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‘The deal that can’t be made’: A timeline of the Trump administration’s Israel-Palestine policy

Since the US president first announced his plan to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, what has his administration done?
Hailed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a "true friend of Israel", US President Donald Trump's Middle East policies have been denounced by Palestinians as inherently biased (AFP)

The wait is almost over. At noon in the American capital, US President Donald Trump is set to unveil his much advertised plan for Israel and Palestine, the infamous “deal of the century”. 

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“This is a plan that’s very important to peace in the Middle East… People have been working on this for many, many years, and I think we’re relatively close, but we have to get other people to agree with it all,” Trump said on Monday.

Chief among these “other people” are the Palestinian political leadership, which has categorically refused to participate in the elaboration of the plan.

While the full details will soon be revealed, a look at the Trump administration’s policies vis-a-vis Israel, Palestine and the issues at play in the nearly 72-year conflict suggests a one-sided approach catering to many of Israel’s demands - including support for land annexation and the stifling of Palestinian political demands for statehood and sovereignty.

November 2016: First ambitions of a president-elect

Only three days after his victory over Hillary Clinton, the new president-elect gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal in which he first hinted at his ambitions to present a plan seeking to bring a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all.

“That’s the ultimate deal,” Trump told the newspaper. “As a deal maker, I’d like to do… the deal that can’t be made. And do it for humanity’s sake.”

Trump’s plan soon earned the nickname “deal of the century”, despite neither the US president nor his administration ever using the term. In fact, the term is thought to have been coined by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, at a meeting with Trump in April 2017. 

December 2017: Recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital

It was almost one year after Trump was sworn into office that his administration took its first major step to set the tone for its policy vis-a-vis Israel and Palestine.

After weeks of rumours, Trump announced in a speech on 7 December 2017 that he would finally implement a 1995 law stating that Jerusalem "should be recognised as the capital of the state of Israel".

A waiver had been invoked by successive US presidents, postponing the move on grounds of "national security" once every six months for more than 20 years - until Trump.

The move marked a stark departure from diplomatic conventions. In January 2018, Trump would boast on Twitter that his decision had effectively taken Jerusalem “off the table” of negotiations - a comment that was further viewed by many Palestinians as tossing aside their longstanding claims of East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

January 2018: Partial freezing of UNRWA funds

UNRWA provides schooling and medical services to millions of Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria as well as the Palestinian territories (AFP)
UNRWA provides schooling and medical services to millions of Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria as well as the Palestinian territories (AFP)

Shortly afterwards, the United States announced on 16 January 2018 that it would withhold at least $65m in pledged aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) - the UN agency that provides services for millions of Palestinian refugees in the occupied territories and neighbouring countries.

Until that point, Washington had been the largest single contributor to UNRWA's finances, donating around $364m in 2017.

The move to cut funds to the crucial international agency came soon after then-US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said Trump was seeking to pressure Palestinian officials into agreeing to enter negotiations moderated by Washington.

"[Trump] doesn't want to give any additional funding until the Palestinians agree to come back to the negotiation table," Haley said on 2 January 2018.

May 2018: Inauguration of US embassy in Jerusalem

On 14 May 2018, six months after recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the United States inaugurated its new embassy to Israel in the city.

The move purposefully coincided with the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel - which also marks Nakba Day for Palestinians, the commemoration of the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in 1948.

The embassy inauguration - attended by Trump's son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner - occurred while, some 75 kilometres away, thousands of Palestinians demonstrating in the besieged Gaza Strip were violently repressed by Israeli forces, in what would be the deadliest day of the Great March of Return.

August 2018: Cut all US funding to UNRWA

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A mere nine months after announcing a partial freeze of funds to UNRWA, the US State Department announced on 31 August 2018 that it would cease all financial contributions to what it termed an "irredeemably flawed operation".

The statement came as Foreign Policy reported earlier that month that Trump and Kushner had discussed changing the criteria defining Palestinian refugees so as to no longer include descendants of those forced to flee their homes in 1948 - a move which would have in effect stripped some 4.5 million people of their refugee status.

September 2018: Closure of PLO mission in DC

The Trump administration’s policies had been largely denounced by Palestinians, as political and diplomatic representatives from both the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) refused to be coerced into participating in "peace negotiations" led by an ostensibly pro-Israeli administration.

On 10 September 2018, the US ramped up its pressure against the Palestinian leadership, as national security adviser John Bolton confirmed that the PLO mission in Washington, DC had been closed as "punishment", some 24 years after it had been opened in the wake of the Oslo Accords.

The move was made as the US State Department estimated that the PLO "had not taken steps to advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel".

February 2019: End of USAID funding to the PA

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Amid direct financial pressure on Palestinian institutions, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) announced on 1 February 2029 that it had ceased all assistance to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

The decision, however, was at the PA’s request because of the passage in 2018 of the US Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act (ATCA) allowing US citizens to sue foreign aid recipients in US courts over alleged complicity in "acts of war".

USAID had been the main agency administering US foreign assistance in the Palestinian territories. According to its website, the agency spent $268m on public projects in the West Bank and Gaza as well as Palestinian private sector debt repayment in 2017, but there had been significant cuts to all new funding through the end of June 2018.

March 2019: Recognition of annexed Golan Heights

On 25 March 2019, Trump once again sparked furore after signing an executive order stating that the United States officially recognised "that the Golan Heights are part of the State of Israel".

The Syrian Golan Heights were first occupied by Israel in 1967 and annexed in 1981 in a move never recognised by the international community.

The Syrian government was amongst the first to condemn the US president's announcement, with a foreign ministry official declaring: "Trump neither has the right nor the legal authority to legitimise the occupation and theft of others' land by force."

June 2019: Release of the economic plan

After years of Trump touting his plan, whose details had thus far remained secret, Kushner unveiled the economic portion of the “deal of the century” - entitled “Peace to Prosperity” ahead of a conference in Bahrain.

The economic plan was widely panned by critics, who denounced it as an attempt to get Palestinians to trade in their political demands for economic benefits.

The proposal was also derided for its glossy ambitions to turn the occupied Palestinian territories into high-tech metropolises while completely failing to acknowledge major factors - such as the occupation, the siege of Gaza, illegal settlements and the fate of refugees - currently having a massive negative impact on the Palestinian economy.

November 2019: Recognition of settlements as no longer illegal

A Palestinian protester raises his walking cane as he stands before Israeli border guards during a demonstration against Israeli settlers near Abu Dis in East Jerusalem on 20 September 2019 (AFP)
A Palestinian protester raises his walking cane as he stands before Israeli border guards during a demonstration against Israeli settlers near Abu Dis in East Jerusalem on 20 September 2019 (AFP)

While past US diplomacy has regularly condemned the expansion of Israeli settlements into occupied Palestinian territory as an impediment to peace, the Trump administration once again cast aside established policy.

On 18 November 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the Trump administration no longer considered Israeli settlement building in the occupied West Bank to be a violation of international law.

Pompeo did not clarify how settlements happened to no longer violate the Fourth Geneva Convention - ratified by both Israel and the United States - which states that an occupying power “shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies”.

While the full contents of the “deal of the century” will not be revealed until later on Tuesday, the past three years have left Palestinians and their supporters feeling quite grim over what other unpleasant surprises may yet be revealed.