Did President Trump Just Kill the Two State Solution?

Trump_Netanyahu_9de04

The idea that the so-called “two-state solution” to the Israel-Palestine conflict was the only path to a resolution to the long running conflict has been a cornerstone of U.S. Middle East policy for over 20 years. The concept of two states for Palestinians and Jews was the basis for the original UN partition plan for historical Palestine in 1947. The 1993 Oslo Accords gave international recognition to the concept, established the Palestinian Authority to govern portions of the West Bank and began a five-year transitional process towards the formation of a Palestinian State in the West Bank and Gaza. This so-called Peace Process never went anywhere. In 1993, there were 300,000 Jewish settlers living in occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Today, there are over 600,000.

Last month, following a U.S. abstention allowing the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2334 supporting two states and condemning the Jewish settlement project, I wrote an articlearguing that this resolution was largely symbolic since the concept of two states was no longer realistic given the enormous number of Jewish settlements on land envisioned for a Palestinian State. This week in his press conference, following a series of meetings between Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and administration officials, President Trump seemed to recognize this reality and to back away from long-standing dogma when he said, “I’m looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like”.

Many Palestinians, particularly the younger generation, have recognized this reality for some time. A prominent Palestinian businessman described to me his conversation with his daughter, who at the time was a sophomore at MIT. She said, “Dad it’s over. We need to recognize that they won. We tried everything, violence, (that only proved that we aren’t very good fighters), negotiation and non-violence. Nothing worked. They won. They get the land, the water, the resources, everything.  I just want to know where I get my free education and healthcare and where do I vote.” Another Palestinian friend said to me, “I don’t care if it’s called Palreal or Israelstine, it’s the only way.”

Even this relatively mild statement by President Trump provoked a vehement response from those who have been committed to the two-state framework as the only way forward. Jewish congressmen attacked Trump’s remarks as threatening the existence of the State of Israel.  Addressing the issue of how a bi-national Israel must choose between being a democracy which is no longer Jewish or being an apartheid state, NY Times writer Tom Friedman summed up the dilemma for Zionist Jews when he wrote in an op-ed piece entitled “President Trump: Will You Save the Jews?” Now, “that debate will not be about which are the best borders to defend the state of Israel,” said the Hebrew University philosopher Moshe Halbertal, “but whether the state is worth defending in moral terms.”

Given the history of the Trump administration over the past few weeks, one certainly must be skeptical that what is said actually reflects policy; however, if it does, it could be a major step forward toward resolving the conflict. A first step in solving a problem is to recognize the brutal reality.

UN Resolution 2334: Good, Bad or Indifferent?

The adoption by the UN Security Council on December 23, 2016, of Resolution 2334 addressing the situation in Israel and Palestine was, as a symbolic gesture, a game-changing and groundbreaking event. The resolution passed by a vote of 14-0, with the United States abstaining. The U.S. abstention was a break with decades of U.S. policy, which had maintained unwavering defense of Israel against any UN action criticizing Israel, even in the mildest of terms. This break with past actions resulted in cries of outrage from Israeli government officials. While, as I explain below, the major impact was symbolic, there were a number of significant changes in the UN position on the occupied territories as articulated in previous UN actions such the 1967 Resolution 242.

Resolution 242 called for Israel to withdraw from occupied territories and for a just settlement of the refugee problem. It also confirmed “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” Resolution 2334 went much further by affirming Israel as an occupying power that must abide by the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits movement of population into occupied territories. It condemned measures altering the demographic composition, character and status of the Palestinian territories including East Jerusalem. It affirmed that the Israeli settlements on the West Bank and East Jerusalem have no legal validity and constitute a flagrant violation of international law. It also demanded that Israel immediately cease all settlement-building.

The symbolism of this action is also important. The 14-0 vote with one abstention clearly demonstrated how isolated Israel has become in the international community. Substantively, it also tacitly changed U.S. policy from calling settlements “unhelpful” to calling them “illegal,” and from ignoring the issue of East Jerusalem to recognizing East Jerusalem as Palestinian territory. However, from a practical point of view, it will likely have little effect on the situation on the ground.

From the perspective of the Obama administration, this action is too little, too late. Over the past eight years, Obama had numerous opportunities to take this step and, for domestic political reasons, declined. At times he vetoed resolutions that merely affirmed stated U.S. policy. At this late stage, there is no opportunity to follow up with concrete actions. While it is difficult to discern Donald Trump’s positions from his conflicting statements on the campaign trail, his appointments of senior officials indicate that the Trump administration will be more pro-Israel than the Obama administration, and will be unlikely to follow through on the resolution. In fact, his announced intention to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, while a largely symbolic move, if implemented, will likely inflame feelings in the Arab population and increasingly poison the environment.

DL image

If the objective of this resolution was to reinvigorate the “peace process” and bring the parties to the negotiating table on a “two state solution,” this is a road to nowhere. Both sides claim that they do not have a negotiating partner and they are right. The corrupt, unelected, illegitimate Palestinian Authority has no ability to speak for the Palestinian people. The far right Israeli government has no interest in allowing a Palestinian state. Even cursory examination of the map of Palestine, as it currently exists, makes it clear that the creation of a viable Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital would require the relocation of over 500,000 Jewish settlers, many of whom are the most radical religious Jews who believe that God gave them the land. Relocating 8,000 settlers from Gaza almost caused an Israeli civil war. The “two state solution” is a non-starter.

Trying to create two states in these circumstances would bring about the same dynamic that existed at the founding of Israel in 1948. As Jews began to ethnically cleanse the state of Israel of its Arab population, the resulting atrocities inflamed the Arab populations of surrounding states. These states were forced by public pressure to intervene militarily, resulting in the first Arab-Israeli War. Another war would not have a happy ending.

Israel will probably ignore this this resolution, as it has ignored all previous efforts at achieving a settlement. Doing so would be a violation of international law, but, in reality, international law is made and enforced by those with the biggest guns, and Israel and the United States have the biggest guns. If this effort brings about a realization that Israel is faced with a choice of being a democracy for its entire population or being an apartheid state, and that the status quo is untenable in the long run, perhaps everyone can move towards a more realistic assessment of the possibilities.

Obama’s Gift to Donald

As even the most casual observer of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) will note, the situation that Donald Trump will inherit from the Obama administration on January 20, 2017 is a mess. Trump, having campaigned and won on promises to “shake things up in Washington” and “make America great again,” has attempted to deliver on these promises by appointing a series of officials who do not come from the list of usual suspects sitting on the bench at the Heritage Foundation awaiting the election of a Republican president. However, dealing with the complicated, interlocking situations he will face will not be as easy as making campaign promises.

For the first time in several decades, the situation in Israel and Palestine will not be at the top of the agenda. The concept of a “two state solution,” which has long been the hallmark of American policy, has not been a viable concept for 20 years. U.S. policy makers have been reluctant to face this reality, as it forces recognition that Israel is already calimed to be a bi-national “state” with 6mm Jews governing or controlling 6mm Arabs. The only issue is what kind of a state Israel will be. America’s interests and desires are irrelevant to this situation, because, as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon once said, “Don’t worry about American pressure on Israel. We, the Jewish people, control America, and the Americans know it.” President Trump will have a number of more pressing issues to deal with in MENA.

The Syrian War, now entering its sixth year, has devolved into a bloody stalemate involving the Syrian government in Damascus, numerous fractious rebel groups with different agendas and an assortment of outside actors, also with differing agendas. At the beginning of the uprising in 2011, the U.S. had a choice between collaborating with Russia and Iran to try to reach a peaceful accommodation between the rebel groups and the Syrian government, or arming and supporting the opposition groups in order to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad. The Obama administration, seeing an opportunity to weaken the alliance among Iran, Syria and Lebanese Hezbollah and thereby strengthen the position of Israel in the region, chose the latter course. Obama made this choice knowing that there would be a risk that the resulting conflict would leave space for radical groups, such as al-Qaeda and ISIS to assert themselves. Over time, various other outside actors with differing agendas have intervened in the conflict. Britain, France and the U.S. support so-called moderate opposition groups. Iran, Russia and Hezbollah support the Syrian government. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) support the “Islamist” rebel groups. Turkey supports Turkman rebel groups, is indifferent towards ISIS and opposes the Kurdish opposition groups. President Trump, having vowed to “end overseas intervention and chaos”, will need to answer the question: How does the U.S. benefit from this intervention? He will need to decide to go all in, all out or to continue the current half-measures and prolong the conflict. At best, the end game will probably result in a federated state with pro-forma central government.

In Yemen, the U.S. has intervened in a multifaceted civil war between the Saudi Arabia-supported “government” of “President” Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and numerous opposition forces, including Houthi-led tribal groups, al-Qaeda and ISIS. The U.S. has supported the Saudi intervention by providing intelligence, offering air to air aircraft refueling, selling weapons and at times directly attacking Houthi forces. The U.S. has justified the intervention with the need to secure the adjacent narrow straits through which much of the world’s oil supply flows, and by the desire to maintain a government in Yemen that will accede to operations supporting the “War on Terror.” The intervention has become more difficult to support because of Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets, which has resulted in allegations of war crimes. Once again, differing agendas among the participants make a solution more complicated and difficult.

In 2011, a U.S.-led NATO coalition intervened in Libya in order to overthrow and kill President Muammar Gadhafi. Since that time, the U.S. has largely disengaged from the situation and left behind a civil conflict involving two governments and numerous tribal and radical groups, including al-Qaeda and ISIS. This failed state across the Mediterranean from Europe continues to be a festering sore and a source of terrorists and refugees.

Having inherited a messy civil conflict in Somalia from the Bush and Clinton administrations, the Obama administration has maintained a low level of involvement with aircraft and drone strikes on the al-Shabab rebel group. Of all of the U.S. military interventions in MENA, this one is the most difficult to justify in terms of American national interest—and as such may be the most likely candidate for American withdrawal.

As President Trump considers how to deal with these complicated and messy conflicts, the differing approaches favored by Trump, his advisors, Republican members of Congress, members of his own cabinet and members of the Republican foreign policy establishment will make a coherent policy difficult to achieve. As a result of many years of failed policies in MENA, the U.S. will, absent direct military involvement, have little influence over the outcome. Whatever choices President Trump makes will, however, involve a myriad of opportunities for unintended consequences.

Will America’s War with Iran Continue?

Originally published for American Herald Tribune

 

The United States has been at war with Iran for over thirty five years. Sometimes the war has been hot, sometimes cold, sometimes overt, and sometimes covert. Throughout this time period relations between the two countries have been hostile with very little diplomatic contact between officials of the two governments. In 2008, Barack Obama ran against Hillary Clinton on a platform of diplomatic engagement with Iran in opposition to her statements of being able to “totally obliterate Iran”.

Upon entering office, Obama, continuing America’s penchant for coercive diplomacy, doubled down on sanctions against Iran hoping that by causing economic hardship for ordinary Iranians he could pressure Iran to change its policies, particularly with respect to the development of nuclear capabilities. The strategy failed as Iran not only continued its peaceful nuclear development, but in many ways accelerated it. By his second term Obama, prioritizing addressing the nuclear proliferation issue, began negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue in conjunction Germany, France, United Kingdom, Russia and China. (EU3 + 3) The negotiations resulted in the signing in July 2015 of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which limited Iran’s nuclear program in return for removal of economic sanctions. The agreement was endorsed by the UN Security Council in an action that requires member states to carry out the agreement.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has affirmed on numerous occasions that Iran has largely lived up to its obligations under the JCPOA. Obama has taken some executive action to live up the JCPOA by loosening the impact of the sanctions. The administration has approved the sale of aircraft and aircraft parts to Iran by Boeing and this week the US approved a license for Airbus to sell over 100 aircraft to Iran. However, the basic legal structure of sanctions remains in place. Obama has not moved as aggressively as he did in Cuba to increase U.S. business involvement in Iran, a step which would make the nuclear deal more difficult to reverse by engaging the business lobby in the issue.

With the current sanctions authorization legislation set to expire on December 31, 2016, House of Representatives and the Senate passed the Iran Sanctions Extension Act by an overwhelming majorities (419 -1 and 99-0). Opponents of the JCPOA in the U.S. have argued in justifying this action, which is a clear violation of the JCPOA, that Iran has engaged in other “nefarious” activities, such as supporting the Assad in Syria, supplying arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthi tribe in Yemen, developing ballistic missiles and in general resisting U.S. influence in the Middle East. The Senate has said that it will take up this bill in the rump session of Congress in December. Although Obama has indicated that he will veto the bill, the bipartisan support in Congress for sanctions extension means that a veto override is likely. Obama’s best option for preserving the nuclear deal is to fight a delaying action to “kick the can” down the road to the next administration where a Republican controlled Congress may be reluctant to create a big foreign policy problem for President Trump so early in his administration.

As on many issues, it is unclear what President Trump’s position will be on the JCPOA. During the campaign he condemned the JCPOA as a “horrible contract”, but acknowledging that it was a contract, vowed to renegotiate it. Renegotiating the agreement is probably not possible. The JCPOA is the result of complicated, intertwined negotiations over a long period of time. Reopening talks in an atmosphere of mistrust and recriminations likely means that the whole agreement would collapse. A number of senior Congressmen and potential officials in a Trump led government, having received large speaking fees, are closely tied with the Mujahidin-e-Khalq (MEK), an exiled Iranian opposition group with an odd Islamist/Marxist ideology. The MEK, having allied with Saddam Hussein during Iran-Iraq war, has the distinction of being more unpopular in Iran than the U.S. They will push a hard line approach under a Trump administration.

The agreement, however, is not totally dependent on the U.S. Even if the U.S. withdraws from the agreement, Iran, under the administration of President Hassan Rouhani, and Russia, China and the EU have indicated that they will continue to abide by it. As it has in the past, the U.S. will likely use secondary sanctions on European companies to deter them from conducting business with Iran. This strategy will probably not be effective with Russia, India and China who have taken steps to disconnect their economy from the U.S. dominated and dollar denominated neo-liberal economic system. It remains to be seen how U.S. allies in Europe will react to being pressured to act against their own national interest.

The political situation in Iran will also have an influence on how U.S./Iran relations play out. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has said that if sanctions are extended Iran will “respond”. What the response will look like depends, in large measure, on the outcome of the May 2017 presidential elections. Incumbent President Rouhani has maintained a position that engagement with the West will benefit Iran diplomatically and economically. Because sanctions have, in large measure, remained in place and because Iran has been slow to reform its economic system, the benefits have not met public expectations. The opposition has attacked the policy of engagement with the West. Faced with these political threats, Rouhani may be forced to tack to the right and abandon the JCPOA, kick out the IAEA inspectors and expand the nuclear program. In that case the undeclared war with Iran will continue with all of the uncertainties and potential for disastrous consequences.

President Obama’s Middle East Legacy

Barack Obama came to power in 2009 having campaigned on a slogan of “change that you can believe in.” His record of opposing the Bush administration’s ill-fated invasion of Iraq, his Kenyan/Indonesian heritage, his friendship in Chicago with Rashid Khalidi, an internationally known scholar, critic of Israel and advocate for Palestinian rights, and his emphasis on the importance of diplomacy seemed to signal a significant change in the approach to U.S. Middle East policy. But, the first indication that perhaps one should not necessarily believe in a change came in his 2008 speech to the AIPAC conference when he stated, “I have been proud to be a part of a strong, bipartisan consensus that has stood by Israel in the face of all threats. That is a commitment that both John McCain and I share, because support for Israel in this country goes beyond party.”

I was in the Middle East in November 2008, shortly after Obama was elected, meeting with political and NGO leaders of all stripes. To say that the atmosphere was euphoric would be an understatement. The headline in Damascus was “Abu Hussein Wins” and the Cairo media proclaimed “A Dream Come True” and “Only in America.” Most of my time with Arab leaders was spent lowering expectations. In an interview with Al-Arabiya’s Washington Bureau Chief Hisham Melhem, Obama, shortly after his inauguration, stated, “People are going to judge me, not by my words, but by my actions.” Taking him at his word, let’s take a look at what he has accomplished.

Obama Baghdad Middle East

Israel and Palestine – Obama moved quickly to address this festering problem that impacts so many of the other Middle East issues by appointing George Mitchell as Special Envoy and demanding a freeze in Israeli settlement building. He was, however, never willing to make the hard political decisions necessary to break the deadlock. There were no consequences for either side for their intransigence. Once Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu realized that he could defy the President of the U.S. and get away with it, there was no chance for progress. Grade: C

Iraq – The technical term for the situation that Obama inherited in Iraq is “a mess.” Having campaigned on ending the “bad war” and focusing on the “good war” in Afghanistan, Obama quickly began to reduce the number of U.S. combat troops. In 2008 President Bush had negotiated a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the Iraqi government calling for a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops by December 31, 2011. When Obama came into office, there were 148,000 combat troops in Iraq. By the end of 2009, the number was down to 114,000. Obama tried unsuccessfully to negotiate an extension of the SOFA and by the end of 2011, all combat troops had left Iraq. None of the political and sectarian conflicts that have plagued Iraq since the 2003 invasion have been resolved and the arrival of ISIS on the scene changed the dynamic. As of this writing, there are 3,100 U.S. troops back in Iraq. Only time will tell what the future will bring.

Grade: B+

Afghanistan – When Obama was inaugurated there were 32,500 U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan fighting the “good war.” By March 2011 there were 100,000 combat troops plus another 100,000 contractors in Afghanistan. As of this writing, there are 10,000 troops on the ground there and the U.S. continues to conduct drone strikes on Afghani insurgent groups. Despite this major commitment of forces and financial resources, Afghanistan today remains a largely failed state with a corrupt and ineffective government and a growing insurgency.

Grade C-

Iran – During his election campaign, Obama promised to focus on diplomacy in order resolve the nuclear-related issues with Iran. After an initial half-hearted attempt at discussions, Obama doubled down on sanctions against Iran, including secondary sanctions on anyone engaged in prohibited activity. Having kept the door open to discussions, he was able conclude the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to limit Iran’s nuclear program in return for removing the sanctions regime. Despite Iran having lived up to its obligations under the agreement, Obama has been reluctant to take aggressive steps to reengage with Iran and has maintained the obstacles that have impeded investment in Iran. This has left the door open for future administrations to renege on the agreement and has increased Iranian mistrust of the U.S.

Grade: B

Libya – Following the 2011 uprising against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi and the repression of the insurgent groups, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973 authorizing the imposition of a no-fly zone for the purpose of protecting civilians. At the urging of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Obama administration liberally interpreted the resolution as authorizing regime change. With the U.S. and its allies offering air support, the rebels overthrew and killed Gaddafi. Subsequently Libya has collapsed into chaos and has provided ungoverned space that has become a haven for radical Islamist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda.

Grade: F

Syria – In 2011, inspired by other uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, Syrians began demonstrations designed to reform the Syrian regime and improve economic conditions. The Assad regime responded with repression and cosmetic reforms. Rather than seeking a diplomatic solution, the Obama administration opted for regime change. It demanded that “Assad must go” and began low-level support for the rebel factions. The situation has evolved into a multi-faceted civil war creating ungoverned space in which ISIS and al-Qaeda have found a base.

Grade: D

While it is clear that Obama inherited a mess in the Middle East from the Bush administration and has succeeded in reducing America’s direct involvement in conflicts, the situation in the region is, in many ways, more unstable and chaotic than it was in 2009.