The U.S. Can’t Punish the Palestinians Into Negotiating

The Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington. Credit Saul Loeb/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington. Credit Saul Loeb/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Are President Trump’s advisers checking his worst impulses? From trade to NATO, we’ve been assured that the “adults” in the White House are working quietly to prevent the president from following through on his often erratic foreign policy proclamations.

In fact, many of those advisers are leaving their own mark on American international relations by amplifying the president’s instincts or, in some cases, using the opportunity to advance their own radical agendas. While we focus on the president’s latest utterances, they have been fundamentally altering the direction of United States foreign policy, from one based on cooperation and leadership to one rooted in punishment and domination.

Nowhere is this more clear than in America’s Middle East policy. Last week John Bolton, President Trump’s national security adviser, announced the closing of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Washington; the administration also revoked the visas for the organization’s envoy and his family.

Mr. Bolton suggested that the Palestinians needed to be punished, for both their readiness to refer Israeli construction in occupied territory to the International Criminal Court and their reluctance to engage with the Trump administration’s peace efforts.

Both charges are spurious, and in any event trivial. It is true that Palestinian leaders have a habit of investing unrealistic expectations in an international community as a kind of deus ex machina. What is also true, however, is that they have hardly any other options.

Sanctions and deterrence should always be part of the American diplomatic arsenal. But punishment for its own sake is not how the United States traditionally conducts diplomacy. Nor is there much evidence that punishment works — just ask Israel, which has been using it for years to try to wring Palestinian concessions.

In the Israeli view, Palestinians must be taught a lesson — for example, by withholding tax revenues — whenever they go outside the confines of bilateral negotiations with appeals to the United Nations or other international bodies. Not only do the Palestinians ignore the punishment, but each episode further erodes trust and the possibility of constructive negotiations.

Israelis at least have the excuse of a genuine sense of vulnerability and isolation; they have to play hardball because they believe their backs are to the wall. The American excuse is that after decades of failure to bring about a negotiated settlement, a new approach is necessary.

Mr. Trump’s advisers seem to believe that punishing the Palestinians ahead of their forthcoming peace plan will make them more willing to make concessions and therefore make negotiations easier.

In this way, Mr. Trump’s advisers are not checking but clarifying and amplifying the president’s radically misguided approach to diplomacy: that it is about sticks and rarely carrots, that every negotiation is zero sum and that trust is dangerously naïve. (Of course, the administration is not applying sticks to everyone — by stacking the deck in Israel’s favor, it is making sure that the Palestinians have no choice but to accept an outcome determined by Jerusalem.)

This theory of diplomacy-as-coercion is clear enough and probably has its appeal for people unversed in the intricacies of international peace negotiations. But problems will arise when the Palestinians do not react in the docile manner that administration officials somehow expect.

A recent report from Khalil Shikaki, a respected Palestinian pollster, confirms that the once-broad support among Palestinians for a negotiated two-state solution has collapsed and that they find violence an increasingly better option. Mr. Shikaki cites Israeli settlements as the main cause. If the administration’s punitive strategy does not yield Palestinian cooperation, there is nowhere else for American policy to go.

It is a dangerous time, and not just for any chance at a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In traditional American diplomacy, problems are managed, policy choices are hedged and partners, however weak, are not antagonized for no good reason.

And while it is true that this approach has not brought lasting peace to the region, that is no excuse to throw caution aside and bank on such a dangerous gambit. The traditional emphasis on diplomacy through negotiation and compromise speaks to the best qualities in the American character — qualities that have allowed American diplomats to resolve seemingly intractable conflicts over the decades, from the Camp David Accords to Northern Ireland.

Diplomacy is generally about preserving options, not foreclosing them. The extinction of hopes for Palestinian independence will generate future trouble. This is the problem with mistaking punishment for statecraft.

Dana H. Allin is the editor of the journal Survival and a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Steven Simon, a visiting professor of history at Amherst, served on the National Security Council in the Clinton and Obama administrations and at the State Department. They are the co-authors of Our Separate Ways: The Struggle for the Future of the U.S.-Israel Alliance.

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