Days before the Cleveland convention, Republicans have just abandoned Washington’s decades-long call for an independent Palestine.
- By Molly O’TooleMolly O’Toole is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, covering immigration, refugees, and national security. She was FP’s sole 2016 presidential campaign reporter, on the trail from New Hampshire to Nevada. Previously, she covered the politics of national security for Atlantic Media’s Defense One, where she reported from Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Before that, she was a news editor at the Huffington Post. Molly has also reported on national and international politics for Reuters, the Nation, The Associated Press, and Newsweek International, among others, from Washington, New York, Mexico City, and London. She received her dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations from New York University and her bachelor’s from Cornell University and in 2016 was a grant recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation. She will always be a Californian.
Days before the Cleveland convention, GOP leaders and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump have found a rare bit of common ground: ditching decades of bipartisan U.S. foreign policy calling for the creation of an independent Palestine.
The shift came when the Republican Platform Committee unanimously approved an Israel-Palestine provision Tuesday night that had a striking omission: any reference to a two-state solution to the long-running conflict. The platform instead uses staunchly pro-Israel language that promises to oppose any outside efforts to force Jerusalem into a deal.
The new platform language was drafted with not only the blessing but the intimate involvement of two of Trump’s closest aides, Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman, according to several sources behind the effort. The two men are Trump’s primary Israel advisors.
The successful push to eliminate the two-state language was led by a broad if seemingly unlikely coalition that included Sen. Ted Cruz’s national security advisor; a Mormon state representative from South Carolina; and a Jewish former media executive who runs a super PAC called Iron Dome Alliance, a reference to Israel’s storied Iron Dome missile defense system.
Members of the ad hoc alliance didn’t know where Trump, the infamously inconsistent businessman and presumptive nominee, stood on Israel-Palestine generally or the two-state question specifically. In the end, they were pleasantly surprised to see Greenblatt and Friedman, presumably with Trump’s blessing, working alongside them to craft the new language.
“The U.S. seeks to assist in the establishment of comprehensive and lasting peace in the Middle East, to be negotiated among those living in the region,” the new plank reads, according to a copy obtained by Foreign Policy. “We oppose any measures intended to impose an agreement or to dictate borders or other terms, and call for the immediate termination of all U.S. funding of any entity that attempts to do so.”
The Republican National Committee has yet to publicly release its platform, which will be formally adopted at the convention, but the Mideast language is a striking departure from what had been stated GOP policy as recently as four years ago: “We support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state with secure, defensible borders; and we envision two democratic states — Israel with Jerusalem as its capital and Palestine.”
The significantly different new language raises the thorny question of whether Trump is in fact ready to take to the trail with a foreign policy that breaks with about 30 years of established thinking on one of the most fraught issues in American politics.
“We stand resolutely with Mr. Trump in his belief that no country should pressure Israel into making peace, and we are gratified that this conviction is expressed in the platform,” they wrote, emphasizing Trump’s alignment with the party base.
Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks did not respond to requests for comment Thursday on whether he supports a two-state solution, but Thursday afternoon, the campaign announced the formation of the “Israel Advisory Committee.” Greenblatt and Friedman are co-chairmen.
“The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians runs deep. Every president in modern history has tried and failed to resolve this conflict,” Trump said in a statement. “We mustn’t fear taking new, constructive and mutually beneficial steps to advance the cause of peace in the region.”
Jeff Ballabon, whose Iron Dome Alliance was a significant player in the push, said Trump has been “somewhat of a cipher on policy.”
“He doesn’t have a foreign policy record to look at,” Ballabon told Foreign Policy on Wednesday. But he said he got the “very strong sense” from working with his Israel advisors that “they are exactly where the Republican Party is.”
“There was active involvement in contributing to this plank and moving it away from where it was,” he said, speaking of Greenblatt’s and Friedman’s work.
During the Republican primary, the Manhattan real-estate magnate came under fire from his opponents for saying he wanted to remain “neutral” on the Israel-Palestine conflict and indicating fault lay with Israelis.
“A lot will have to do with Israel and whether or not Israel wants to make the deal — whether or not Israel’s willing to sacrifice certain things,” Trump told The Associated Press in December.
Trump has tried to regain ground by giving a well-received, Obama-bashing speech in March at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (whose leadership later condemned the remarks) and taking pains to sound more clearly pro-Israel, rejecting a “nasty” comment on Israel from a June town hall attendee by saying, “We are going to protect them 100 percent.”
Still, the campaign hasn’t been able to shake the widespread perception that it’s willing to use anti-Semitic dog whistles and court the support of neo-Nazis and other extremists.
On July 6, Trump posted, then deleted, an image on his Twitter account depicting Hillary Clinton and a six-pointed star with piles of money in the background, feeding into Jewish stereotypes. He later said he regretted removing it.
Elliott Abrams, a longtime Republican foreign policy hand, said the two-state solution was implicit U.S. policy during the Camp David peace talks at the tail end of Democratic President Bill Clinton’s administration. The creation of an independent Palestine became the stated policy of the United States in 2002, during the administration of President George W. Bush.
The Republican handed off the policy to Democratic President Barack Obama, who in the ensuing years has developed a frosty relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Alan Clemmons, the Mormon South Carolina Republican legislator, and Ballabon met for the first time in 2011 while they were in Jerusalem. They believed the Republican base had moved away from the two-state solution, and they decided the party’s platform “would be the ideal place to make that statement very publicly,” Ballabon told Foreign Policy on Wednesday.
In 2012, Ballabon said that AIPAC and other groups dedicated to what he called “lockstep bipartisanship” on U.S. policy toward Israel teamed up with supporters of nominee Mitt Romney to retain the two-state language. AIPAC did not respond to requests for comment.
So what changed in 2016?
“Barack Obama’s second term showed ever greater schisms between the parties,” Ballabon said, pointing to the heated debate around the Iran nuclear deal.
In the Republican primary, Ballabon advised several campaigns on Israel policy but eventually endorsed Cruz.
In a March debate before Super Tuesday, the Texan called out Trump for saying he’d be “neutral” between Israel and Palestine.
Trump doubled down, saying, “I would like to at least have the other side think I’m somewhat neutral as to them, so that we can maybe get a deal done.”
Once Trump had emerged as the last man standing, Ballabon reached out to his team and was similarly surprised that they were already on board with their Israel policy recommendations, including cutting the two-state language.
Clemmons, a South Carolina delegate, said in the last few weeks that he’s become acquainted with Trump, though he didn’t support him during the primary. While he’s only required to vote for the nominee on the first convention ballot, he said: “I am pleased to report that I will cast each and every vote for Donald Trump. … He sees Israel as I see Israel, and as I believe a majority of Americans, and certainly the base of the Republican Party, see Israel.”
Trump’s advisors vetted and tweaked the plank language, he said. While AIPAC expressed initial concern, it ultimately did not object at the final drafting committee meeting on Tuesday, according to Clemmons. The new language was adopted unanimously.
Despite the apparent convergence of Trump’s advisors and GOP leaders, that doesn’t mean removing the two-state solution from the platform will be without controversy — or risk.
A number of Republicans, including Abrams, have said Trump’s statements on foreign policy demonstrate dangerous inexperience — a point Clinton is hammering. And though only symbolic, the move still could reinforce fears in the Arab world about a potential Trump presidency, given his Islamophobic comments and on-again, off-again Muslim ban.
Abrams acknowledged that the new language could communicate to Palestinians, “‘Yeah, we’re OK with permanent occupation.’”
Still, he said the change was worthwhile because removing the two-state language says to the next U.S. president, “‘Don’t repeat what has failed time and again in the past: reaching for a comprehensive agreement not currently available,’” he said.
Ballabon argued that omitting the two-state solution creates an incentive for Palestinians. That may be why Trump’s advisors were so supportive, he said: “If Donald Trump is anything, he is not someone who likes to lose.”
This story has been updated.
Photo credit: The Washington Post/Contributor