By A.J. Caschetta*
With the election of Donald Trump as president, a new era may be emerging at the State Department. Or not.
Ever since the partition of UN Mandate Palestine and the creation of Israel, the State Department has promoted a grievance-based approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It views Palestinian deprivation (of statehood, dreams, etc.) as the chief obstacle to peace. U.S. diplomatic efforts, therefore, have focused on appeasing those grievances. One year into the Trump administration, there are signs that this is changing.
After World War II the culture that would define the State Department’s entire Middle East outlook was developed almost single-handedly by Loy Henderson, director of the Office of Near Eastern, African and South Asian Affairs. Henderson filled the Office with specialists known as “Arabists” because of their love of the Arabic language and Arab culture. They suffered from what Robert D. Kaplan, in his seminal work on the topic, calls “localitis” and “clientitis,” and their sympathies with Muslims were often accompanied by a rejection of the West and especially of Israel. In his Memoirs Harry S. Truman wrote that State’s “specialists on the Near East were almost without exception unfriendly to the idea of a Jewish state.” He also noted that “Some of them were also inclined to be anti-Semitic.”
After the Six-Day War, when most Arab countries severed relations with the U.S. and closed embassies, many Arabists found themselves without foreign posts. Their domination of the State Department subsided, and they were replaced by a new group – the “peace processors” – who were not immersed in Arab culture but rather in diplomatic culture. By the 1980s they dominated the State Department, and they still do.
Though their motives may differ, the peace processors share the Arabists’ trust that the Palestinians will negotiate rationally. In pursuit of the ultimate peace deal, they ignore or excuse Palestinian diplomats who insist that Israel has no right to exist, as though it were a negotiating ploy rather than a deeply-felt principle.
The cohesion of the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein in Desert Shield/Storm, heralded as a major diplomatic achievement, spurred a renewed faith that the diplomatic process itself can solve even the most intransigent of problems, of which the Israel-Palestinian conflict loomed large. The peace processors have always been driven by the theory that the right combination of Israeli concessions (land, water, money) will end Palestinian hostilities. They continue to downplay Palestinian rejectionism while emphasizing Palestinian cooperation.
Even the 2003 bombing of a State Department convoy in Gaza (the vehicles were carrying U.S. officials interviewing Palestinian students for Fulbright Scholarships) elicited little more than a perfunctory telephone call from Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Palestinian Authority (PA) urging it to crack down on militants.
The peace processors endured through the Obama years. With John Kerry as Secretary of State, they thrived. In a 2016 Oxford Union speech Kerry waxed poetic about peace-making, or as he called it, “the art of diplomacy – [which] is to define the interests of all the parties and see where the sweet spot is that those interests can come together and hopefully be able to thread a very thin needle.” The problem, to continue Kerry’s mixed metaphor, is that under his leadership the State Department expended most of its energies massaging the Palestinian sweet spot and trying to thread its very thin needle. Israeli interests, on the other hand, were largely ignored, and Israel was often blamed for Palestinian hostilities.
Donald Trump campaigned promising a different approach to Israel. He chose Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, a diplomat with no foreign policy record and few known political opinions. Tillerson began his tenure at the default State Department position – treating the PA and its leader Mahmoud Abbas as legitimate and trustworthy peace partners, and ignoring or downplaying evidence to the contrary. This seemed to change when the Trump administration’s efforts to negotiate were rebuffed. The May 2017 meeting in Bethlehem, when the president reportedly accused Abbas of lying to him, may have been the turning point.
In November, Tillerson announced the closure of the PLO mission in Washington, D.C., in compliance with a U.S. law prohibiting any Palestinian attempts to bring a case against Israel at the International Criminal Court. But when the PLO responded by threatening to cut off all contact with the U.S., the State Department rather obsequiously caved, announcing that the mission could remain open for a 90 day probationary period. State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez said the U.S. was “optimistic that at the end of this 90-day period, the political process may be sufficiently advanced that the president will be in a position to allow the PLO office to resume full operations.”
Subsequent events further suggest a change in U.S. Israel policy, especially the announced plan to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and the cutting of U.S. funding to UNRWA. Trump has also threatened to cut all aid to Palestinians, and at Davos in January he said that Palestinian disrespect for Vice President Mike Pence would cost them as well. Under normal circumstances, one might infer that these are coherent policy redirections. But it is not unreasonable to believe that they are impulsive reactions to perceived insults. They may also be bargaining chips in the president’s famed deal-making art.
To be clear, the U.S. embassy should absolutely be moved to Jerusalem, and U.S. funds should not support UNESCO which is waging a diplomatic war against Israel, nor UNRWA which regularly incites violence against Israel.
But these moves from the top down are not necessarily permanent. No one really believes Abbas will terminate all contact with the U.S. In fact, the PLO’s man in Washington, Husam Zomlot, signalled in an interview just days ago that he’s ready to talk: “It’s not like I am not speaking to them. My phone is open.” Like Trump, Abbas too is positioning for a better deal. When he comes back to his senses and apologizes, perhaps even personally thanks Donald Trump for reengaging, the State Department’s peace processors will awaken from their drowse with a new Oslo, a new Road Map to Peace, and Israel will be squeezed again. As Daniel Pipes writes, “the American door is permanently open to Palestinians and when they wise up, some fabulous gift awaits them in the White House.” Maybe next time there will be pressure to repeat Ariel Sharon’s mistake and force all Israelis out of the West Bank, and after that out of East Jerusalem, and after that, who knows? Pressuring Israel to give up more land and money and make their nation less secure is the only strategy the peace processors know.
There’s no doubt that Donald Trump’s election initiated a major disruption at the State Department. Many long-serving senior officials resigned immediately before or after inauguration day. The hum of diplomats complaining that their expertise is being ignored has continued. When Elizabeth Shackelford (lauded by Foreign Policy a “rising star at the State Department”) resigned very publicly in early December, she complained that State had “ceded to the Pentagon our authority to drive US foreign policy.” The question is, will disruption lead to genuine change?
If outgoing senior diplomats are replaced with careerists and entrenched junior peace processors, the Trump shake-up will be just sound and fury. On the other hand, bringing in qualified experts from outside the State Department rank-and-file might lead to meaningful and important changes. If the rumor is true that David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy will be the new Deputy Assistant for Near East Affairs, it’s a good start.
Genuine change at the State Department will require more than one year of the unpredictable Trump administration. U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman recently began urging the State Department to stop using the term “occupation”. When the State Department complies, we’ll know something big has happened. Until then, celebrations are premature.
About the author:
*A.J. Caschetta is a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
This article was published by Modern Diplomacy