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Trump administration signals potential U.S. reset on Israel–Palestine

Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks during a United Nations Security Council meeting at UN Headquarters, July 24, 2018 in New York City.
Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley speaks during a UN Security Council meeting on the Israel–Palestine conflict on July 24, 2018, in New York City. Photo: Drew Angerer via Getty Images

Press reports this week have suggested the Trump Administration is preparing to take some action, potentially including defunding, against the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the much-maligned organization created in 1949 to provide assistance to Palestinian refugees. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley agreed on Tuesday that Palestinian refugees’ right of return — a demand critical to Palestinians and anathema to Israel — ought to be off the table.

The big picture: The administration may be ramping up pressure on the Palestinians ahead of rolling out Trump’s peace plan — his so-called Ultimate Deal. But criticism of UNRWA — an object of derision for Jared Kushner and other members of Trump’s peace team— might instead be part of a campaign to completely reset U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Indeed, the administration has long demonstrated a pattern of walking back — even disassociating — the U.S. from its past adherence to a two-state solution, and has sought to align its position more closely with the views of the Israeli Government and domestic constituencies. Beyond refugees and the right of return (which previous administrations steered clear of), two other tenets of the U.S. posture have been fundamentally recast:

  1. Two-state solution: Trump has refused to endorse the idea, let alone base it on June 1967 lines, even with substantial territorial modifications. The administration’s use of the term “Palestinian state” has been grudging and qualified at best. Instead, the administration appears to favor some kind of Palestinian statelet, with Israel retaining large portions of the West Bank.
  2. Jerusalem: Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and decision to open a U.S. embassy there was a major reframing of the traditional U.S. policy premised on Jerusalem as the undivided capital of two states, not one. In announcing this decision, the administration did also call for negotiation on the city’s borders and sovereignty. But there’s no indication that Washington, much less Israel, is prepared to support east Jerusalem hosting a real Palestinian capital, with Palestinian control over parts of the Old City and Palestinian neighborhoods.

The bottom line: Taken together, the administration’s recent actions reflect an intent to redefine the parameters of U.S. policy in a way that will virtually assure rejection by Palestinians and key Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, thereby relieving pressure on Israel. This redefinition comes at a time when the chances of a serious two-state negotiation are already minuscule.

Yes, but: Perhaps that’s the point. After all, Kushner has often said that nothing has worked before. So with little hope of launching serious negotiations, why not shake things up? But whatever the administration believes such a shake-up will achieve, it’s hard to imagine that either peace or security for Israelis or Palestinians is among them.

Aaron David Miller is vice president for new initiatives and director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center and a former Middle East analyst and negotiator at the State Department.

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