President Donald Trump’s stated commitment to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict presents an opportunity for renewed negotiation between the two regions, according to two experts on the Middle Eastern dispute speaking Monday night.
The panel, convened by the Georgetown Bipartisan Pro-Israel Dialogue, featured former ambassador Dennis Ross, who has worked in multiple administrations as a key diplomat to Israel and Palestine, and Colin Kahl, former Vice President Joe Biden’s National Security Adviser and associate professor in the Security Studies Program at the School of Foreign Service, identified flaws in former President Barack Obama’s relations with Israel and urged Trump to inspire hope for a solution.
Ross said there was not any considerable progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace in the Obama years, arguing that the Obama administration’s choice to make its objective to improve Israeli-Palestinian relations public was a key failure, especially negotiating Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Golan Heights in Syria.
Obama promoted a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine throughout his presidency, and increased foreign military funding for the Israeli military from $2.9 billion in 2011 to $ 3.1 billion in 2012, while former secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry criticized settlements.
“One of the things that was done early was to declare that there had to be a big freeze, including on natural growth, on settling,” Ross said. “Had the administration framed that issue differently, talking about a limitation of settlement activity, it would have put itself in a different position.”
Kahl countered Ross, stressing the Obama administration’s close relationship with Israeli security networks.
“Where Obama doesn’t get enough credit was just the unbelievable depth of the security and intelligence relationship that Obama fostered with Israel,” Kahl said.
Kahl said factors beyond the Obama administration’s control spoiled potential for progress, like the difference between Obama’s and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personalities. This clash of personalities made negotiations difficult.
“For Obama to really be able to effectively put pressure on Netanyahu, he had to establish a certain degree of credibility with the Israeli public, which he never did,” Kahl said.
Both Ross and Kahl agreed that the current state of Israeli-Palestinian relations is bleak. Most recently, the Israeli military and Gaza-based militant group Hamas fought a three-monthlong war that killed 2,100 Palestinians and 73 Israelis. Israel continues to blockade Gaza and build settlements in the West Bank and Golan Heights.
“When you look at where the Israelis and the Palestinians are, I’ve worked on this issue for 30 years, and there has never been a lower level of belief on either side than there is today,” Ross said.
Looking forward, the speakers held that, despite their initial doubts on Trump’s commitment to policy issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the new administration has an opportunity to bring both sides together.
Trump tasked his son-in-law Jared Kushner in January with leading negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders and has suggested he supports a two-state solution, even after endorsing a one-state framework at a Feb. 15 press conference with Netanyahu.
“You might not have predicted that this would be an issue that’s important to President Trump,” Ross said.
Still, Kahl warned that Trump may not care personally about the issue, which may scuttle long-term commitment. He pointed to recent administration moves in the United Nations and the State Department to urge Netanyahu to reduce Israeli settlements as examples of this inconsistency between rhetoric and policy.
“Some of the groups furthest to the right inside Israeli politics were quite bullish on Trump, hoping that in essence it would be open season for establishing a greater Israel,” Kahl said. “Actually the Trump administration has done a number of things to walk that perception back. They’ve actually done a fairly mild brushback pitch on settlements, suggesting that it’s not helpful, Trump himself suggesting the Israelis will have to make compromises.”
Leaving hard policy aside, the two speakers concluded that the biggest problem holding back peace, and the one that the Trump administration must address if it wants to stabilize the area, is the disillusionment of the public.
“The biggest danger we have is the complete absence of hope,” Kahl said. “I think there needs to be some way for this administration to rejuvenate hope for the prospects of two states.”