If you happened to see The Insult, an engaging Lebanese film nominated this year for a foreign-language Oscar, you have a sense of how small slights can escalate into civil wars in the tinder box that is the Middle East.
Consider then how much metaphorical gasoline U.S. President Donald Trump has poured onto these embers by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and promising to move the U.S. embassy there, by naming an unabashedly pro-Israel ambassador who supports West Bank settlements, by threatening to renew sanctions on Iran and by otherwise dispensing with any pretense about the United States being an honest broker for peace in the Middle East.
As insults go, recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is a doozie. Not only is it highly disrespectful of Palestinians who claim the ancient city as their own, it undermines the peace process by putting the United States squarely in Israel’s camp on an issue that can only be settled at the negotiating table. “We’ve taken it off the table,“ Mr. Trump insisted this week at an Oval Office meeting with a gloating Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “So, this gives us a real opportunity for peace.”
Mr. Trump’s logic is hard enough to follow on any issue. But the U.S. President seems to think he can force the Palestinians to the table by putting his thumbs on the scale. His message seems to be that his is a limited time offer, after whose expiry the price for the Palestinians will only get higher. He has commissioned his beleaguered son-in-law Jared Kushner, U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman and his special Mid-East envoy Jason Greenblatt to put together a peace proposal. Both Mr. Friedman and Mr. Greenblatt, long-standing lawyer friends of Mr. Trump, have a long history of supporting West Bank settlements. Mr. Friedman barely got approved by the Senate.
Meanwhile, Mr. Netanyahu, who faces possible bribery charges at home, was in Washington for the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. AIPAC is a must-attend event for Mr. Netanyahu and U.S. politicians who seek to curry favour with hawkish Jewish voters (and donors) and evangelical Christians for whom Israel and the rapture go hand in hand.
Barack Obama broke with tradition in 2011 by telling this group exactly what it did not want to hear. The then-president was excoriated for a speech that appeared to unilaterally set the parameters of any peace negotiations with the Palestinians. He said Israel’s pre-1967 borders, before its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, should be the starting point for any talks toward a two-state solution. From then on, he was dead to Bibi Netanyahu.
The latter could hardly believe his luck when Mr. Trump won the presidency in 2016. Whereas Mr. Obama believed in forcing the Israelis to make what he called “hard choices”, Mr. Trump seems to entertain the idea that Israel can have its cake and eat it, too. It’s not clear he supports a two-state solution, though he has paid lip service to the principle.
What is clear is that Mr. Netanyahu doesn't want a Palestinian state. “You can bring models, theoretical models, say it will be good for them if we give them a state,” the Israeli leader told reporters in the U.S. capital. “Empirically, it doesn't work with what we see. When we leave land, terror organizations take it up. Immediately.“
He was referring to Gaza, from which Israel withdrew in 2005. And he has a point. The Palestinian Authority, under its enfeebled leader Mahmoud Abbas, has lost all claims to legitimacy among the very people it is supposed to represent. And Hamas, which rules Gaza, is no friend of peace.
Mr. Obama’s approach did not exactly put the Middle East in a better place. So, in the same counter-intuitive way that Mr. Trump appears to be getting his way on trade and taxes, he may do more to concentrate minds in the Middle East than any of his recent predecessors. Sunni Arab countries lined up against Iran have increasingly become covert allies of Israel. The Trump administration is counting on them to force the Palestinians to compromise.
“What better [than] if we could make peace between Israel and the Palestinians?” Mr. Trump said this week. “We’re working very hard on that and I think we have a good chance.“
“Good” would be going too far. But perhaps “better” than most people think.