Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Donald Trump Is Right to Coerce the Palestinians

| Oct. 03, 2018


A Hebrew-language version of the op-ed appeared in Haaretz on October 3, 2018. The translation was provided by the author.

Twenty five years after the Oslo Accords, the prospects for a two-state solution are dissipating in front of our very eyes, due to changes on the ground and the Israeli and Palestinian sides' ongoing differences. The Trump administration is trying to find a way out of the impasse, as it is so often does, by breaking things.

It is rare that this grotesque administration is worthy of a good word. Its ongoing preference for breaking things, in almost all areas, reflects a fundamental inability to comprehend complex realities and is usually doomed to failure. There are, however, some cases, such as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, where the sides' have become so entrenched in their positions, that nothing less than a major jolt can succeed. The administration correctly identified Jerusalem and the refugees as the primary issues requiring changes in the sides' positions.

The first indication of the administration's new approach came with the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocation of the U.S. embassy there. A welcome move in and of itself, it was not done as part of a negotiating process and not in exchange for Israeli concessions.

The second attempt to break things was the administration's decision to cut U.S. aid to the Palestinians, heretofore granted primarily via the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), a corrupt and ossified organization, whose very existence perpetuates Palestinian refugeehood. This, too, was a positive move in and of itself, but was done without any prior attempt to establish alternative assistance mechanisms for the Palestinians and is likely to lead both to a humanitarian crisis and heightened violence.

It rapidly transpired, however, that the above was just the beginning of a broader move by the administration, which began trying to undercut two almost sacrosanct Palestinian precepts: the unique definition of refugeehood that both they and UNRWA use, whereby Palestinian refugees are deemed to be not just the original displaced persons — the accepted international definition — but all of their descendants, ad infinitum, a definition which then strengthens the demand for the second precept, the so-called "right of return." This definition intentionally inflates the number of refugees from the few tens of thousands of original refugees still alive today, to over five million.

The administration truly shook the foundations in Ramallah, when it then made clear that a Palestinian state is not necessarily the only outcome of the negotiating process and that other options exist, for example a confederation with Jordan. The final turn of the knife came with the administration’s announcement that the PLO office in Washington would be closed.

In effect, the administration's actions constituted a dramatic collapse of the Palestinians’ diplomatic positions from Oslo to the present. All those who truly wish peace know that the Palestinians really do need a strong reality check. In typical form, however, rather than considering where they might possibly have gone wrong, the Palestinians responded by digging in their heels even further, casting mud at the administration and — in an act of desperation that demonstrated their utter fecklessness — severing all contact with it. Ties with the United States had been one of the Palestinians' primary achievements following Oslo.

In reality, the administration decided to teach the Palestinians a lesson and coerce them into changing some of their positions. The question is whether it is capable of sustaining a policy of diplomatic coercion over time and is willing to pay the price of doing so. To be successful, diplomatic coercion has to be part of a coherent strategy and requires intensive and continuous involvement of top administration officials. These are not known to be the Trump administration's primary areas of excellence.

Diplomatic coercion also requires the determination to mete out punishment at levels that exceed the other side’s tolerance for pain. For the Palestinians, the issues under discussion are of supreme importance and they have pursued them uncompromisingly for decades. Donald Trump has a hard time focusing on any issue for more than minutes.

Moreover, the Palestinians have important sources of leverage of their own. The administration will have a hard time pursuing diplomatic coercion when the Arab states clamor for it to ease the Palestinians' suffering, following the cut in assistance to UNRWA, or when Israel faces growing attacks from Gaza and possibly even the West Bank, as a result. The Palestinians may even make use of a highly sophisticated ruse to thwart the administration's moves – simply wait for the storm to pass, in just over two years.

A further critical question is whether the administration wishes to balance its efforts and give Israel a badly needed wake-up call, too. One possible indication that this may be the case was the president's recent expression of support, for the first time since entering office, for a two-state solution. More advanced options would be recognition of a Palestinian capital in parts of East Jerusalem and even calling upon Israel to do the same; or a clarification that the administration does not recognize Israel's sovereignty over the approximately 90 percent of the West Bank that lies east of the separation barrier, along with a demand that Israel renounce any claims to sovereignty there.

The accepted wisdom holds that the refugee issue can only be addressed as part of a final peace agreement. In the final status negotiations they conducted, Israeli Prime Ministers Barak and Olmert agreed to a limited return, possibly up to 10,000 refugees a year for ten years. If the administration wishes to truly shake things up, a further option would be for it to call upon Israel to agree today to a limited and controlled return of refugees to Areas A and B in the West Bank and an unlimited return to Gaza (i.e. those areas that will not be part of Israel in any final settlement, and are already not under its control), as well as to agreed parts of Area C, in exchange for a Palestinian renunciation of the "right of return," end to violence and restoration of PA rule in Gaza. Israel would be forced to confront a national consensus that objects to any return, while the Palestinians would be forced to make a historic choice: whether they are willing, after seventy years, to make do with a limited, but concrete and immediate achievement, or prefer to continue holding out for a dream that will never happen.

Those who bemoan the ostensible failure of the Oslo process ignore two painful realities. First, it is highly doubtful whether a Palestinian state will be any more moderate, stable, prosperous and peaceful than any of its Arab brethren. To the contrary, bitter experience with the corrupt dictatorship in the West Bank and murderous theocracy in Gaza, indicate that a Palestinian state is far more likely to be another failed, authoritarian, unstable, irredentist, and violent Arab state, even after peace is signed.

Second, and contrary to its public image, the Oslo Accords never predetermined the nature of a final agreement. Israel’s willingness to consider the option of an independent Palestinian state was thus contingent, correctly, on the Palestinians' ability to meet two critical tests: A proven ability to govern effectively and to prevent terrorism against Israel. Their resounding failure to do so has cast a heavy shadow on the entire peace process.

A two-state solution is thus necessary, not because it is a panacea, but because the alternatives are even worse. Both sides will undoubtedly oppose the administration's attempts to change the rules of the game. Sometimes, however, to build things, you have to break them first.

Statements and views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Harvard University, the Harvard Kennedy School, or the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

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For Academic Citation:

Freilich, Chuck."Donald Trump Is Right to Coerce the Palestinians." Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, October 3, 2018.