By Alistair Lyon
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has casually hurled a diplomatic grenade into the Middle East.
He has picked as his ambassador to Israel a fervent sponsor of Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land and an enemy of any two-state solution to the nearly 70-year-old conflict. The appointment requires Senate approval.
Given Trump’s choices for other key posts, and his own shortcomings, it is hard to apply the phrase “uniquely unqualified” to David Friedman, an Orthodox Jewish bankruptcy lawyer with no experience of government service.
In normal times, a man whose views make right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu look like a milksop would not be considered for such a delicate job. But the times are not normal.
The ambassador-designate presides over a fund-raising organisation for Beit El, an illegal West Bank settlement to which Trump himself once contributed $10,000, according to a veteran Beit El settler.
Echoing Trump’s campaign promise to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Friedman accepted his nomination by saying he looked forward to working in what he called “Israel’s eternal capital.”
Longstanding assumptions might have to be revisited.
Trump and his envoy are thus threatening to destroy long-standing pillars of bipartisan U.S. policy concerning one of the world’s most intractable conflicts, in the midst of bloody upheavals across the Middle East.
The Israeli-Palestinian dispute has dipped almost under the radar in the past decade or so, eclipsed first by the U.S.-British invasion of Iraq in 2003 and then by wars that erupted in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya after the Arab uprisings of 2011.
Through it all, Israel has remained the biggest recipient of U.S. aid and relies on Washington to veto any unfavorable United Nations Security Council resolution.
For the past eight years, Barack Obama and Netanyahu barely troubled to hide their mutual dislike. But for all his initial talk of outreach to Arabs and Muslims, the outgoing American president’s scolding failed to halt continued Israeli settlement expansion. He recently sealed a new 10-year military aid pact with Israel worth $38 billion.
Netanyahu still pays grudging lip service to the notion of a truncated Palestinian state alongside Israel – even though his governing coalition depends on powerful religious and nationalist allies bitterly hostile to any such eventuality.
He knows the logical alternative — annexing the West Bank and exposing Israel as an apartheid state ruling over millions of disenfranchised Palestinians — would be unacceptable to Israel’s essential benefactor — Washington. An assumption that might need revising in the Trump era.
The consequences of upsetting the status quo would not be pretty.
Any Palestinian hopes that U.S.-brokered negotiations could yield independence and a state worthy of the name died long ago, perhaps at Camp David in 2000, after which frustrations spilled over into the bloodshed of the equally fruitless second intifada.
Since then, the Israeli settler population has grown to 250,000 in East Jerusalem and 350,000 in the fragmented West Bank, where Israel’s security wall, settler-only roads and ever more illegal outposts have swallowed up Palestinian land. Humiliating Israeli checkpoints further disrupt life for the West Bank’s 2.8 million Palestinians.
Many of them have in turn lost faith in the interim Palestinian Authority set up in 1994, viewing its current leadership as inept, corrupt and lacking any electoral legitimacy.
The impoverished and densely-populated Gaza Strip, seized by Hamas Islamists in 2007, lives in quasi-siege conditions, punctuated by Israeli air strikes and Palestinian rocket fire.
Trump may soon upend this grinding status quo, to the delight of die-hard Israeli settlers and jihadist ideologues across the region. The consequences would not be pretty.
The fragile Palestinian Authority might collapse, with potentially dire ramifications for Israel and the West Bank economy, kept afloat mostly by European Union funds channeled through the Authority.
A frustrated President Mahmoud Abbas threatened to hand back responsibility to Israel as the occupying power back in 2014, only to change his mind.
Will Washington embarrass allies and infuriate regional powers?
If Washington trades any pretense of even-handedness for outright endorsement of aggressive Israeli expansionism, Hamas or more radical Islamists will exploit this to fuel anti-American sentiment and seek to dislodge their secular PLO rivals in the West Bank.
Divisive effects will not stop there.
Moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, which Israelis and Palestinians both claim as their capital, would effectively endorse Israel’s annexation of the city’s east. Until now the United States, along with most UN members, has rejected this, insisting Jerusalem’s destiny must form part of a negotiated settlement between the two sides.
Preempting the status of a city holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians would embarrass allies in Europe and infuriate Turkey, Iran, Arab states and the wider Islamic world, forcing Washington’s regional partners into uncomfortable choices.
Egypt’s strongman Abel-Fattah al-Sisi may use blunt force to quell unrest, but the pro-Western monarchy in Jordan, the only other Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel, has to tread more carefully.
Russia would surely seek to turn American missteps to its advantage.
Most Jordanians are of Palestinian heritage and Islamists are plentiful. Both these overlapping groups have played a generally constructive role in the past, but discontent is rife among them and East Bankers too. A vast influx of Syrian refugees has aggravated the atmosphere. The Islamic State group, which claimed this week’s deadly attacks in Kerak, has the kingdom in its sights.
Jerusalem, Islam’s third most sacred site, is also sensitive for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states close to Washington. Their oil may no longer be as vital to the world economy as it once was, but they remain important suppliers, as well as lavish buyers of U.S. military hardware.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have backed Islamist factions fighting in Syria and share the austere version of Islam espoused by militants, if not their violent aspirations.
Revived tension over the Israeli-Palestinian struggle would inject another volatile element into the Middle East’s combustible mix of broken states, regional rivalries and shifting alliances.
Russia, emerging from the bloodbath of Syria with its credibility as a regional power broker enhanced, would surely seek to turn American missteps to its advantage.
None of this may sway Trump or his acolyte.
Friedman has called Obama an anti-Semite. He has also described supporters of J Street, a liberal American Zionist group opposed to Israeli occupation of the West Bank, as worse than kapos, prisoners who served as guards in Nazi concentration camps.
(The views are the author’s.)
Alistair Lyon is former Middle East diplomatic correspondent for Reuters. During three decades at the news agency he covered conflicts as well as political and economic news in the Middle East and beyond. He began in Lebanon and headed bureaus in Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan/Afghanistan and Egypt/Sudan. He spent five years in London as Middle East diplomatic correspondent and five in Beirut as special correspondent, Middle East.