Middle East observers have speculated that the fragile truce between the Palestinians and Israelis could be shattered if President-elect Donald Trump makes good on some of his campaign promises, including moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
However, during a Princeton University program held two days after the election, two experts, one an Israeli, the other a Palestinian, expressed doubts that Trump would ever make such a move.
Shai Feldman, the Judith and Sidney Swartz director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University, said such a gesture would be a “deal-breaker” for the few countries in the Arab world with whom the United States has an alliance, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan.
“If he hasn’t learned that by the time he takes office, he will pretty quickly,” said Feldman, who appeared with Khalil Shikaki, professor of political science and director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, in the West Bank. “For some of America’s allies, this issue is important.”
The program, which focused on what the recent election means for the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, was held at Robertson Hall as part of the “Conversations About Peace” lecture series cosponsored by the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Mamdouha S. Bobst Center for Peace and Justice. Amaney A. Jamal, Edwards S. Sanford Professor of Politics, and director of the Mamdouha S. Bobst Center for Peace and Justice and Workshop on Arab Political Development at Princeton University, served as moderator.
Feldman, a fifth-generation Israeli born in Jerusalem, said although he would like to see the world recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moving the embassy is not as big an issue for Israelis as is maintaining relations with the moderate Arab world.
Feldman said if the new U.S. administration pushes the embassy relocation, the spirit of cooperation needed to move forward any peace deal will be lost, and the Arab world would “explode.”
He also pointed out that American presidents generally have about 90 days after taking office to make their political capital, and he doubted the new president would waste his on an issue where there is so little to gain.
“Do you think the American people elected him because he promised to move the American embassy to Jerusalem?” he asked.
During the campaign, both Trump and his daughter Ivanka — who converted to Judaism after marrying Jared Kushner — said he would immediately relocate the embassy if he were elected. However, days after the election, Trump appeared to walk back that pledge, with a senior policy aide saying a decision would be made “under consensus.”
Feldman labeled the idea that the Trump administration would have the leverage to procure a breakthrough in the peace process “fantasyland.”
Shikaki said that if the president-elect is interested in becoming involved in the Middle East peace process, it is important his actions not heighten tensions. “If Trump is looking at what he can do, the best thing he can do — and what I would expect for him to do — is continue [President Barack] Obama’s policy of non-confrontation,” he said.
Saying he didn’t believe the Trump administration would come up with any new ideas to advance the two-state solution, Shikaki added, “I don’t think he will support radical change.”
Shikaki said the Obama administration has shielded Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas from financial punishment during his two terms in office. Last year, for example, 75 Republican and Democratic senators sent a letter to the Obama administration requesting sanctions against the PA leader in response to his joining the International Criminal Court. That move, the senators said, put Abbas in violation of the 2015 U.S. appropriations bill, which prohibited funding for the PA for initiating or actively supporting an ICC investigation into alleged Israeli war crimes.
Feldman said that even Israel was not interested “in punishing the Palestinians” and did not favor the cuts in funding, because that would have changed the dynamic of the region. For one the financial reprimand the senators sought would have reduced funding for Palestinian security forces that helped stem terrorist acts against Israel.
Feldman said while some view the rise in stabbings and violent attacks against Israelis in recent months as a “third Intifada,” the PA forces kept the attacks from rising to the level of violence of the first and second Intifadas, particularly the latter, from 2000 to 2005, which was marked by suicide bombings and missile launches into Israel.
Moreover, Shikaki said, Hamas and Israel have an unofficial understanding that maintains the status quo and have kept goods flowing across the border into Gaza.
He termed Abbas “the most dovish” of all those in the Palestinian leadership and said he could envision him someday agreeing to terms with Israel, though not in the near future.
“Now he can’t afford to do so because he’s too weak.”