November 2018

President Trump’s supposedly pro-Israel initiatives are likely to have negative repercussions for Israel and undermine prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. This was the main message of a talk by Amir Tibon, during his three-city Canada tour in mid-November, hosted by Canadian Friends of Peace Now. Tibon, Washington correspondent for the Ha’aretz news organization, spoke on the topic: An Israeli Journalist in Trump’s Washington. His lectures packed halls in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto.

                         Amir Tibon
White House hopes for the “ultimate deal” for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have largely been based on the expectation of support from Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states, Tibon explained. When the Trump administration took office, it brought in a new U.S. Middle East strategy to foster a Sunni-Israel alliance. The thinking is that Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states share two common enemies: Iran and radical Islamic movements such as ISIS. The alliance would work against these forces, but it could also create a new Israel-Palestinian dynamic if Arab states pressure the Palestinians to make concessions.
The new strategy seemed to be on track until December 2017 when President Trump suddenly – and to the surprise of his aides – announced the relocation of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The move signalled U.S. support for Jewish hegemony over all of Jerusalem. Saudi Arabia might be willing to push the Palestinians to compromise on refugees or borders, Tibon said, but Jerusalem is a much more sensitive issue, important to the whole Arab, Muslim and even Christian world. Putting this touchy religious and symbolic issue at the top of the agenda threw the alliance and peace building strategy right off course. The Arab states are now much less likely to pressure Mahmoud Abbas to make a deal with Israel. Meanwhile, the Palestinians are boycotting any mediation efforts by the Americans.
The long-promised Trump peace proposal has still not surfaced, but Tibon has heard that it contains economic incentives to induce the Palestinians to compromise. If that’s the main approach, it won’t work, Tibon predicted. Economic improvements are fine, but the Palestinians will not, and cannot be expected to, forego their national aspirations for money.
Tibon also talked about the Israel-U.S. Diaspora relationship and how it’s been affected by the Trump regime. Well before Trump, fissures had appeared between these two major parts of the Jewish world, but the rift has grown since he took office. For American Jewry, Trump is the most unpopular president in decades. In the 2016 presidential election, he won support of only 30% of Jews. In the mid-terms about 80% of Jewish voters supported the Democrats. In Israel, on the other hand, Trump is very popular, and it is one of the only countries in the world where he is more popular than Obama was at this point in his presidency.
The divergence can be partly explained by the different stories Israelis and U.S. Jews hear through their respective media. Most Israelis learn about Trump through news relevant to Israel, such as the cancelling of the Iran deal and the U.S. embassy move – initiatives that most Israelis view positively. They don’t tend to follow the uproar about domestic American politics. American Jews, on the other hand, are aware of all the issues that upset many of their fellow Americans – the Mueller investigation, corruption in government, immigration issues, and Trump’s stream of outrageous statements and tweets.
From the right-wing Israeli perspective, Trump has implemented nothing but favourable policies. Netanyahu has aligned himself very closely with Trump and seems to discount the concerns of American Jewry, Tibon said. However, the Democrats’ success in the mid-terms may prompt a “course correction” by Netanyahu, ever the smart political calculator.
Other misguided decisions
Tibon questioned the wisdom of America ditching the Iran nuclear deal – a measure that has won praise from Netanyahu but has created concerns in the Israeli security establishment. The agreement had put constraints on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and other international players are now trying to keep the deal in place. If it falls apart, Iran may become an even more dangerous loose cannon than it already is. Meanwhile, the biggest concern for Israel is Iran’s growing military and economic entrenchment in Syria. Unlikely to send more troops to Syria, the Americans have little leverage with which to curtail this Iranian presence. Tibon surmised that Trump pulled out of the Iran deal primarily to trash the Obama legacy. How does this make Israel safer from Iran in Syria, Tibon asked.
He was also highly critical of Trump’s decision to cut off financial aid to organizations that help Palestinians. In his opinion, the UNWRA cuts were misguided, but at least had some logic behind them, because UNWRA does need to be reformed. The cuts to health and social welfare institutions such as East Jerusalem hospitals and to Israeli-Palestinian co-existence projects were simply stupid, he said.
“Such measures do not put pressure on Mahmoud Abbas to get back to the bargaining table. They do the opposite. Abbas is not a popular leader in the Palestinian street, but when Americans hurt Palestinian cancer patients, Abbas wins sympathy.”
Despite his illusion-busting analysis of Trump’s peace deal promises, Tibon was refreshingly upbeat about the future.
“I believe there will be peace between Israel and the Palestinians in my lifetime. We share the same piece of land and there is going to have to be some kind of solution. But it will not happen in the near future because of hatred, fear and mistrust between the two peoples.”
He does not think BDS (the Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions movement) is the least bit helpful in this regard.
“BDS does not promote any solutions. It’s important to build ties between Israelis and Palestinians, to build trust between the societies. BDS does the opposite.”
Peace is unlikely to come through “one magical stroke of a pen,” but rather through an incremental process, he said. Needed are a long-term political vision along with economic improvements and co-existence initiatives. The vaguely defined endgame would promise two states for two peoples and shared a capital in Jerusalem, plus security guarantees for Israelis. The details would have to be decided later, after a climate of trust has been created that mitigates against spoiler extremists from both peoples. Tibon believes this combination can work, but it requires courageous leadership from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.
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