Sure, there’s plenty of confusion, diplomatic malpractice and dysfunction in Trumpian foreign policy. But on two critical issues it is deadly functional: The administration is focused like a laser beam on
- irreversibly burning U.S. bridges to Iran and
- administering last rites to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
And if you look at the administration’s actual policies, it’s clear they aren’t just meant to overturn President Barack Obama’s actions, but also to create points of no return—so that successor administrations cannot revert to past approaches even if they want to. If the administration succeeds—and it’s well on its way to doing so—it will have fundamentally damaged U.S. national interests for years to come.
The administration has now done a complete about-face. Whatever Trump’s personal inclinations to prove he’s the world’s greatest negotiator on Iran, his hard-line advisers, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, want to get rid of the mullahs who rule the Islamic Republic, not engage them. Pompeo and Bolton are now pulling out all the stops not only to provoke Iran into withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—and maybe into a fight as well—but to block a successor from engineering either a broader geopolitical pivot toward Iran or to engage in diplomacy to resolve outstanding U.S-Iranian differences. The administration’s Monday announcement that it will end all waivers of sanctions on countries still importing Iranian oil fits this pattern of relying on coercion and intimidation rather than diplomacy. As for Israel, whatever the president’s personal views on Israeli-Palestinian peace (and during the campaign they were more balanced than they are today), Jared Kushner and his team now seem hellbent on producing a “made in Israel” peace plan that will be dead before arrival and drive the final nail in the coffin of a peace process that is already on life support.
Last year, Pompeo laid out 12 extreme demands that Tehran would have to meet before the Trump administration would agree to re-engage with Iran. The demands would have required Iran to give up all its rights under the JCPOA and to stop pursuing what Tehran sees as its legitimate interests in the region—for example, helping to stabilize Iraq and supporting the government of Adil Abdul-Mahdi to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq. This diktat was swiftly and angrily rejected by the Iranian government.
No amount of economic or diplomatic pressure the U.S. brings to bear on Tehran will force it to knuckle under to these orders. But the administration’s fantastical demands have established a standard that will be used to judge any future nuclear agreement a Democratic, or different kind of Republican, administration might negotiate with Iran, which will almost certainly require both U.S. and Iranian compromises. That means a president who fails to meet these standards will be accused of appeasement, making compromise as well as domestic support for a new agreement far more difficult. The administration is not just killing the Iran nuclear deal; it’s stopping it from coming back to life.
The administration’s decision to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a Foreign Terrorist Organization is also willfully and unnecessarily confrontational, and once done, given the hardcore, militant and enduring nature of the IRGC, it will be nearly impossible to undo. A successor administration, if it did try to undo the designation, would find itself vulnerable to the charges of enabling state-sponsored terrorism. The move will strengthen hard-liners in Iran who oppose accommodation with the U.S. and weaken those elements within the country which favor improved relations with America, who will now have no choice other than to remain silent or close ranks behind the IRGC, further diminishing opportunities for future engagement and diplomacy with Iran. Empowered hard-liners will crack down even more harshly on Iranians who want less political oppression, greater respect for human rights, and more political and civil liberties. All these results were no doubt intended by Pompeo and Bolton, and work together with the economic warfare the administration is waging against Iran, which is aimed at provoking internal unrest inside the country that could ultimately lead to a toppling of clerical rule. The imposition of the total embargo on Iranian oil exports, if successful, will inflict even more economic misery on the Iranian people, hardening the perception that the U.S. government is an enemy not only of the ruling regime but also of the Iranian people—an attitude that will make it harder to ratchet down hostility toward America in the future.
In what would deliver the final coup de grace to any normalization of future U.S.-Iranian relations, Pompeo and Bolton are doing everything they can to goad Iran into a military conflict with the U.S.There is a growing risk that U.S. forces and Iranian IRGC units and Iranian-backed militias could stumble their away into an unintended conflict, especially in Iraq or Syria but also in Yemen, where the administration’s unstinting support for the Saudi Arabia’s inhumane and ineffectual military campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthis risks further provoking Houthi missile attacks on the Kingdom, creating a pretext for the Trump administration to come to the Kingdom’s defense.
There are a number of steps the U.S. could take to mitigate the risks of an unintended conflict with Iran. But the administration has failed to create diplomatic or operational arrangements for communications and crisis management with Iran, suggesting that its goal is not to prevent such a conflict but to deliberately provoke one. And predictably, the IRGC designation has met with a hostile Iranian response: The Iranian Majlis (parliament) has declared every American soldier in the Middle East a terrorist. Thousands of U.S. military personnel are now wearing targets on their backs. Because they operate in close proximity to IRCG units and Iranian-backed militias in Syria and Iraq, the odds have increased dramatically that there will be some kind of confrontation with a high risk of escalation. In other words, U.S. actions have helped set the stage for a U.S.-Iranian conflict that could rule out reconciliation for many more years.
A less confrontational relationship with Iran isn’t this administration’s only casualty. It is also doing all it can to kill and bury the long-standing policy of seeking a two-state solution to achieve a conflict-ending settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Over the past year, the administration has waged a relentless campaign of economic and political pressure against the Palestinians—
- closing the PLO office in Washington,
- withdrawing U.S. assistance from the U.N. agency that supports Palestinian refugees and
- cutting aid to the Palestinian Authority.
While the details of the Kushner plan have been shrouded in secrecy for over a year, the way his team has operated and leaks to the media suggest a plan that gives priority to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s politics and needs—one that is reportedly heavy on economic issues and light on the core issues of
- refugees and
- Palestinian statehood.
Even if the words “two-state solution” were uttered, the administration’s view of the Palestinian state is clearly a far cry from the size and contiguity that any Palestinian leader could accept as part of a deal. In this way, the Trump administration’s policies don’t just roll back the very idea of a meaningful two-state solution and push the Palestinians further away from engaging seriously in negotiations leading to a settlement. They also, in aligning so closely with Netanyahu’s vision, make a deal much less likely in future.
For example, the administration’s gratuitous decision—untethered from any U.S. national interest—to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and open an embassy there
- inflicted serious damage on U.S. credibility as a mediator,
- marginalized the Palestinian Authority as a key U.S. interlocutor, and
- subordinated U.S. policy toward the Palestinians to U.S. policy toward Israel.
The administration’s treatment of Jerusalem has drawn a clear hierarchy: Israel’s needs are indisputable and sacred, Palestinian needs are negotiable and worldly. The prospects for a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem are now more remote than ever: With continuing Israeli efforts to formalize their control over all of Jerusalem and the presence of more than 300,000 Israelis living there, it’s hard to imagine there will be either political or territorial space for the establishment of a real Palestinian capital.
Once annexed, there will be no possibility of any solution that involves separating Israelis and Palestinians, thereby condemning them both to live in a one-state reality that is a prescription for unending conflict and violence. In the cruelest of ironies, the administration’s plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could extinguish any hope of a diplomatic solution to separate Israelis and Palestinians, and instead guarantee perpetual conflict.
So if the chances of the plan’s success are slim to none, especially in light of the recent Israeli election and the emergence of a very right-wing government, why launch it? The answer is obvious: We believe the administration has defined success in other ways. With zero chance of getting an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, the administration’s real end game is to fundamentally alter U.S. policy toward the conflict and to do everything possible to raise the odds that no successor can reverse the new ground rules. And there may be no time better than now. Listen to U.S. Ambassador David Friedman—a key influencer of the administration’s policy—at last month’s AIPAC conference: “Can we leave this to an administration that may not understand the need for Israel to maintain overriding security control of Judea and Samaria and a permanent defense position in the Jordan Valley?” he asked. “Can we run the risk that one day the government of Israel will lament, ‘Why didn’t we make more progress when U.S. foreign policy was in the hands of President Trump, Vice President Pence, Secretary Pompeo, Ambassador Bolton, Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and even David Friedman?’ How can we do that?”
The goal isn’t just to drive a stake through the peace process but to ensure that America’s traditional conception of a two-state solution won’t rise from the dead.
Why couldn’t a new administration truly committed to engaging Iran and pushing forward on a two-state solution simply return to traditional policies? We cannot rule this out; but this possibility faces very long odds, particularly if the Trump administration is in charge until 2024.
Even under normal circumstances with a committed and highly skilled administration, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are excruciatingly difficult issues even to manage, let alone resolve. Success depends on leaders America can’t control who have conflicting interests and their own domestic constraints and, in the case of Iran, on bitterly suspicious adversaries; the issues are politically radioactive for all parties and perceived to be existential, too. And the longer these conflicts persist the more entrenched attitudes become and options for progress contract. Indeed, time is an enemy not an ally; and even under the best of circumstances, any number of deal breakers are always present. In its own inimitable way, the administration is well on its way to hanging “closed for the season” signs on both improving relations with Iran and on a two-state solution and, sadly, irreversibly damaging American credibility and national interests in the process.
The vain and bullying persona that Donald Trump projects online and in three dimensions is consistent: he is convinced that all that is required to restore the globe to a state of order and prosperity is his own good self. “The world was gloomy before I won—there was no hope,” he tweeted on the day after Christmas. “Now the market is up nearly 10% and Christmas spending is over a trillion dollars!” He is both the Prince of Peace and the savior of the Nasdaq index.
.. Trump is prepared to insert himself into any argument—even if it is a century old and endlessly complex—with half a thought and a hundred and forty characters.
.. Daniel Kurtzer, who was Ambassador to Egypt under Bill Clinton and Ambassador to Israel under George W. Bush, told me that he was appalled both by Trump’s presumption and Netanyahu’s collusion.
“We are in uncharted waters—a President-elect trying to make policy and a foreign leader conspiring with that President-elect to undercut a sitting President,” Kurtzer said. “But such are the times.
.. The political center of gravity in Israel has been moving to the right for many years, so much so that the greatest threat to Netanyahu’s personal power comes from politicians and parties who support some form of annexation of the West Bank or some form of one-state resolution in which the Palestinians do not have full civil rights. And even though Netanyahu has paid lip service to a final settlement and two states for two peoples, he always, given a choice between power and principle, acts to preserve his power.
.. the Administration had been “alarmed” by many of Trump’s appointments to his national-security team—notably the appointment of Michael Flynn as national-security adviser—but the selection of Friedman was “over the top.”
.. “He put his political and charitable support directly into the settlements; he compares Jews on the left to the kapos in the concentration camps—it just put it over the top.”
.. The Israelis—right, center, and left—have long been wary of the U.N., a venue that once upheld the notion that Zionism is a form of racism and passes relatively frequent condemnations of Israeli actions, but which does not have the political wherewithal to sanction Russia for bombing hospitals and aide convoys in Syria or countless other states for their more heartless and illegal transgressions.
.. Netanyahu’s argument, and that of those to his right as well, is that Israel cannot relinquish the “strategic depth” provided by the West Bank when the “neighborhood” is either in flames (Syria), unstable (Jordan, Egypt), or hostile (take your pick).
Moreover, he argues that the Palestinians, thanks to the anti-Israeli incitement of their schoolbooks and politicians and propaganda, will never be satisfied with a two-state solution; what they want is greater Palestine, all of Palestine—not merely Ramallah and Jenin and Nablus but Haifa and Safed and Afula. That is Netanyahu’s argument for the status quo.
.. he went on, what the Secretary of State failed to recognize was that the conflict with the Palestinians “has always been about Israel’s right to exist.”
“If those are the actual policies, then it would be hard to see how Trump as president could actually pursue his preference for peace,” Mr. Ross said. “It is not just that the Palestinians would see little reason to be responsive, but Arab states that are quietly cooperating with the Israelis in tangible ways would also find it difficult to play any role in peacemaking.”
.. The settlement was created with the support of the Israeli government, and has since grown to more than 1,000 families, or roughly 7,500 people, he said. The settlement’s location and ideology is considered hard-line among many Israelis and even some settlers.
.. Yet in its 40-year history, and with help from Bet El Institutions and American Friends of Bet El Yeshiva Center, the settlement has become one of the most influential in the U.S. in promoting its agenda and winning friends in the U.S, Israeli settlers say.
At a gala dinner earlier this month at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York, former U.S ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton and current Israeli ambassador to the U.N. Danny Danon were keynote speakers at the $500-a-ticket event to raise money for Beit El Institutions. Former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who is a frequent visitor to settlements in the West Bank, was also a previous speaker at the event
Jewish settlers and conservative Israeli lawmakers on Friday welcomed the nomination of pro-settlement lawyer David Friedman as the incoming Trump administration’s new envoy to Israel, an appointment likely to prove as controversial here as in the U.S.
.. Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Friedman has indicated the U.S. should abandon its decadeslong policy of establishing a Palestinian state and move America’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem
.. A senior adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbassaid, however, that, Mr. Friedman would be judged on his actions, not past statements.
“All what we want is that the new administration and president to act according to international law,” the official said. “We need to preserve the two state solution.”
.. Mr. Friedman, a founding partner of the New York-based law firm Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman LLP, worked previously worked with President-elect Trump in connection with his investments in Atlantic City casinos. He has been outspoken in his criticism of the Obama administration and liberal U.S. Jewish organizations for their policies toward Israel.
.. In a column in May on the news website IsraelNationalNews.com, he likened members of the American pro-peace lobbying group J Street to “kapos,” Jews who were assigned to supervise others Jews in Nazi concentration camps in World War II.
.. 2010 through 2014, the nonprofit American Friends of Beit El Yeshiva Center, which operates under the umbrella of Beit El Institutions, raised nearly $10 million in gifts and contributions for the settlement, according to U.S. tax filings posted on Guidestar.org. The family foundation of the president-elect’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, also has given money to the settlement.