On 6 December last year, US President Donald Trump formally recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and promised to relocate the US embassy from Tel Aviv. One year on from that bombshell, he continues to strangle the Palestinians.
“My announcement today marks the beginning of a new approach to [the] conflict between Israel and the Palestinians,” he told a packed White House press conference. “After more than two decades of wavers [of the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act], we are no closer to a lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. It would be folly to assume that this exact same formula would now produce a different or better result. Therefore, I have determined that it is time to officially recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”
Less than three minutes into his speech, the blow had been dealt. Israel cheered, hailing a victory it had sought for decades but which had thus far proved elusive. Palestinians unanimously rejected the decision, with the Palestinian Authority pledging to cut all contact with the US, and Hamas calling for a new intifada. Social media was awash with the hashtag #Al-Quds La Naa (Jerusalem is ours), signalling the level of popular opposition to the move. International governments condemned Trump’s unilateral approach.
Although since the early days of his presidential campaign Trump had been known for ripping up the rule book, perhaps few could have anticipated that his Jerusalem announcement was only the first knot in the noose that his administration was crafting for the Palestinians and, ultimately, the “peace” process. In the 365 days since Trump told the world that he would approach the Israel-Palestine conflict differently, true to his word he has scorned convention and ran roughshod over anyone who has stood in his way.
He started as he meant to go on. Two weeks after recognising Jerusalem, a bloc of Arab nations, Turkey and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) requested an emergency meeting of the UN General Assembly. The US had vetoed a Security Council resolution rejecting Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Prior to the General Assembly vote, Trump threatened to cut aid to any country that voted against the US, with America’s Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, sending threatening letters to member states urging them to vote against the motion. Haley tweeted that the US would be “taking names” of those who chose to criticise its decision. Despite these threats, a total of 128 countries voted in favour of the resolution which rejected the US decision. Nine members voted against the motion, including the US, Israel, Guatemala and Honduras.
Undeterred by UN member states’ rejection of his heavy-handed approach, Trump pressed ahead with dismantling the Palestinian cause. On 16 January, Washington announced that it would withhold almost half the money earmarked for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides education, shelter and basic essential support to millions of Palestinian refugees scattered across the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) and the wider Middle East.
The State Department withheld $65 million from UNRWA with the stroke of a pen, saying that the agency needed to make reforms before the funds were released. It did not, however, specify what shape these reforms should take. The link between Trump’s December announcement and the cuts to UNRWA — little more than a month apart – was not difficult to trace.
By August, the Trump administration had decided to end UNRWA funding altogether, leaving the agency without a quarter of its annual budget. In September, Trump confirmed what many had begun to suspect; the cuts in funding were intended to put pressure on Palestinian leaders to make political concessions. “If we don’t make a deal, we’re not paying,” Trump said flatly.
On his wish list of things to “take off the table”, in little over six months Donald Trump had all but removed the issue of Jerusalem and the right of return for Palestinian refugees, two crucial topics which, thus far, have always been left for “final status talks” during peace negotiations.
Emboldened by Trump’s stance, Israel has this year grown increasingly belligerent. The day of the US embassy move to Jerusalem – 14 May 2018, exactly 70 years after the State of Israel was founded and 750,000 Palestinians were forcibly displaced during the Nakba – Israel shot and killed at least 63 Palestinian protesters. Thousands were wounded as the Great March of Return protests in the besieged Gaza Strip entered their sixth week. A general strike was held across the occupied West Bank, joined by Palestinian citizens of Israel living within the Green Line.
In July, Israel adopted the so-called Nation State Law, declaring that “Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people and they have an exclusive right to national self-determination in it.” The law also stripped Arabic of its designation as an official language alongside Hebrew, downgrading it to a “special status” despite its use by almost two million Palestinian citizens of Israel who live in the country, one-fifth of the population.
Thanks to President Trump, Israel now has very little reason to come to the negotiating table. Although his administration continues to pay lip service to the idea of a peace plan – creatively dubbed the “Deal of the Century” – its repeated postponement only gives Israel more time to create facts on the ground. If it sits tight, the two years that remain of Trump’s first term in office could grant Israel more than it could ever have achieved through diplomatic negotiations.
Meanwhile, the US President continues to push the same hard-line agenda he started exactly a year ago. Ahead of a UN vote condemning Hamas slated for today, Trump’s Special Representative for International Negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, sent letters to diplomats from nine Arab countries asking them to support the US-sponsored draft. In a rare show of unity, both Fatah and Hamas have condemned the draft resolution, labelling it as proof of “the complete American bias towards the Israeli occupation.”
For the Palestinians, 2018 has only proved what they have long known to be true; the US is not a neutral party and cannot be trusted to be an honest broker in any future negotiations. The oft-repeated argument that, in the 25 years since the Oslo Accords, Palestinians have been forced to make concessions to the point of strangulation has never been more discernible. With the international community standing idly by, the meek condemnations uttered by Palestinian leaders have largely fallen on deaf ears. Whether they will wrest themselves free, battered and bruised, from the Trump administration’s noose remains to be seen.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.