Quarterly Updates for (16 Nov 2016 — 15 Feb 2017)

Trump Shapes the Post-Obama Paradigm

In the aftermath of the U.S. election on 11/8, Israeli officials reached out to pres.-elect Trump to forge ties and suggest plans for his admin. Trump’s transition team didn’t embrace them as tightly as they expected, however, and Israeli PM Netanyahu eventually reined them in. On 11/16, Israeli DM Lieberman said that Israel would encourage Trump to recognize certain settlement blocs in exchange for a freeze on construction in other areas of the West Bank. The following week, Lieberman retracted (11/21) those comments, saying that Trump’s team had sent him messages afterward asking for “a bit more humility.” After Israel’s Agriculture Min. Uri Ariel sent (11/18) senior Trump advisor Steve Bannon a letter thanking him for his opposition to the 7/14/2015 Iran nuclear deal and Education Min. Bennett met (11/20) with 3 Trump advisors in New York, Netanyahu reportedly issued (11/21) an order forbidding all ministers and dep. ministers from making contact with Trump’s team, other than through the PM’s office or the Israeli Embassy.

Meanwhile, the pres.-elect slowly formed his team to oversee the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. On 1/15, he confirmed (1/15) that he was putting his son-in-law and senior advisor, Kushner, in charge of the peace process, saying (1/19),” If [Kushner] can’t produce peace in the Middle East, nobody can.” Kushner is noted for having no experience in foreign policy nor any connection to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict outside his family’s personal attachment to Israel (Kushner’s grandparents were Holocaust survivors and staunch supporters of Zionism after World War II). Kushner’s parents have donated millions to Israeli hospitals and schools, including some in settlements, thereby earning considerable clout in some U.S. Jewish circles. As pointed out by several media outlets, Netanyahu stayed at the Kushner family home in New Jersey while on a state visit to the U.S. in the 1990s (New York Times, 2/11).

As his nominee for amb. to Israel, Trump chose (12/15) bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman whom he described as “a long-time friend and trusted advisor to me.” The pres.- elect further clarified that “[Friedman’s] strong relationships in Israel will form the foundation of his diplomatic mission and be a tremendous asset to our country as we strengthen the ties with our allies and strive for peace in the Middle East.” Like Kushner, Friedman also had no foreign policy experience at the time of his appointment. He is known as a committed supporter of the Israeli settlement enterprise, an opponent of the 2-state solution, and a columnist for the Jerusalem Post and Arutz Sheva, both right-of-center publications. Friedman also headed an organization called American Friends of Beit El, which raises approximately $2 m. per year to strengthen institutions in the eponymous West Bank settlement (this included a $10,000 donation from Trump in 2003). In accepting the nomination, Friedman aligned (12/15) himself with Netanyahu’s right-wing govt., saying that the Trump admin. would not “put [its] finger on the scale or tell Israel what policies they should adopt.” Netanyahu was pleased with the nomination, senior Israeli sources confirmed on 12/17.

Trump’s appointments to other positions related to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict were a mixed bag. On 12/26, the pres.-elect appointed as his rep. for international negotiations campaign advisor Greenblatt, nominally a 2-state supporter who has said he did not believe Israel’s settlements were an obstacle to peace; for secy. of state, Trump selected ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson who spoke (1/11) of the U.S. need to “recommit” to Israel during his confirmation hearing; for his part, defense secy. nominee Ret. Gen. James Mattis told senators at his own confirmation hearing that he would “stick with the [current] U.S. policy” on the question of moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem; finally, South Carolina governor Haley, Trump’s nominee for UN amb., told legislators at her hearing (1/18) that she supported the embassy move, favored a 2-state solution, and thought that Israel’s settlements “can hinder peace.”


The Democrats Regroup and Rethink Israel-Palestine

In addition to the Republican presidential victory, major defeats in the House and Senate on 11/8 left the Democrats a weakened minority in Congress. Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-VT) presidential campaign in 2015 and 2016 had revealed deep fissures between the party’s progressive wing and the establishment wing aligned with his rival, Hillary Clinton. After the resignation of Debbie Wasserman Schultz as head of the party’s main organizing body, the Democratic National Comm. (DNC), the election for her replacement was set to test the party’s Trump-era dynamics. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), an early supporter of Sanders’s campaign and cochair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, emerged as 1 of 2 main contenders early on in the quarter. However, his critical stance on Israel, and the backlash it drew from key donors, threatened to scupper his campaign.

When Ellison announced (11/14) his candidacy, it galvanized Palestinian solidarity activists and opponents of the current U.S. relationship with Israel. Besides his criticism of the Israeli occupation, Ellison was the 1st Muslim to be elected to Congress, and proPalestinian activists therefore viewed his candidacy as having the potential to shift the Democratic Party’s staunchly pro-Israel stance (see congressionalmonitor.org for Ellison’s record on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and related issues). Their enthusiasm was tempered a week later, however, when in response to allegations of anti-Semitism, Ellison disavowed (11/22) the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. “I have long supported a 2-state solution and a democratic and secure state for the Jewish people, with a democratic and viable Palestinian state side-by-side [sic] in peace and dignity,” Ellison indicated in an e-mail statement to the Star Tribune.

Opposition to Ellison mounted on 11/29 after a video surfaced of him making critical comments about the U.S.-Israel relationship in 2010. “U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is governed by what is good or bad through [sic] a country of 7 m. people,” Ellison said in the video. “A region of 350 m. all turns on a country of 7 m., does that make sense?” Haim Saban, a major Democratic Party donor and backer of Hillary Clinton, called (12/3) Ellison an “anti-Semitic and anti-Israel person” who would be a “disaster for Israel and the Democratic party.” Both Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and the liberal Zionist group J Street defended Ellison (11/29 and 12/3, respectively).

Once the controversy subsided, former Labor Secy. Tom Perez jumped (12/15) into the DNC race, presenting a formidable challenge to Ellison from the party’s establishment wing. He won endorsements from then-VP Joe Biden and former atty. gen Eric Holder, but Pres. Obama withheld his opinion on the matter, leaving it a close race as the 2/25 vote approached.


Aid to the Palestinians

The Obama admin. released $221 m. in earmarked aid to the PA hours before Trump took office on 1/20. At least 2 Republican lawmakers, Ed Royce (R-CA) and Kay Granger (R-TX), had put a hold on the aid in response to the Palestinians’ admission to various international organizations, which the Obama admin. respected. When news of the lastminute release of the funds broke on 1/24, a State Dept. spokesperson announced that the dept. was looking into the situation and would ensure that the disbursement aligned with Pres. Trump’s priorities. The next day, a senior Palestinian source said that the Trump admin. had frozen the transfer. Trump admin. officials reportedly told PA PM Hamdallah on 1/24 that the funds should not be expected in PA coffers any time soon.


Legislative Crackdowns on BDS

State and local legislators across the U.S. undermined the BDS movement with new measures this quarter, advancing a years-long campaign against Palestine solidarity activists and critics of U.S. support for Israel. Ohio gov. John Kasich signed a bill into law on 12/19 and Michigan gov. Rick Snyder signed 2 on 12/31 that prohibited their states from contracting with businesses that engage in boycotts of Israel. Thus, Kasich and Snyder made Ohio and Michigan the 13th and 14th states to put antiBDS laws on the books since the inception of a nationwide effort in early 2015 (see JPS 44 [4] and every subsequent Update). Furthermore, as new legislative sessions began around the country, lawmakers introduced or started planning for similar legislation in 13 other states (AR, CT, KS, MN, MS, MT, NV, NY, NC, OK, VA, WA, and WY).

The new Republican majority in the U.S. Congress also began work on several new specifically anti-BDS measures (various other measures introduced early in the 115th Congress carried provisions only tangentially related to BDS; see congressionalmonitor.org for details). On 1/17, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) introduced the Combating BDS Act of 2017. A reformulation of a bill that had died in the previous congressional session, the measure would affirm the states’ authority to pass anti-BDS bills, like those mentioned above. At the end of the previous session, Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) had introduced the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2016, which broadly defined opposition to Israel as antiSemitism, eligible for investigations into discrimination in educational programs receiving federal assistance. The bill’s definition of anti-Semitism included “judg[ing] Israel by a double standard,” which Palestine solidarity activists interpreted as condoning smears of the movement. Civil rights groups said the act would have a chilling effect on activism. The bill passed in the Senate (12/1) and stalled in the House, but supporters were expected to retool and reintroduce the bill in the 115th Congress.