Five Things to Know This Week: Responses to Gaza Escalation
1. Thoughts and prayers
Three days of fierce exchanges in which hundreds of rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel, killing four Israelis, ended Monday with yet another ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian faction ruling Gaza. The agreement, the latest in several reached in the past year, was brokered by Egypt and by the United Nations special envoy to the Middle East Nickolay Mladenov, a tireless diplomat from Bulgaria. Notably absent from the negotiation table was the United States, which, once again, chose to follow the flare up on Israel’s southern border with thoughts and prayers rather than diplomatic involvement. To be clear, American negotiators are prohibited by law from engaging directly with Hamas, a U.S.-designated terror organization, but in past years, they have found ways to support and advise the process through third-party proxies. The Trump administration, now preparing to roll out its “deal of the century” for Middle East peace, has chosen to watch from the sidelines.
There is a fair amount of sense behind this policy. Getting involved in negotiations between Israel and Hamas would give the terror group a foot in the door for future talks and, to some extent, legitimize it as a negotiating partner. On the other hand, waiting for others to do the mediating job during a violent outbreak that could have ignited a full-scale war only feeds into the narrative of America being a less-relevant player in the Middle East. For Israelis and pro-Israel Americans, a diminished U.S. role in the region is never good news. Combined with a pronounced distaste for international involvement and an “America first” focus, Trump’s policy could eventually leave the Middle East in the hands of other players—Putin’s Russia, the United Nations, Arab nations—all less friendly to Israel and less attuned to its needs.
2. In response to Gaza events, it’s the U.S. vs. the rest of the world
America’s response to the Gaza flare-up amounted to a full throttled endorsement of Israeli actions while placing all blame for the latest round of violence on the Palestinians and on Iran, which, according to Washington, shares responsibility because of its support for Hamas. Speaking on the Sunday talk shows, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made this position clear: “The Israelis have every right to defend themselves,” he said, noting that Hamas was shooting rockets from within civilian areas. “These rockets were fired with civilians around them in order to protect from return fire. This is terrible.” President Trump took to Twitter for his response, which was along the same lines: “Once again, Israel faces a barrage of deadly rocket attacks by terrorist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad. We support Israel 100 percent in its defense of its citizens.” The tone of these responses put the U.S. at odds with the rest of the international community which attempted to convey a more nuanced message, one that supports Israel while urging both sides to end the fighting. “A de-escalation of this dangerous situation is urgently needed to ensure that civilians’ lives are protected,” a spokesman for the European Union said. “Only a political solution can end the violence.”
The dissonance between America and the rest of the world when it comes to issues of Israeli security is nothing new. Previous administrations have also stressed in their responses to similar events Israel’s right to self defense and have usually put the blame squarely on the Palestinian side. But there is a difference: In the past, American official responses used to include a call for restraint directed at both sides intended to make Israel share at least some of the burden for ending the violence. This language has been dropped from the U.S. diplomatic lingo under the Trump administration.
3. Democrats showing their split again
In what has turned into a defining characteristic of the Democratic Party since the mid-term elections, reactions to events in the Middle East are divided into two: the bulk of the party’s congressional caucus taking Israel’s side, and the progressive margins winning attention for their defiant response. This week once again, newly elected congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib broke ranks with their fellow Democrats by veering away from the pro-Israel party line. “How many more protesters must be shot, rockets must be fired, and little kids must be killed until the endless cycle of violence ends?” Omar asked in a tweet. “The status quo of occupation and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is unsustainable.” Tlaib took issue with The New York Times’ headline which talked about “Gaza militants” firing rockets at Israel. “When will the world stop dehumanizing our Palestinian people who just want to be free?” she asked. “Headlines like this and framing it in this way just feeds into the continued lack of responsibility on Israel who unjustly oppress & target Palestinian children and families.”
4. Deal of the Century: What we’ve learned from Jared’s speech
With about a month left until the Trump administration presents its peace plan for the Middle East, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and top adviser on the issue, gave a rare public speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s annual dinner. You can watch the entire speech here and marvel at the young adviser’s ability to speak so eloquently while saying so little.
But Kushner’s on-stage comments can provide at least a few insights into the main contours of the “deal of the century”:
- It will be released some time after the end of the Ramadan and after a new government is sworn-in in Israel, meaning mid-June or later.
- The plan will include a significant financial element aimed at providing the Palestinians a better economic future.
- The term “two-state solution,” once the bedrock of any American Middle East policy, will not be included in the plan. “Let’s try not to say it,” Kushner said, explaining that it “means one thing to Israelis and another to Palestinians.”
- Both sides will be required to make “compromises.”
- The plan is viewed as a starting point for negotiations, not a final outline of the preferred solution.
5. Deal of the Century: The questions still left unanswered
But Kushner’s vague references left many wondering about key elements of the deal which are still unclear:
- If not a two-state solution, what is the Trump administration’s plan for addressing what Kushner refers to as the Palestinians’ “political aspirations”?
- What compromises will Israel be required to make? Withdrawal from most of the West Bank? Only from settlements outside the major blocs? Only from illegal outposts? No withdrawal?
What about Jerusalem?
- And refugees? (Though the Trump administration has already made clear it does not recognize the refugee status of Palestinians displaced in 1948 and their descendants.)
- And what if the plan doesn’t work? Will Trump support Israeli full or partial annexation of the West Bank? Kushner expressed his hope that neither side takes unilateral steps before fully considering the plan, but left open the question of how Washington would respond if Netanyahu moves forward with annexation later on.