The Trump administration’s ‘realism’ isn’t the answer


Overlooked amid the fear triggered by the coronavirus outbreak and the noise generated by the impeachment proceedings in the United States, was the announcement Tuesday in Washington of U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict.

A deal touted by Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and their supporters as “the deal of the century” was pronounced dead on arrival by the Palestinians and most independent observers. While the terms of the deal are troubling — they are so one-sided that they risk renewed instability in the region — the greatest concern in Tokyo should be the “realism” that is said to guide the Trump administration’s thinking. 

If this is any indication of how Trump will deal with other international issues, Japan should be worried. The proposal revealed this week was three years in the making. Shepherded by special adviser Jared Kushner (the president’s son-in-law), the plan was developed in close consultation with the Israeli government and some Arab interlocutors.

The Palestinians were not involved, having dropped out of the process in December 2017, when Trump said that he would move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. That, for them, was proof that Trump was not an honest broker and would favor Israel in the peace process.

Trump’s plan confirms that fear. It gives Israel sovereignty over land west of the Jordan River captured in the 1967 Six Day War, declares an undivided Jerusalem capital of Israel and leaves intact all Israeli settlements on Arab land. Trump said the Palestinians get more than double their current territory, but a map shows what looks like an unmade jigsaw puzzle, with pieces scattered here and there, noncontiguous, and some parcels deep in the desert.

 They are also given land for a capital in a suburb on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem — outside the municipal boundaries of the city — and most pointedly not in East Jerusalem, as they and the international community had sought. More demeaning, the eventual Palestinian state will not have a military and it will only be recognized as an independent country when it meets a list of criteria that the U.S. and Israel will supervise. 

On that list is a governing system with the rule of law, freedom of press, free and fair elections, respect for human rights, religious freedom and an independent judiciary, as well as a financial system on par with those of the West. It must renounce all violence against its neighbors and end propaganda that instills hatred. All militant groups must be disbanded. Critics note that no other country in the region, perhaps not even Israel, would meet those criteria.

President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority denounced the plan as a “conspiracy deal,” adding that “our people will throw it into the garbage can of history.” Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestine Liberation Organization official called it “an existential assault on Palestine and the Palestinian people.” 

Regional powers are concerned that Palestinians will lash out against Israel, especially if Netanyahu goes ahead with plans to annex West Bank settlements in the near future. The Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank, has commenced discussions with Hamas, the militant group that governs the Gaza Strip, on a united response to the proposal. Previously the two groups have been bitter rivals; they have found a common enemy that unites them.

The Middle East is far from Japan, but the ripple effects of that plan could reach these shores. More worrying is what the proposal reveals about foreign policy and deal-making in the Trump administration. The first concern is the seeming inability of the Trump team to understand the motivations of the people with which it is engaging. Trump and Kushner believe that Palestinians should be laser focused on the economic opportunities within reach: $50 billion in investment (although where that money will come from is unclear). 

They insist that economic gains should outweigh all political considerations, a point that Kushner underscored when he defended the proposal by arguing that the Palestinian leadership should “stop posturing and do what’s best to try to make the Palestinians’ lives better.”

If the Palestinians resist that logic — so far they have rejected it out of hand — it is unlikely to be any more persuasive with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who is being asked to give up his nuclear weapons in exchange for similar investments. At the Singapore summit, Trump urged Kim to use “a real estate perspective” and then touted North Korea’s “great” beaches. But money is not the ultimate criteria for these leaders; political dignity and regime survival take precedence.
A second concern is the weight that Trump accords his personal ties with world leaders, a priority that seems to overtake even the national interest.

The Middle East proposal makes little pretense of equality, clearly favoring the personal and political interests of Trump’s friend and ally, Netanyahu. While Trump has an affinity for Israel — credit Kushner’s influence and the power of evangelical voters among his political base — there is also the close personal relationship he has forged with Netanyahu. Throughout trade negotiations with China, for example, the president backed away from measures that would penalize Chinese companies (ZTE, for example) out of deference to his “friend,” President Xi Jinping.

 It is reasonable to expect similar efforts to accommodate Kim, a man with whom Trump has said he “has fallen in love.”
Finally, there is the “realism” that guides the president’s thinking. Trump called his Middle East plan “realistic”: It focuses on practical concerns, accepts facts on the ground and offers both sides a chance to realize their stated goals.

 Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has justified U.S. policy — particularly when Trump abandons positions long held by prior administrations — by arguing that it “recognizes reality on the ground,” for example, calling international law an “impediment, this idea that somehow there was going to be a legal resolution.” Will Trump also decide that North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is another such “reality” to be accepted rather than undone?

His belief in his unique ability to solve problems, a desire to accommodate friends, a readiness to accept “facts on the ground,” and a hunger to do the “big things” that his predecessors could not, all push Trump to make deals like his Middle East peace proposal that are far less than they seem. And when they fail, the administration will blame the party across the table, as Kushner suggested in his defense of the proposal he developed, noting that the Palestinians “have a perfect track record of blowing every opportunity they’ve had in their past.” 

Perhaps, but the administration must also ensure that it does not make a bad situation
even worse.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University