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Rethinking U.S. Middle East policy starts with rejecting annexation

House Democrats have introduced a bill that, if widely supported, has the potential to recalibrate regional policies that align more toward American interests.

Analysis | Middle East

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) introduced a bill last week titled the “Israeli Annexation Non-recognition Act” stating  that “[i]t is the policy of the United States not to recognize any claim by the Government of Israel of sovereignty over any part of the occupied West Bank including its airspace.”

In addition, the bill — whose co-sponsors include Democratic Reps. Mark Pocan (Wis.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (Mi.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), and Andre Carson (Ind.) — prohibits the use of federal assistance to Israel to advance, support, or facilitate unilateral annexation, or to imply any recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank in violation of international law.

There is nothing about such legislation that should be controversial. In many ways, it simply reasserts the bipartisan American position over the last half century on policy towards Israel. Yet, the very need for the bill highlights the extent to which the Trump administration has abandoned this consensus. Just as troubling, it also speaks to how — for all the talk from Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and others about their anti-Trumpism — on one of the central questions of U.S.foreign policy, the Democratic Party leadership appears willing to accept the lead of the far right, both at home and abroad.

What has been the classic bipartisan position? Previous U.S. administrations — both Republican and Democratic — have insisted that United Nations Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 form the basis of the U.S. approach to a peace settlement in Israel-Palestine, promoting a negotiated two-state solution. Under this approach, unilateral annexation is presumptively illegal, a view consistent with the parties involved with mediating the peace process: the United Nations, the European Union and the Middle East Quartet — made up of the U.S., EU, Russia, and the U.N.

But when President Trump last January announced his so-called “Deal of the Century” on Israel-Palestine, he effectively discarded this consensus. Trump’s “deal” used the cover of a one-sided “peace plan” — for which no Palestinians were consulted — to endorse the wholesale annexation of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, the stripping of Palestinian rights, and even the proposed removal of Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Like much of the Trump administration’s foreign policy — from trade and climate to NATO and its embrace of authoritarians worldwide — the new posture signaled contempt for international law, multilateralism, and human rights, as well as any reasonable definition of the U.S.’s own security interests in the Middle East.

Not surprisingly, his approach was widely denounced by the U.N., European Union officials, and even by American allies in the Middle East. Operating in tandem with the far right in Israel, the U.S.’s new posture truly has moved the goalposts under Trump. By recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, sanctioning Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, and now enabling annexation of land in the West Bank, the Trump administration had crossed a set of red lines all prior administrations abided by.

No doubt, the new framework drew on many of the concepts and principles that had been at the core of the American-defined peace process since Oslo. The final status issues to be negotiated — Jerusalem, settlements, borders, refugees, and security — were as much the centerpiece of the Oslo process as of the Trump deal. The difference is that in place of a negotiated agreement on each of these issues, the Trump administration instead opted to decide each and every one in Israel’s favor and without any discussion with the Palestinians (or other interested allies). Trump had formally dispensed with the claim that the U.S. was an “honest broker” overseeing negotiations and simply imposed the Netanyahu government’s preferred outcome

Since 2016, Trump’s trampling of bipartisan pillars of U.S. foreign policy has occasioned loud denunciations on the part of mainstream Democrats. For starters, one can think of the outcry generated by Trump voicing concerns about NATO even though he has not substantially altered funding and policy. But on the Israel-Palestine peace process, his actual reversal of the decades’ long U.S. position has met far less resistance. 

Perhaps the key reason for this relative silence in Democratic circles, is the extent to which Trump simply lays bare hard truths about pre-existing policy. Despite claims to the contrary, the U.S. approach has increasingly devolved effectively into unconditional support for the Israeli government at the expense of the U.S.’s own regional interests.

While Trump’s recent predecessors invested in a negotiated “peace process,” they also systematically placed a thumb on the scale in Israel’s favor while shielding successive governments from accountability for such actions as the expansion of settlements, the siege of Gaza, and the indiscriminate use of force against Palestinian civilians — all in violation of international law. In fact, as Israel’s governments have lurched further and further to the right, one American administration after another have essentially capitulated to whatever were presented as the new terms. 

The impunity that the U.S. affords Israel has enabled Israeli bellicosity in ways that have been destabilizing to the region and even drawn the United States into ever-increasing counter-productive military commitments.

Destructive regional policies ranging from the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the U.S. role in Syria to withdrawal from the JCPOA and mounting tensions with Iran bear some relationship to the American approach to Israel. Moreover, the actions of both Democrats and Republicans have left the U.S. complicit in Palestinian dispossession and displacement, while making the U.S. an ever greater target of regional frustration and anger. Just as critically, the basic disregard for the law implicit in American default support has undermined U.S. credibility on the global stage. Given the latest moves from the Trump White House, how can American officials assert the need for other states to obey the rule of law when it willingly embraces legal impunity as exercised by a central ally?

But if Democratic complicity partially explains the party establishment’s hesitancy to speak up, Trump’s distinctiveness has had real political effects within the American public. His explicit embrace of Netanyahu’s brazen and xenophobic politics may be turning the tide among Democratic voters. Polls and opinion pieces over the last few years reflect a marked shift in the direction of greater criticism of Israeli leadership. Right now, there is a clear public rethinking of what support for Israel — as opposed to support for the views of whatever Israeli government may be in power — might entail. But if the Democratic base is shifting, the question remains: will its leadership actually listen

This week’s Democratic National Convention is an opportunity for Democrats to signal whether they will accept the Trump administration’s bellicosity and promotion of legal impunity. For now, unilateral annexation has been suspended with the threat of Palestinian expropriation being leveraged as a means of demanding that pro-Trump Arab countries normalize relations with Israel.

The willingness of Emirati Crown Prince and staunch Trump ally, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, to recognize Israel and establish full diplomatic ties needs to be understood as much as an extension of the Trump administration’s campaign against Iran — supported by both the UAE and Israel — as a reward for threatening illegal annexation. This arrangement is primarily another way of exerting “maximum pressure” on a common regional foe. In other words, it must not be confused for a breakthrough in the peace process. And it also must not let Democratic leaders off the hook from stating clearly their position on the new American endorsement of illegal annexation. 

If the party leadership fails to embrace the very limited demands made in Rep. McCollum’s bill, that will set the tone for a Biden White House. It will mean that for all of the Democratic talk of a return to pre-Trump days, in at least one key way Biden, his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif), and company will be projecting into the future the Trump Doctrine on Israel and Palestine.

Given the stakes, supporting McCollum’s bill should be a simple litmus test for the party — a way to hold firm to an uncontroversial bipartisan consensus. And the failure to rally around it would prove that Democrats too seem committed to following the far right in the White House and in Israel down a rabbit hole of regional destabilization, more American military entanglements and ongoing rights violations. This will be a tragic and strategic mistake for the U.S. as well as the Middle East. It will also demonstrate a fundamental lack of nerve, highlighting how Democratic leaders refuse to listen to their own constituents and remain unwilling, on the global stage and at home, to squarely face the challenges of the day.

President Donald J. Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak with reporters Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
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