A Path to Peace or a Path Nowhere? The Changing Role of the United States in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Robert Heins. Robert is a JD candidate (2021) at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law with an interest in foreign policy and national security. He is an IRLS Fellow for the 2019-2020 academic year and is an advocate for the ASU Vis International Arbitration Moot team.

On January 28, 2020, while standing next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump released his long-awaited Middle East peace plan. Since President Clinton, every U.S. administration has attempted to broker peace between Israel and Palestine.  However, the makeup of the different administrations’ plans has changed radically over the years. In the four years since President Obama announced his final attempt to negotiate peace, the substance of the United States’ goals, while similar in some regards, has changed drastically.

President Obama had a tumultuous relationship with Netanyahu, leading to difficulty in his attempts to broker peace in the region. He never released a full peace plan but did work on negotiations between the two sides. These talks, however, fell apart in 2014. During the negotiations, the Obama Administration pushed for three outcomes: a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, Palestinian right of return to the newly-formed Palestinian state only, and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state that would protect the rights of the non-Jewish minority. The Obama Administration also opposed settlements and called on Netanyahu to stop them. The negotiations, however, fell apart while prisoner exchanges were being discussed, and did not resume and neither Israeli-Palestinian relations nor the on-the-ground situation improved. In September 2016, during the closing days of President Obama’s second term in office, the U.S. did not veto a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements, something both Democratic and Republican presidents had previously done. This led Netanyahu to turn to President-elect Trump, who was seen as friendlier towards Israel, to have him call on President Obama to veto the Security Council’s resolution.

Since taking office, President Trump has enacted a variety of changes in U.S. policy towards Israel-Palestine. In December 2017, President Trump announced the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Since then, a peace deal, orchestrated by Jared Kushner after having been hinted at throughout President Trump’s first term, was finally released by President Trump in late January 2020.

President Trump’s plan involves the recognition of the entirety of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the granting of Israeli sovereignty to its settlements in the West Bank, the creation of a Palestinian state with limited sovereignty, and $50 billion in foreign investment in that state. Israel appears to support this peace plan, with Netanyahu present at the plan’s unveiling and calling it a “realistic path to a durable peace.” The Palestinian Authority and other Palestinian groups, though, have strongly condemned the plan. Protesters burned pictures of Trump and Netanyahu, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said “a thousand no’s” to the plan. Since the United States moved its embassy to Jerusalem in October 2018, the Palestinian Authority has had no official diplomatic relations with the U.S., lending further difficulties to creating a peace plan that would be accepted by both sides.

Two of the critical differences between the Obama and Trump peace plans were the recognition of Jerusalem and the legality of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Both of these issues are critical to each side, and naturally each side wants the opposite of the other. Obama’s goal, based on the aspects of peace talks prioritized during his tenure, was to create a plan that appealed in part to each side and forced each to make some concessions. Since no agreement was signed, however, neither side ended up having to concede anything. In contrast, Trump’s plan seems to favor the Israelis and grants the Palestinians only benefits that do not involve major concessions from Israel. While the Israeli government has expressed support for Trump’s plan, the Palestinian side’s strong opposition to it makes it appear likely to fail. On the world stage, the European Union has already rejected parts of the plan and Arab leaders have had mixed levels of support and opposition.

Following the release of President Trump’s peace plan and the changes the peace process has undergone in recent years, it is unclear what path forward the future holds. With the Palestinians’ rejection of the plan, peace in the region is unlikely unless all parties decide to return to the negotiating table, willing to compromise. Instead, it appears that President Trump’s peace plan is just another move with unclear ramifications on the complex chessboard that is the Israel-Palestine conflict.


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