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Ground Truth Briefing: What Do Palestinians and Israelis Expect From A Trump Administration?

When it comes to Israel and the Palestinian issue, continuity rather than change seems to mark U.S. foreign policy. Will that hold true in the Trump Administration, or are we on the verge of a transformation in style and substance? Join us by PHONE as two Israeli and American veteran journalists and a long-time Palestinian negotiator discuss what the Trump presidency might mean for U.S.-Israeli relations, the Iran deal; and the peace process.

Date & Time

Dec. 19, 2016
10:00am – 11:00am ET


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The Takeaways

When it comes to Israel and the Palestinian issue, continuity rather than change seems to mark U.S. foreign policy. Will that hold true in the Trump administration, or are we on the verge of a transformation in style and substance? On December 19th, 2016 the Wilson Center’s Aaron David Miller, Vice President for New Initiatives and Distinguished fellow, moderated a discussion on what Trump may mean for the region. Joining Aaron were panelists Dr. Saeb Erekat, Chief Negotiator and Secretary-General of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and David Horovitz, Founding Editor of The Times of Israel, a current affairs website based in Jerusalem and former Editor-in-Chief of The Jerusalem Post

Jane Harman, President and CEO of the Wilson Center, led off the discussion by noting that this has been the biggest and most unique presidential transition she has seen in her lifetime.  She stressed her belief that ”the two-state solution continues to be the way forward for the Palestinian Authority and the way forward for the people of Israel.” Harman concluded that “while there are surely challenges, there are also opportunities. No one would disagree that the Middle East has been stuck and the conversation we have been having is the same old conversation. Maybe on this call the panelists can separate the clouds and we can see the sun again.”

Saeb Erekat focused on President-elect Trump recently naming David Friedman as U.S. Ambassador to Israel and warned this is “a very bad sign for the survival of the peace process.”  Erekat called this selection a disaster and stated, “I was hoping against hope that this new administration would weigh the consequences of what this region is going through, which is hell.” The last thing we want is to appoint such an ambassador who will dictate rather than negotiate.” Erekat said combating extremism from groups like ISIS can be won in the long run but only if there is greater democracy in the Arab world and a new economic structure focused on freedom, human rights, and women’s rights. A second key in defeating terror and extremism, according to Erekat, is “ending the Israeli occupation and establishing a Palestinian state to live side by side with the state of Israel.” 

Erekat warned that the region is quickly building towards the next outbreak of extremism and violence.  “It’s a very alarming note that the first move Mr. Trump takes is appointing David Friedman, who wants the annexation of Jerusalem and who wants to annex the West Bank.” Erekat underscored that two things he would hope to see continue with the Trump administration is a statement that maintains the agreed 1967 lines as the border between Israel and Palestine, as well as continuing discussions among the Israelis and Palestinians before any new steps are taken by the Trump administration.

On the question of how the public viewed Trump’s election, David Horovitz suggested that Israelis were less surprised than Americans at the election outcome as Israelis have much less trust in opinion polling. He noted that, while many Israelis are also concerned about President-elect Trump’s temperament in office, there were many Israeli-Americans who supported him and wanted drastic change from the Obama administration. 

On the leadership level, Horovitz underscored the tensions between the Obama team and Prime Minister Netanyahu on issues such as the Iran deal and Palestinian negotiations. Horovitz observed that the Obama team believed Netanyahu could afford to take more risks and relinquish territory in the West Bank, along with more security control in the area, but Netanyahu has refused.  Horovitz pointed out that a large minority of Israelis fear expanded settlements in the West Bank and how this will affect Israeli democracy overall.  But Horovitz highlighted that “in the Middle East of 2016 with an Israel that saw territory vacated taken over by Hezbollah in South Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, that concern is a minority view.” Horovitz noted that many view Mahmoud Abbas as part of the problem now and the majority of Israelis still support Netanyahu’s security measures in an unstable region. Maintaining control of portions of the West Bank is a price that is willing to be paid by many to insure extremism doesn’t spread.

The possibility of the United States moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem under a Trump administration has also recently developed as a possible serious setback in negotiations. Jane Harman asked what the implications for this move would be and how the greater Arab world would respond.

Saeb Erekat underscored that if President-elect Trump decides to proceed with moving the U.S. Embassy this “will be an end of an era in the peace process.”  Erekat stressed that “I’m still the chief negotiator for the Palestinians, and if the embassy moves to East Jerusalem I will not be the negotiator anymore. I will stop negotiating and I can assure you that the PLO will revoke the recognition of the state of Israel and revoke all agreements signed.” Erekat also warned that a Palestinian state with any city other than East Jerusalem as the capital has no meaning for Palestinians. “This would be non-negotiable for Palestinians.” Erekat suggested that many Arab states in the regions would force U.S. embassies in those states to close and “extremists in the Arab world would gain ammunition to further their causes due to this decision.”

Following up on a question posed by Aaron Miller on whether moving the U.S. Embassy is a key issue for the Israeli public, Horovitz suggested that this has not been focused on until the recent statement coming from the Trump transition team. Horovitz noted that no other country maintains an embassy in Jerusalem and the Israeli government has come to terms with this. While there is a minority among the Israeli public who want more engagement with Palestinians and who would see this as a destabilizing move, Horovitz observed that Netanyahu and his supporters would welcome the relocation as a sign of a true sea change in policy for the region by the Trump administration.



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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform US foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more

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