Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men gather near the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Old City. Photo: AFP
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men gather near the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Old City. Photo: AFP

US President Donald Trump, in his quest to accomplish the “deal of the century” between Israelis and Palestinians, has most recently professed support for a two-state solution. Yet his administration’s policies undermine that very goal.

Trump had initially espoused indifference as to whether a one-state or two-state solution should be enacted, saying he could “live with either one.”

But at the United Nations General Assembly last week in New York, the US leader, seated alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said: “I like two-state solution. That’s what I think works best.”

He promised to unveil his administration’s peace plan within two to fourth months. Netanyahu in turn said he would support Palestinian self-determination so long as Israel maintained responsibility for security.

It is highly unlikely that this signifies a serious change in Trump’s policy.

No state without Jerusalem

Analysis of the actual policies of the administration indicate intent, not to support the two-state solution, but to undermine it.

An early sign was the appointment of David Friedman, a well-known opponent of the two-state solution, as ambassador to Israel. The ambassador once said that Jews who support the creation of a Palestinian state are “far worse than kapos – Jews who turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps.”

In the meantime, the administration has worked to undermine the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as a partner in peace negotiations and reduce its bargaining leverage. The most damaging policy was the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December of last year.

The decision weakened Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas in two different ways. First, it emphasized the failure of the diplomatic approach to attaining Palestinian recognition, a policy that he has championed. It also showed that the international position of the Palestinians had been eroded under his watch.

Second, the statement ignored any Palestinian claim to part of the city. This renders Israeli concessions in the city even less likely than before.

These alone could sound the death knell to the peace process. Due to its symbolic and political importance, Jerusalem was the sticking point which derailed the peace process at the 2000 Camp David Summit.

As Secretary-General of the PLO Saeb Erekat said in December 2017, “There can be no Palestinian state without Jerusalem as its capital. Jerusalem is the heart and soul of the Palestinian people.”

Since then the Trump administration has taken steps to gut the influence of the Palestinian Authority (PA). It announced an end to funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), an international agency caring for Palestinian refugees.

Washington redirected $200 million slated for direct US aid to the Palestinian Authority, limiting the latter’s ability to redirect funds to aid refugees. The administration then directly undercut the PA’s ability to negotiate by closing the PLO office in Washington DC.

The official explanation given by the State Department for these punishments is that the PA “has not taken steps to advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel.”

However, since these measures come at a time when there is no offer on the table from either Israel or the United States for the PA to accept, what are the Palestinians being punished for?

Strengthening Hamas

The US has yet to even release its Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, sometimes referred to as the “deal of the century.”

However, it has already been negotiating the details with regional players for some time, and there are indications that Washington’s plan is filled with non-starters.

Leaks reveal that the plan proposes limited Palestinian sovereignty in a West Bank bifurcated by large legitimized zones of Israeli settlements. To add insult to injury, all of Jerusalem is slated to remain in Israeli hands.

This is fully in line with the Israeli position that the Palestinians should receive what Netanyahu calls a “state minus.”

Not surprisingly, the PA does not believe in Trump’s sincerity. They have continued to espouse their long-standing position that a Palestinian state could only come into being if Israel returned to the 1967 borders and if East Jerusalem were its capital.

President Abbas responded to Trump’s new acceptance of a Palestinian state by stating that “This administration has reneged on all previous US commitments, and has undermined the two-state solution.”

The Palestinians are not alone in rejecting the American approach. The one-sided nature of the slated “deal of the century” has stopped Arab states from endorsing the deal.

Even Egypt and Saudi Arabia, governments which in recent years have shown callous disregard for Palestinian rights, rejected these terms as unfair to the PA.

The consequences of the Trump administration’s policy of undermining the Palestinian Authority could be severe. Not least because the weakening of the PA has already strengthened the hand of Hamas.

The Gaza militants were recently on the ropes due to humanitarian conditions in the Strip and the failure of its demonstration campaign against Israel. However, the Islamist group has bounced back.

Hamas, enjoying a political renaissance, is currently engaged in high-stakes negotiations with Israel to alleviate the blockade on Gaza.

Rather than being an unfortunate mistake, bolstering Hamas may be intentional, and perhaps even driven by US-Israeli policy. The Trump administration and Israeli officials have discussed a “Gaza first” policy that encourages investment in infrastructure in Gaza, even while funds are stripped from the coffers of the PA.

Israeli willingness to negotiate with Hamas over a long-term ceasefire, while sidelining President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, also serves to strengthen the government in Gaza.

Since the US considers Hamas to be a terrorist organization with whom it would be illegal to negotiate, when the government in Gaza is stronger, negotiations are less likely to succeed.

The latest soundbite about a preference for a two-state solution stands in stark contrast to actual policies pursued by both Trump and Netanyahu.

The pursuit of genuine peace requires a robust and unified Palestinian partner able to bargain credibly. Therefore, the policy of undermining the PA and dividing the Palestinian people should be seen for what it is: a malicious attempt to undermine the two-state solution.

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