Israel-Palestine: What Would The Donald Do?

Five reasons why we shouldn’t discount how Donald Trump’s tough-talking deal-making and job-creating savvy might play in the Middle East.


In one of the more fantastical but highly enjoyable episodes of The West Wing, President Josiah Bartlet single-handedly solves the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including Jerusalem, by virtue of his persona, negotiating skills, and the trust that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders put in him.

I don’t need to remind the show’s fans of how popular it was. In fact it’s worth remembering that at the time it was on the air, the world was taking the faux administration’s policies somewhat seriously for a TV show — it sparked U.S. foreign-policy debates aplenty, and there was at least one proposed university-level curriculum built around its study. And let’s not forget that the EU’s then foreign-policy chief, Catherine Ashton, told Newsweek in 2010 how much she learned from watching the show.

And as doubters, detractors, and naysayers gather around Donald Trump, decrying his simplistic fixes to problems from Iraq to Mexico, it’s worth asking how a public once enamored with a make-believe president who, with make-believe negotiating skills, solved the problem of the much-too-promised land in a single weekend at Camp David, can’t afford a leading U.S. presidential candidate and putative president — who knows his way around a real negotiating table — with the same possibilities?

After all, Trump is turning out to be a more resilient, durable force than anyone might have expected. So, anticipating or assessing how he would handle real-world U.S. foreign-policy problems isn’t as crazy as it seems. And as the next president of the United States is going to have his work cut out for him (or her) in the Middle East, including dealing with Israel, viewing the struggling but still special relationship through the Trump lens could be useful. Indeed, regardless of who’s in the White house, the U.S.-Israel relationship is going to figure prominently in U.S. policies from Iran to Syria to matters of peace or conflict with the Palestinians. No American president will be able to simply ignore the policies of a close ally in a turbulent region when it’s acting in ways we do or don’t like.

So, how would Trump approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, should he make it to the White House? Here are five politically incorrect possibilities:

Build a wall

“I will build the wall, and Mexico’s going to pay for it,” Trump told CNN — and anyone else who would listen.

One thing is pretty clear about how Trump might approach the Palestinian issue: Given the centrality of Trump’s U.S. border wall to his campaign, there’s no way he’s going to hammer the Israelis for either building or extending theirs. His commitment to Israel’s security is already pretty intense, and nobody should be surprised if more border security relating to Gaza or against jihadi threats to Israel and Egypt. And though Trump hasn’t made his views on a two-state solution clear yet, it’s a pretty safe bet that should he endorse one, it will include a wall.

Buy Puerto Rico and give it to the Palestinians

A piece of satire portrays Trump proposing to buy the island, and a satirical phony peace proposal falsely attributed to him has already suggested making it the state of Palestine. The pre-state Zionists wouldn’t accept Uganda or Argentina as alternatives to Palestine in the first decade of the 20th century because of their attachment to their ancestral land, so clearly purchasing the island wouldn’t accomplish much other than to make the Palestinians and Puerto Ricans angry. I suspect, however, that a lot of Israelis might go for it.

Love Israel to death

“I love Israel!” Trump proclaimed loudly at a rally in Mobile, Alabama recently. And he means it. And even though the Obama administration hasn’t been giving Israel a lot of love lately, particularly as the U.S. president and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu battle over everything from Iran to the Palestinian issue, that approach by itself clearly isn’t going to work.

Candidate Trump may love the Israelis, but President Trump — given his own willful and tough attitude — might soon find himself being told “no” by an equally tough-minded Israeli prime minister on any number of issues from settlements to the two state solution. And being the tough wheeler-dealer he is, a President Trump would likely discover that honey alone isn’t sufficient in negotiations. Vinegar might be useful in dealing with Israel too. Even though he’s an opponent of the Iran deal, one can only imagine a scenario where a President Trump was faced with an Israeli prime minister interfering in U.S. politics in order to lobby against a Trump initiative he really cared about. Donald Trump is used to getting what he wants. And I’m not at all certain that even a close ally would stand in his way on a critically important matter.

And a President Trump would want to be credible too. Merely trumpeting love for Israel isn’t enough to maintain credibility, even with the Israelis.

Jobs, jobs, jobs

“I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created,” Trump has said. Now that’s something practical.

We know that Trump isn’t campaigning to bring jobs to Palestinians. But it’s very easy to imagine how his practical focus and experience in putting people to work could become a critical component of an approach to the Palestinian issue as well as promoting trade relations between Israel and its neighbors — Jordan and Egypt. This bottom-up approach has long been a fixture of trying to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, complete with industrial parks, trade and export promotion, and cooperation on water.

And with Palestinian unemployment, particularly in Gaza at 43 percent, there’s clearly a need there for new ideas regarding job creation. But Trump will need more than economic savvy to convince Palestinians to buy in to the idea that he’ll be able to better their livelihoods. And given his pro-Israeli sensibilities, he’ll have a very hard time convincing them that his focus on economics is something they’ll want to embrace. Without the political component, statehood, land, capital in part of Jerusalem, Palestinians would look at a Trump “jobs program” as gilding the cage. So that won’t work either.

The art of the deal

From Iran, to China, to Mexico to the swap for Bowe Bergdahl, Mr. Trump has slammed the Obama administration as the world’s worst negotiators: “We have bad negotiators who have no idea what they’re doing,” he told Breitbart News. “We have people that don’t know the first thing about “The Art of the Deal,” which I wrote, by the way.”

Trump’s style of negotiation appears to be hardball — tough talk, threatening walk-outs, and slamming tables — basically compelling people by virtue of an asymmetry of power to do what he wants them to do. And there’s certainly a place for toughness and the application of leverage in any successful negotiation (see Henry Kissinger’s call for a reassessment of U.S.-Israel relations in 1975 and James Baker’s fight to deny Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir U.S. loan guarantees in 1991). But ultimately, and certainly when it comes to the Arab-Israeli issue, the art of the deal also has to represent a balance of interests in which both sides get their needs met too, not just an imposed imbalance of power. The Donald would quickly learn that tougher and better negotiators than he have broken their heads on the rocks of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In the wake of the Iran Deal, Trump has already praised “the Persians” as great negotiators. He’d also come to understand that succeeding in Arab-Israeli negotiations requires will, skill, and the right kind of circumstances to create urgency in the minds of the locals. In short, the world the way it is now isn’t going to align with the Trump world. And nowhere would that be more apparent than in the Middle East

Trump at Camp David riding around with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and negotiators as we did in 2000 would be a sight to behold. But then again, we didn’t succeed either, a fact that would only confirm Trump’s view that the United States is the world’s worst negotiator.

* * *

If Candidate Trump is truly fortunate, he won’t get to be President Trump and will be spared the failure and humiliation of having to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Neither his temperament and his view of negotiations, or his foreign policy interests seem to be well suited to dealing with that challenge.

Still, a part of me (the same part that’s really enjoying the Trump campaign show) wonders what he might do. After all, through more than two decades of failed negotiations, the Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans who make up the crowd of would-be peacemakers (yours truly included) don’t appear to be any closer to producing anything remotely resembling a conflict-ending solution. How much more damage could he do? Most of me is terrified to find out. But there’s just enough curiosity to ponder, in a surreal moment of reflection: Maybe it really is time to give The Donald a try.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Aaron David​ Miller is a geoeconomic and strategy senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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