In his inimitable way, Donald Trump has gored yet another sacred cow—this one in the Levant.
First, consider this. For nearly seventy years, the United States was the principal source of funds for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)—an outfit which not only provided (and still provides) support for Palestinians who fled from their homes in 1948 and found, after the first Arab-Israeli War, that they could not return, but which also provides for those of their patrilineal descendants who still reside in the refugee camps situated in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. For a similar period, the U.S. refused to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and located its embassy in Tel Aviv. Moreover, for more than half a century after the Six-Day War of 1967, the American government chose to treat the Golan Heights, captured from Syria, as occupied territory.
Then, ponder the fact that the Trump administration abruptly changed all of this. It cut off funds for UNRWA. It acknowledged that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and moved the U.S. embassy there. And recently it recognized the Golan Heights as Israeli territory.
Initially, these changes in U.S. policy stirred controversy. Fourteen of the fifteen members of the UN Security Council—including Britain, France, Italy, Sweden, and Japan—voted for a resolution condemning the decision regarding Jerusalem, as did nine of the eleven former American ambassadors to Israel still alive. The decision to recognize the Golan Heights as Israeli territory was similarly excoriated by the European Union; by Britain, Ireland, Germany, France, Belgium, Spain, Poland, Russia, Canada, Japan, China, and Vietnam; and by South Africa, Turkey, the Arab League, Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia as well as Iran, Somalia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Malaysia, Cuba, and Venezuela.
Then, the uproar died down—for next to no one really cares about any of this, and the denunciations amounted to little more than virtue-signaling on the part of those who regard themselves as the great and the good. The truth, as everyone knows, is that Jerusalem has been Israel’s capital for more than seventy years and that the Golan Heights, which looms over the Galilee and the Syrian plain to the north, is essential for Israel’s defense. It is, moreover, obvious that UNRWA has long outlived whatever usefulness it once had. The number of genuine refugees still alive seven decades after these Palestinians fled from their homes in what is now Israeli territory is minuscule. And the chief contribution of the UNRWA in the last six decades has been to enable the countries hosting the refugees and their offspring to resist their integration within the surrounding populations. If, within the Levant, there is still a refugee problem today, it is because the United States and its allies subsidized it.
Of course, during the Cold War, there may have been a point to the policy that the United States adopted. It enabled us to pose—and sometimes actually serve—as a mediator between the Arabs and the Israelis, and it made it easier for us to maintain cordial ties with the Turks, the Saudis, the Jordanians, the Tunisians, the Moroccans, the Pakistanis, and, at times, the Egyptians, the Indonesians, and the Iranians. There were always some who supposed that it would enable us to broker a genuine peace (as opposed to a ceasefire), but that was always a dream. There were then and still are now individuals on the Palestinian side who are willing, even eager, to reach a lasting settlement. But they have never been in positions of power, and, within the Palestinian community, they did not and do not command much in the way of support.
In the interim, conditions have changed. The Cold War is over. The Muslim world has fractured along sectarian lines. Iraq and Syria have been wracked by civil wars. A number of Sunni Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt, are in effect allied with Israel against Iran. And the Palestinians are bitterly divided—with some supporting Mahmoud Abbas and the PLO and others, arguably a majority, taking the side of Hamas. It does not now matter whether the Israeli government wants to reach a settlement with the Palestinians. There is on the other side no reliable interlocutor capable of speaking for the Arabs situated in Gaza and on the West Bank, and the United States no longer needs to curry favor in the larger Arab world. The new American policy reflects the fact that there is no longer any compelling reason to keep up what was never much more than a pretense.
Today, some within the Trump administration may wish to argue that publicly acknowledging realities of long standing will make it easier to forge a proper settlement, and they are said to be about to dangle before the Palestinians an economic carrot. Whether anything will come of this, however, we may justly doubt. It would be wiser to acknowledge, at least in private, that, no matter what we do, a lasting settlement is not in the cards. The Israelis will never sacrifice the conditions prerequisite for their security, and the Palestinians are not apt to accept those conditions. We are told that the latter are nearly as fed up with Hamas as they are with the corrupt rule of Abbas and his cronies. We are told that young Palestinians increasingly dream of a one-state solution. And this may well be true. But there is no real prospect that, in the foreseeable future, the Palestinians as a people will ever settle for anything less than everything—and today’s Israelis no longer entertain any illusions about this.
Paul A. Rahe is Professor of History at Hillsdale College. His latest book—Sparta’s First Attic War: the Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta, 478-446 B.C.—will be published by Yale University Press on 6 August.