Threats and Opportunities - The Trump Administration and Palestine

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Nour Odeh

By Nour Odeh

The world has not yet recovered from the shock of Donald Trump’s election victory in November last year. Most of the world, except for extreme rightwing parties and the Israeli government, did not prepare for the shocking victory of a man who rose to power on a populist and dangerously aggressive platform based on unfounded conspiracy theories and a disdain towards all those he labeled as “others”. A demagogue populist in charge of the world was a nightmare scenario until recently. It is now the reality. This nightmare poses serious challenges to Palestine. It also presents new opportunities.

The Palestinian leadership was shocked and unprepared for Trump’s victory. Despite modest and late attempts to open lines of communication with the new Administration, it is clear that for now, the Trump Administration has no intention of engaging with Palestine, except through the eyes and agenda of the extreme right in Israel. This was most evident during the inauguration of Donald Trump, to which Israeli settler leaders were invited while the aggressively pro-settlement billionaire and prominent Trump campaign financier Sheldon Adelson was treated to the VIP stage.

Palestinians are for now in the dark, standing on the sideline of the controversial first days of the unpredictable, and ill-tempered Trump. Trump’s only references to the situation in Palestine have been expressed in ways that upset and worry any Palestinian. For example, in defending his plan to build a wall with Mexico, Trump cited Israel’s wall, which he claimed achieved “99.9% stoppage”, whatever that means. And while Trump has backtracked on immediately implementing his provocative and inflammatory plan to transfer the American Embassy to Jerusalem, the new President has reiterated that this remains on his agenda. Ironically, reports from Tel Aviv and Washington indicate that the reason behind the delay came from some in the Israeli establishment who understand the dangerous nature and consequences of this decision.

But for all his vitriol and hawkish positions, Trump, who is not known for being ideological except in his disrespect for women, is not the only problem. In fact, he may be the least problematic for Palestine and the rest of the world. The real danger posed by Trump lies with the advisors, aides, and so-called experts with whom he has surrounded himself. They are people associated with white-supremacist ideology and special interest groups; they oppose civil liberties, are hostile to minorities and the media, and at least some of them think global warming is a hoax. These advisors oppose the “system” and they have vowed to undo it. In relation to Palestine, these advisors will go down as some of the most ardent anti-Palestinian, Islamophobic, and generally hostile personalities to have served in a US Administration in recent memory.

Trump’s Vice President, Mike Pence, is a conservative ideologue known for his fervent support of Israel, which he declares is “rooted in his faith”. In Congress, Pence supported “the Palestinian Accountability Act”, which outlines punishments against Palestinians for potential “wrong-doings”, including media or education that negatively depicts Israel. The Act also prohibits a two-state solution if Palestinians are deemed to have violated the terms of the legislation. Finally, the legislation sought to eliminate the word Palestine from all US government documents because in the eyes of those supporting the legislation, Palestine is not a state and should not be referred to as one. Pence also voted in favor of defunding UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees) and supported pulling the plug on all aid to Palestinians in response to their statehood bid at the United Nations. As Governor of Indiana, he signed into law what the Israeli Ambassador to the US termed the “toughest anti-BDS law” in the United States.

Trump’s picks for national security advisor and chief strategist are also cause for concern, along with his choices for US Ambassador to Israel. They all share a common trait: a vocal, unapologetic hostility towards Islam, Muslims, and any actors deemed to threaten or oppose their self-avowed white supremacist ideology and blind support for the Israeli right.

There is also Trump’s son in-law, Jared Kushner, who was sworn in as special counsel to the President and envoy/broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict despite lacking any political background to qualify him for this position. Kushner and his family have contributed tens of thousands of dollars to Israeli settlements and the Israeli occupation army. He has clear ideological leanings that align him with the right and extreme rightwing in Israeli politics. Trump’s pick for Ambassador to Israel couldn’t be more satisfying to those on Netanyahu’s right. He is fervently opposed to Palestinian statehood and is a die-hard supporter of expanding Israeli settlements. In fact, David Friedman has no problem with a one-state reality under the current apartheid-like regime Israel imposes on Palestinians.

The forming Trump Cabinet will be antagonistic to the Palestinian cause, including having an ideological hostility towards the Muslim Brotherhood or any other Islamic-leaning political groups. This hostility would add a new and very difficult layer of complication to the existing division in the Palestinian political system and attempts, no matter how redundant and so far ineffective, to restore unity and mainstream Hamas into the Palestinian political system. As such, the entrenchment of the existing division could harden even further and undermine Palestinian aspirations for freedom and independence.

Another challenge the Trump Administration poses to the Palestinian cause is its agenda on other important issues of global reach, including the environment, NATO, the EU, refugees and others. The Palestinian question will be just one of many issues of concern for the international community and may well move to the bottom of the urgent issues on their agenda. One fear is that many international actors will prefer to confront Trump on issues like the environment and refugees while deferring any confrontation or disagreement on Palestine. On the other hand, countries in Europe that understand the urgency of the Palestinian issue and have invested politically and economically in preserving the waning two-state solution could be compelled into a more proactive role they have thus far avoided.

Meanwhile, Israel’s right-wing, settlement-crazed government is capitalizing on the rise of Donald Trump. No one in Tel Aviv is hiding their joy, much less their intentions to completely torpedo the two-state solution. During Trump’s first week in office, Israel announced the construction of nearly three thousand housing units in strategic illegal settlements across the West Bank, especially in and around Jerusalem. Even before his inauguration, the Israeli government’s policy of demolishing Palestinian homes and expelling Palestinians has shifted into overdrive. Netanyahu understands he will be shielded from accountability in a new and aggressive manner by an Administration that disregards international law, treats the United Nations with open hostility and regards current illegal Israeli practices as inspirational for its most outrageous policies.

In light of this grim reality, the Palestinian leadership must prepare for the worst. They must understand that this is an Administration that rejects the international consensus and seeks to topple the foundations of the political process. The Palestinian leadership and social actors, including civil society, now confront serious questions regarding their approach to the United States and future dealings, if any, with the Trump Administration.

Trump is changing the rules of the game and Palestinians must be alert and smart in the way they change the dynamics as well. The Trump Administration will oppose the very foundation of Palestinian discourse and political agenda, specifically the path of international law, the principle of universality of human rights, and the required respect for international law. It is unlikely to pay any attention, much less respect, to these principles and is more likely to exhibit hostility to Palestinian international efforts in this regard. 

Despite these difficulties, the Palestinians should not change course or seem to mellow down their approach in fear of Trump’s reprisals. On the contrary, Palestine must confront Trump’s audacity with boldness. Palestine must change its traditional approach to American decision-makers and realize that times are changing in the United States. Indeed, power blocs in Washington are no longer confined to federal buildings; there are powers emerging on the street that are supportive of Palestinian rights and not hostage to the traditional calculus of US politics as evident in the historic women’s march the day after Trump’s inauguration, in which almost 3 million women participated in the US alone. 

No country can opt out of engagement with the United States. As such, Palestinian leaders must continue to engage the American Administration and Congress with the aim of limiting the scope of damage Trump could and will inflict on the national cause. Meanwhile, Palestine should also work with the democratic and progressive forces now forging alliances to stand up to the Trump Administration. Many in this pool of opposition already support Palestinian rights and have positions that are far more advanced than those endorsed by either Democrats or Republicans.

Many groups now taking the lead in the resistance against Trump’s bigoted domestic and international policies are forming a powerful bloc that could change the shape and scope of political discourse in the United States. They are not fringe groups. Indeed, they are currently the mainstream leaders of serious and credible grassroots opposition. Their support for Palestinian rights must not be ignored because they have the potential of mainstreaming discussion on Palestinian rights in a way that has not previously presented itself in the United States. We must look to the future beyond Trump and build the foundations of new alliances forged on shared values and interests. These opportunities are presenting themselves in parallel with the newly present dangers. Palestine must seize the opportunities and work to shield the national cause from the dangers the Trump Administration could pose in the immediate future.