The inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States is likely to lead to a major transformation of U.S. Middle East policy. Many of the assumptions that accompanied the years of President Barack Obama will no longer be held by American policymakers.
But equally important, many elements that had in the past been fundamentals of U.S. policy and had been forgotten, and had not been part of the repertoire of the White House in the last eight years, could be reintroduced.
The first element involves Israel’s future border. Ever since 1967 when Israel captured the West Bank in the Six-Day War, the question of Israel’s future borders was governed by UN Security Council Resolution 242, which talks about an Israeli withdrawal from territories – not all the territories – to secure and recognized boundaries.
Now some people think that’s being very picayune with the language. But in fact the decision on the language of 242 was decided at the highest levels of the U.S. government, by President Lyndon Baines Johnson himself. And that language was preserved by successive U.S. presidents and secretaries of state.
For example, the Reagan administration in 1988, through its Secretary of State George Shultz, talked about the fact that Israel would never negotiate from or return to the 1967 borders. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, in a letter to Israel in 1997, spoke about Israel getting “defensible borders,” and that idea was enshrined in 2004 by President George W. Bush in a letter to Ariel Sharon that was approved by both houses of Congress.
Unfortunately, over the last eight years, Israel’s recognized rights have been eroded, culminating in the most recent UN resolution on December 23, 2016, on which the U.S. abstained, which made constant reference to the 1967 lines as its primary point of reference.
A second issue is the question of Palestinian refugees. Refugees was one of the permanent status issues raised by the Oslo agreement, but it seems that in the last couple of years the international community has been obsessed with a very different permanent status issue – the issue of settlements.
What has happened with refugees is alarming, and it is probably one of the main causes for making it so difficult to reach a permanent peace agreement. For example, after the first Arab-Israeli war in 1949, the United Nations estimated the number of Palestinian refugees to be 750,000. (There were more Jewish refugees from Arab countries, but they were resettled inside of Israel.) By the time you get to 2016, those 750,000 refugees became 5 million because the UN had this numbering system which allowed the Palestinians to include the descendants of the original refugees as refugees. That wasn’t done by other refugee organizations in the UN system – only in the case of the Palestinians. What this did is it made the refugee problem a problem in perpetuity – that can never be resolved – and that became more difficult every year.
People spoke about settlements, people spoke about borders, people spoke about Jerusalem, but they didn’t touch this issue – which made resolving the Arab-Israel conflict all the more difficult.