sovereignty over the new settlements in West Bank, was nearly seen as a compromise. But the talks collapsed over Jerusalem, which both parties wanted as their capital. Yasser Arafat found Jerusalem non-negotiable even with substantial monetary reparations in exchange.
The peace talks between Israel and Palestine have been in doldrums since then even as every US president up until President Obama had been trying for a negotiated settlement for a two-state solution. What kept the hope for a settlement dangling was the US position on Jerusalem. Despite enormous pressures from successive Israeli regime the US had resisted the pressure to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thus indirectly not accepting Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Each US president, including George Bush, kept the issue of Jerusalem as a negotiating pawn. But President Trump let this pawn die when he accepted Jerusalem as the capital of Israel by moving the US embassy there. He followed this with his famous declaration of disputed Golan Heights as Israeli territory.
A distant dream
Can a two-state concept be revived even as Israel railroads its vision of one state of Israel? It seems to be a distant dream now because of the policies that US under President Trump has so far expounded, and the mute responses that these policies have received from other Arab states including Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The Arab neighbours are either totally impervious to Palestine, or too occupied with their own hegemonial interests in the region to show any resistance to US or Israeli moves.
But reality on the grounds may be different a decade from now. The Palestinians are not going to disappear from West Bank or other areas in the vicinity including Israel itself. A unitary state in Israel that includes West Bank and Gaza also will have consequences that Israel may not foresee. Currently, of the combined population of 13 million in the two territories (Israel and West Bank) half the population is non-Jewish. The demographics alone indicate that an Israel with such an unbalanced population will not be sustainable, because the growth rate among Palestinians and Israeli Arabs is double that of Israel.
Senator Lindsay Graham, a Trump supporter himself, said: “If you believe in a democratic Jewish state, it is lost over time from the demographics of merging the two peoples,” he said. “If you absorb all the Palestinians and they can vote, the Jewish state gets eroded, and if you absorb all the Palestinians and they can’t vote, that’s South Africa and it’s not going to happen.”
All we can hope is that Israel will see the writings on the wall for its own interest, and restore its effort toward a peace based on a two-state solution.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.