Demonstrators carry Palestinian flags during a protest. (Photographer: Joshua Lott/Bloomberg)

Trump and Bolton Just Slammed the Door on Mideast Peace

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In the latest hammer blow to any hopes that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians can be revived, the Donald Trump administration has announced it will shutter the de facto Palestinian embassy in the U.S.

In a speech criticizing the International Criminal Court, Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, said the Washington mission of the Palestine Liberation Organization will be closed because of Palestinian calls for the ICC to investigate Israel’s conduct in the occupied Palestinian territories.

This is the latest in a series of aggressive moves designed to foreclose all Palestinian options other than whatever might be in a forthcoming “peace proposal” to be presented by Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser on Middle East affairs, Jared Kushner.

Kushner and his team have vowed think outside the box, and to come up with a new formula “based on realities.” In other words, they are ditching the existing framework for peace talks, which is based on the permanent status issues — borders, settlements, security, refugees and Jerusalem — that were mutually agreed back in 1993 and supposed to be resolved only through negotiations and not any unilateral action.

Through all the tensions and turmoil of the past 15 years, that framework somehow survived.

But soon after taking office, Trump signaled he was moving on, especially by refusing to reiterate the long-standing U.S. commitment to a two-state outcome. Instead, Trump has said he would accept any formula the two parties agree to, a position previously embraced only by Iran.

When Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel last December and repeatedly insisted the issue is now “off the table,” the existing framework for talks disintegrated. Since then, the administration has waged a relentless war on both Palestinian interests and existing understandings in the negotiating process. Kushner has pressed to redefine almost all the Palestinian refugees out of existence and effectively remove that issue from the table as well.

The White House also cut all U.S. funding for the United Nations agency that delivers humanitarian assistance the 5 million Palestinian refugees, and seems determined to eliminate the organization entirely.

Most recently, the Trump administration has slashed and frozen U.S. funding for humanitarian and educational projects in the occupied West Bank and for Palestinian hospitals in occupied East Jerusalem.

Trump has reportedly said that the purpose of these cuts is to further pressure Palestinians to make a deal with Israel. “I told them, we’re not paying you until we make a deal. If we don’t make a deal, we’re not paying,” he told a group of Jewish leaders, according to Haaretz.

All this supposed pressure, though, is taking place in a diplomatic vacuum. When demanding Palestinians return to talks with Israel, the obvious retort is, “What talks?” It’s not just that the Trump administration has systematically dismantled the existing framework for negotiations; it hasn’t put anything else in its place.

The White House’s real purpose here isn’t to pressure the Palestinians to concede to any existing process or demands. Rather, it is to foreclose all their other plausible options — including international forums such as the ICC or the UN — before the administration rolls out a proposal that falls far short of the minimal Palestinian expectation of an independent state.

Indeed, Kushner has strongly signaled that Palestinians can primarily look forward to economic inducements and benefits rather than political freedom and national independence.

The administration acts as if Palestinians didn’t have domestic politics of their own, and can be coerced into total submission. But this relentless pressure isn’t going to make Palestinians more willing or able to accept outrageous demands from Kushner and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

To the contrary, it’s certain to render it politically impossible for Palestinian leaders to rejoin a U.S.-brokered process or make any concessions, at least during the Trump era. With a U.S. embassy in Jerusalem opened and the PLO mission in Washington closed, and all that this grim symmetry so bluntly signifies, such moves would be widely viewed as craven capitulation. Palestinian moderates will be undermined and even humiliated, and extremists on the left and right will be emboldened and empowered.

With each U.S. move, there is less chance that any Palestinians will be ready, willing or able to take a serious look at anything Kushner proposes and try to find in it something they can work with. And the administration is fast running out of anything left that it can inflict on, or take away from, the Palestinians to pressure them further, short of bombing Ramallah.

Bolton’s announcement isn’t just a nifty Rosh Hashanah gift for Netanyahu. It’s also a huge victory for a rogue’s gallery of bad actors.

One of the biggest winners in all of this is Hamas. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has based his whole term in office around achieving a negotiated agreement with Israel in a U.S.-led process, now looks like the biggest dupe in the Middle East.

Hamas’s leaders will be as incorrect as ever when they insist that Palestinians can achieve their rights only through armed struggle, but after the past year and a half of Trumpian diplomacy, such sophistry and radicalism is going to be a lot more appealing and much harder to refute.

Iran, too, will be utterly delighted to see the U.S.-led process finally crumbling, especially since it is Washington itself, supposedly to be the guarantor of the process, that is suddenly the gleeful executioner.

Another obvious big winner from Bolton’s announcement is everyone who has been indicted by the ICC, including Sudanese President Omar Bashir, and anyone who ever feared such an indictment.

During the presidential campaign, Trump vowed to be “neutral” between Israel and the Palestinians. And after the Jerusalem recognition and embassy move, he promised that it would be the Palestinians’ turn to “get something very good” from Washington. But all his administration has done is to shower Israel with carrots and flail the Palestinians with sticks.

This may be good politics within the Republican right wing. But it’s disastrous diplomacy.

Many critics of Washington have wanted to break the U.S. stranglehold on the peace process, which will someday have to resume. They can relax. Trump, Bolton and Kushner have done their work for them.

It’s hard to imagine how a future administration could repair all the damage that’s being done by the application of what Jeffrey Goldberg identified as Trump and Bolton’s “We’re America, bitch” attitude. Or by this White House’s disdain for international law and a rules-based order to the delicate and crucial work of peacemaking. It is even harder to imagine that the result of this diplomatic malpractice won’t be another explosion of Middle East violence.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

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