Is Donald Trump Too Ignorant To Deal With Israel And The Middle East?
For almost two decades, American presidents have supported a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Last week, Donald Trump questioned that commitment, thus potentially changing the course of Middle Eastern and Jewish history.
Why did he take this momentous action? The most plausible answer is that he’s too ignorant to understand the consequences of what he’s done.
Understanding the rationale for creating a Palestinian state requires understanding certain basic facts. First, in the West Bank, which Israel conquered in 1967, Palestinians lack citizenship even though they live under Israel’s control. Second, Israel cannot grant West Bank Palestinians Israeli citizenship without threatening the country’s Jewish character.
Thus, creating a Palestinian state in most of the territory that Israel conquered in 1967 gives Palestinians in those territories the citizenship they deserve while allowing Israel to be both a democracy and a Jewish state. Permitting and even paying Israeli Jews to move into West Bank settlements undermines that goal because it eats away at the territory a Palestinian state needs to be viable.
Whether you agree with it or not, the preceding argument is familiar to anyone who has done any reading about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Donald Trump reads very little. His primary advisers on the conflict are not academic experts or diplomats, but relatives like Jared Kushner and former business associates like David Friedman and Jason Greenblatt. And a review of his statements since entering the presidential race offers no evidence that he understands the core rationale underlying two decades of American policy.
Trump’s first major campaign interview on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict occurred in December 2015, with The Associated Press. He declared himself a “big, big fan” of the Jewish state. And he said it would be a “really great achievement” to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “If you can make that deal,” he added, “you can make any deal.”
But, according to AP, “Trump evaded specific questions about whether Palestinian demands in peace negotiations are legitimate.” He called Israeli settlements a “huge sticking point” but refused to say “whether Israel should be allowed to build settlements in the West Bank without restrictions.” Asked whether he supported the two-state solution, he responded, “I’m not going to even say that.” If there was a logic underlying Trump’s statements, it wasn’t clear.
The following January, at a town hall in South Carolina, Trump said that he “was with a very prominent Israeli the other day, he says it’s impossible because the other side has been trained from the time they’re children to hate Jewish people.” But Trump still said he’d give solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “one hell of a shot,” although “it’s probably the toughest agreement of any kind to make.”
That April, in the days preceding the New York primary, reporters from Jewish media went to Trump’s office. When they asked about settlements in the West Bank, Trump referred the question to his Jewish lawyer, Jason Greenblatt, whom he had invited to the meeting. “How do you feel about that, Jason, the settlements?” Trump asked. Greenblatt responded that the settlements “need to stay there,” adding, “I very much believe in them.”
The following month, Trump told Britain’s Daily Mail that the settlements should “keep going.” He added: “I’d love to negotiate peace. I think that, to me, is the all-time negotiation.”
Since being elected, Trump’s statements on settlements have changed again. He’s no longer enthusiastic. Now he’s just incoherent.
On February 2, Trump met with King Abdullah of Jordan, who reportedly warned against provocative Israeli actions. That very day, The Jerusalem Post quoted an unnamed administration official as saying that “we urge all parties to refrain from taking unilateral actions that could undermine our ability to make progress, including settlement announcements.” Then, in an official statement, the White House declared that settlements were not “an impediment to peace” but that nonetheless, “the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful” in achieving peace.
That’s gibberish. If settlements don’t impede peace, how can expanding them “not be helpful” to achieving peace? The White House never explained.
Finally, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the White House last week, Trump declared, “I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit.” But later, when asked about the two-state solution, he said, “I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like.”
This makes no sense. What the “parties like” is no secret. The Palestine Liberation Organization officially supports a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines, along with the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Netanyahu supports Palestinian autonomy, but insists that Israel retain security control over the West Bank. For its part, Hamas supports one Islamic state in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel proper.
The problem with declaring “I like the one that both parties like,” in other words, is that the various parties don’t like the same thing. If they did, the conflict would have ended long ago.
And if Trump is open to a one-state solution, why tell Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements”? Settlements undermine the viability of a Palestinian state. But if there is to be no Palestinian state in the West Bank — if Israel is to retain control there, as Netanyahu desires — why shouldn’t more Jews move there?
It’s possible that Trump can answer these questions. But I doubt it. As far as I can tell, he has not made a single statement — either in the campaign or since winning the presidency — that suggests he understands the reasons his predecessors criticized settlement growth and supported a Palestinian state. It’s hard to believe a president could be so ignorant. But remember, during the campaign, Trump did not know what the nuclear triad was. Just weeks before Britons went to the polls, he seemed unfamiliar with the term “Brexit.”
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a vocabulary. But Trump does not understand it. He’s like a man regurgitating phrases in a foreign language: Israel is wonderful; the Palestinians teach their children to hate; settlements should go forward; settlements should be restrained; Israeli-Palestinian peace would be the ultimate deal. And these mindless regurgitations — uttered by a man too coddled and narcissistic to realize the consequences of his own ignorance — are shaping the futures of both Palestinians and Jews.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to King Hussein of Jordan
Peter Beinart is a Forward senior columnist and contributing editor. Follow him on Twitter, @PeterBeinart