And his allies are casting the deal that the White House helped broker between Israel and the United Arab Emirates as a historic act of peacemaking. In a tweet Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared the agreement “truly the most significant step forward for Middle East peace in two and a half decades.”
Trump’s opponents at home and critics abroad are more skeptical about the merits of the diplomatic breakthrough. The Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative in 2002 had linked normalization of relations between members of the Arab League and Israel to the latter’s withdrawal from Palestinian territories occupied since 1967. But that looks like an impossibility, with Israeli settlements now rooted across the West Bank. And Arab monarchies fret far more about the geopolitical challenge of Iran than the purgatory of Palestinians living under decades of occupation.
“While the Arab League has twice reaffirmed its support for the initiative, behind the scenes, many of its members have been quietly normalizing ties with Israel, irrespective of the Palestinian issue, which has gone nowhere in the past eighteen years,” wrote Haaretz journalist Anshel Pfeffer. “Effectively, what the leader of the UAE, Mohamed bin Zayed, has done by making the relationship with Israel open and public, is to announce the decoupling of the Israel-Arab conflict from the Israel-Palestine conflict.”
That reality was underscored in a Washington Post op-ed published Saturday by Jared Kushner, Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, who tellingly did not mention the Palestinians once in a piece supposedly about regional peace.
“The new UAE-Israel announcement does not just normalize bilateral relations between the two countries, which have existed barely under the table for many years,” wrote Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. “For Palestinians, it also helps to normalize (if not actually reward) Israel’s occupation.”
The Democrats, led by presidential candidate Joe Biden, are determined to change course should they come to power. There are open discussions within the caucus about conditioning the billions in aid given to Israel on the basis of its actions. Biden and virtually every Democrat in Congress were vocal in their opposition to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s now-stalled plans to start annexing parts of the West Bank.
The new Democratic Party platform rejects annexation and expresses support for a two-state solution and Palestinian rights. But, after pressure from pro-Israel lobbying groups, it dropped any reference to Israel as an occupying power.
“It’s 2020, 53 years after the Israeli military occupied the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem,” Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian American scholar and activist, told Jewish Currents last month. “The fact that they can’t even use the word ‘occupation,’ that they actively refuse to do so — because it’s very clear that there was an effort made to do so and it was denied — makes you think you’re talking to the Flat Earth Society, not the Democratic Party.”
Other analysts contend that the platform still remains the most progressive Democratic statement on the conflict — and is a reflection of the political and moral risks of the right-wing path taken by Trump and Netanyahu. “There’s a far more balanced approach to Israel-related issues in the Democratic Party than there was before,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and president of liberal pro-Israel group J Street, in a briefing with reporters conducted on the virtual sidelines of this week’s Democratic convention. “There’s a willingness to talk directly about and to stand up for Palestinian rights.”
A decade ago, J Street sat somewhat on the fringe of Jewish American politics. Now it’s firmly at the center, espousing positions on Israel, such as support for a two-state solution, that the overwhelming majority of Jewish Americans support, while the Republican Party has drifted further to the right.
Joel Rubin, a former Obama administration official who headed Jewish outreach for Biden’s rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), told Today’s WorldView that “the political space is significantly bigger now” within the United States for “more active American pushing” of Israel than it was before Trump came to power.
But the window may be closing. “There’s a real sense in the Democratic caucus that there’s not much time left,” said Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) in the J Street webinar, pointing to the steady expansion of settlements and the broader cynicism over the possibility of a viable Palestinian state. Levin added that if Biden were elected, he would have to immediately embark on three years of concerted diplomacy to restart a moribund peace process and cajole the two sides to a meaningful agreement.
That’s an uphill task, but there’s greater energy in Washington to help make it happen. “The failure to provide for a just solution that gives Palestinians a state of their own … that is deeply intrinsic to the next generation of Jewish American activists who care about these issues,” said Rubin.
On the left, though, there’s a growing insistence that American faith in a thus-far illusory Palestinian state is obscuring the more urgent and real concerns of a Palestinian population living for decades under occupation.
In an essay earlier this summer that provoked a heated debate in the United States and Israel, Peter Beinart argued for one binational state of Israelis and Palestinians, where everyone had equal rights. Though no major Democratic politician has embraced such a position, Beinart pointed to a 2018 episode when five Democratic lawmakers visiting Israel all privately — and “sheepishly” — recognized that they would opt for a law guaranteeing equal rights for all compared with a controversial law passed by Netanyahu’s government declaring that only Jews have the right to national self-determination in Israel.
“If an equality movement gathers momentum, that sheepishness will disappear as Democrats align their vision for Israel-Palestine with their egalitarian vision for the U.S.,” wrote Beinart. “Although barely any prominent American politicians now back one equal state in Israel-Palestine, a 2018 University of Maryland poll found that Americans ages 18–34 already prefer the concept to any alternative by nine points.”
But that scenario is, for now, even more remote than the existence of an independent Palestinian state. “No one’s human rights should be tethered to statehood, but I’m not ready to talk about Palestinian political rights outside the context of a state,” said Levin. “We need a Palestinian state.”