When President Trump entered office, he planned to broker “the ultimate deal” between Israel and Palestine, promising to bring new life into the peace process. Less than a year into his term, Trump has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, delivering a symbolic blow to Palestinians and marking the beginning of the end of the two-state solution.
Trump’s unorthodox approach to foreign policy brought the possibility of shaking things up and bringing life into negotiations paralysed for years. His declaration of brokering a deal that would revive these peace-talks and make both sides happy gave hope to the Palestinians, who have expected some change after years of stagnation.
While after one and a half years of Donald Trump the situation has certainly changed, a new strategy or peace talks do not seem to be in sight. On the contrary, positive development in the peace process appears to be further away than it has for a long time.
The Trump administration has not progressed with the peace negotiations, but it rather seems to have undermined the peace process as a whole.
Arguably, Trump has officially ended the US position of being a neutral broker in the Israeli-Palestine conflict.
On Dec. 6, 2017 the Trump administration recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, bringing protesters to the streets and generating criticism from European and Arab states.
The status of Jerusalem is a major issue between Israel and Palestine; for years the US has avoided declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel in the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, as the Palestinians also claim Jerusalem as their capital.
Two days after Trump’s announcement, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson clarified that the President’s statement did not indicate any final status for Jerusalem, as this would be left to Israel and Palestine to decide.
A mere month later, in January 2018, Trump stated that he had taken the issue of Jerusalem “off the table”, doubling-down on his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the U.S. embassy there.
Following Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital, Tillerson announced the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem, a move that was strongly objected to in the international community.
If the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital significantly shook Palestinian confidence, the relocation of the embassy shows them the administration is implicitly accepting Israel’s position.
The recognition has led to accusations from the Palestinian side that the Trump administration is biased toward Israel and therefore cannot be trusted as an “honest broker” in peace talks between the two sides.
“President Trump just destroyed any policy of a two-state solution”, the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, stated.
At the begin of his tenure, Trump sent another strong signal by nominating David Friedman as US Ambassador to Israel. Friedman was considered a controversial choice for this position even during the nomination process and is a personal friend of Trump, having been his bankruptcy lawyer and advisor for years.
He is the head of American Friends of the Bet El Yeshiva Center in the US, an organization which gathers around two million a year in donations for a West-Bank settlement called Bet El, close to Ramallah.
Friedman himself regularly donated money for the settlement and one of his last successes was to land a donation of $10,000 by Donald Trump himself. In another instance, Friedman donated money to settle orthodox Jews in the Muslim quarter of old town Jerusalem.
Not surprisingly, Friedman is not an outspoken critic of the settlements in the West Bank, despite them having been judged as illegal by the international community. In the past, he has regularly questioned their illegality and went so far as to challenging the two-state solution itself, advocating instead a one-state solution.
The nomination of Friedman therefore does not build trust in the US being a neutral broker. On the contrary, it seems to suggest with more ever clarity which side the US is supporting.
Trump’s own stance on the two-state solution is also not particularly clear. Once boasting of brokering an ultimate deal that would leave both sides happy, he later announced that he would be able to live with either a one-state or a two-state solution. For many, this change in rhetoric was seen as the demise of the two-state solution.
When publicising the decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Trump said: “My announcement today marks the beginning of a new approach to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.”
Trump proudly states that his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital marks the beginning of a new approach to the ago-old conflict. While he is not wrong, his unprecedented approach signals an official shift from the U.S. being a neutral broker to unabashedly favouring Israel.
So far, the Trump administration’s actions seem to have taken the U.S. off the path of official neutrality in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
To allege that the U.S. was a perfectly neutral before would be naive. However, by nominating Friedman as the U.S. ambassador to Israel, someone who personally supports settlements, challenges the general illegality of settlements and furthermore advocates for a one-state solution, Trumps is sending a clear signal about the stance of the current administration.
While Friedman’s nomination can be seen as more of a symbolic gesture, the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the relocation of the embassy have had a very real effect.
Several states like Guatemala and Honduras have already announced that they would move their respective embassies to Jerusalem as well to follow the U.S. example.
International recognition strengthens Israel’s claims to the West Bank and weakens the Palestinian position in possible negotiations.
The U.S. sided with Israel in all significant aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, diminishing a picture of the U.S. being able to be an honest broker.
In December 2017, Trump proudly touted his decision to relocate the embassy as “a magnificent tribute to peace.”