America’s Incompetent Middle East Leadership

Sam Bahour
May 30 · 7 min read
US peace negotiators Jared Kushner (R), Jason Greenblatt (L), and Amb. David Friedman (Matty Stern/ US Embassy Tel Aviv)

Because of its obsession with supporting Israel at any cost, America never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. This has never been more apparent than now, as President Donald Trump’s Middle East hit team bulldozes forward with yet another step in what has been coined “the Deal of the Century.”

The hit team comprises three corporate lawyers, all with no relevant political or diplomatic training or basic historic knowledge of the area they are addressing. All three are proud public cheerleaders for the school of political thought of the most extremist elements in Israeli society, that of the likes of Yigal Amir, the Jewish extremist who on November 4, 1995, assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for entering the Oslo Peace Process. One team member, in particular, was Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer and is currently the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. He is a material supporter of the Israeli settlement next to my house, the Beit El Settlement.

From the presidential campaign trail, Trump began beating his war drum against Palestinians. From his first day in office, his approach to the Palestinians resembled that of a bull in a china shop. Unlike the false claim that Trump’s team is making, that the announced “economic workshop” in Bahrain next month will be the first step in a two-part revelation of the “deal,” reality is very different. The implementation of this unannounced deal has been well underway for two years now.

This “Deal of the Century” is rapidly becoming the “Traveling Circus of the Century.” The point person for the deal, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and company trot around the region trying to sell economic wares supposedly aimed at upgrading Palestinian livelihoods, all the while ignoring the Palestinians themselves. Having implemented the deal’s political elements before any formal announcement, the U.S. is not giving itself even a fighting chance to succeed. This episode of U.S. intervention in the Middle East will be taught for many years to come to political science and diplomacy students as an example of what not to do in their careers.

What is utterly pathetic is that there really is an opportunity to seize at this very moment to significantly advance peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Dishing out some tough love to its strategic ally, the U.S. is well-positioned to pull rank on Israel and bring the five-decade military occupation to an abrupt end. However, the U.S. is yet again totally misreading reality and overstepping its declining influence around the globe, especially in the Middle East.

The history is long, but a few highlights are all that are needed to make the point.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, infamously remarked “Bye-bye [Palestine Liberation Organization] PLO” when interviewed by the French-language weekly news magazine Paris Match. This happened as the backdrop to the Lebanese civil war, in which the Palestinians were being attacked and as Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat made his visit to Israel, breaking ranks with the Arab world. This wishful thinking that the Palestinians’ political agency, the PLO, would disappear proved to be a missed opportunity like no other. A mere 20 years after this blunder was uttered, the PLO and Israel would be sitting on the White House lawn launching the Oslo Peace Process.

In 1982, Israel began the devastating Lebanon War, aimed at destroying the PLO once and for all. The U.S. backed Israel in this war, armed it and diplomatically covered for it as never before. Instead of being destroyed, the PLO was forced to leave Lebanon, only to return months later. A by-product of this U.S. blunder was the creation of the militant Hizballah.

In 1987, frustrated Palestinians living under decades of Israeli military occupation rose up in the First Palestinian Intifada (Uprising), challenging Israel with civil disobedience, general strikes, and community organizing, all mixed with a high dose of nationalist culture and arts. With 24-hour cable news now gaining popularity, the world started to see what the occupation looked like from the inside. This was an ideal moment for the U.S. to step in and use the opportunity to get its ally Israel to end the occupation. It didn’t, and failed again. A by-product of this U.S. blunder was the creation of Hamas.

In 1988, in a strategic attempt to translate the global traction the first Intifada had gained, the PLO — by a vote of 253 in favor, 46 against, and 10 abstentions — issued the Palestinian Declaration of Independence, formally accepting the partition of historic Palestine into two states, Palestine and Israel. Another opportunity like no other presented itself here, given the fact that Palestinians living under occupation and their political agents outside of the country were all aligned. The U.S. missed the boat again.

The head of the PLO at the time refused to give up. In November 1988, Yasir Arafat was invited to speak at the UN General Assembly session in New York, promising to raise on the global stage the dire need for the powers that be to understand that the Middle East cannot rest as long as Israel’s boot of occupation remains pressing on Palestinians’ neck. Instead of welcoming this overture, the Reagan Administration denied him a visa, causing a special session to be held at the UN building in Geneva. Another missed opportunity.

There was one respite from U.S. blindness, but it was short-lived. In December 1988, in “a surprising reversal of the U.S. diplomatic boycott of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Secretary of State George P. Shultz” announced that the U.S. was ready for “direct talks” with the PLO. Arafat’s insistence on speaking at the UN achieved its goal.

In 1993 the PLO went further than ever before by taking the first step in the Oslo Peace Process, by directly recognizing the State of Israel, a colossal political concession. In its turn, Israel replied by recognizing the PLO, not the State of Palestine. The U.S. ignored these mismatching recognitions and pressed on, allowing Israel to negotiate while expanding its illegal settlement enterprise, all the while benefiting from U.S. military aid and diplomatic cover for decades. Meeting after meeting, workshop after workshop, conference after conference, pledge after pledge, and statement after statement — all to no avail. The U.S. fumbled its way through two decades of negotiations, failing not once, but multiple times.

When it was clear that the Oslo Peace Process had failed, the PLO offered yet another historic opportunity to resolve the conflict. On November 29, 2012, Palestinians presented a resolution to the UN General Assembly requesting membership for the State of Palestine. The U.S. refused this approach, along with eight other countries (four of them U.S.-protectorate Pacific islands). The majority of the world voted yes and the resolution passed, affirming that “an independent, sovereign, democratic, contiguous and viable State of Palestine living side by side in peace and security with Israel on the basis of the pre-1967 borders” was the goal. Reminiscent of its failure to join the world at the peak of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, the U.S. failed again to see this prime opportunity to act in good faith to end the occupation and allow the two-state solution to be realized.

What a coincidence that just as Palestine was gaining traction as a state on the global stage, with more than 135 countries recognizing the State of Palestine, the U.S. decided to change the game and trash international law for the clandestine activities of three corporate lawyers, who, by the way, have left the entire foreign relations institution in the U.S. in the dark.

When the Palestinian leadership — even with its weak domestic standing — keeps its hand extended for a resolution of the conflict based on a two-state solution, long after the Israeli side has made it abundantly clear that they are not interested in ending their 51-year-old military occupation, the U.S. refuses to register the opportunity. This may be the last chance before Israel imposes a one-state reality from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River which is irreversible and will be the beginning of the end of Israel, as it is known today.

One asks, where is the U.S. deep state? Even more importantly, one asks, where are the adults in the room in Washington, D.C.? Could it be that all are aligned with Trump’s attempt to liquidate the Palestinian struggle for freedom and independence? This is hard to believe, and one wants to give U.S. lawmakers the benefit of the doubt and recognize that they, too, like Palestinians, are under the influence of Israeli military occupation. In their case, their political careers are on the line if they dare to choose U.S. strategic interests over Israeli extremist interests.

Indeed, America never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity to bring peace to the Middle East. Palestinians and Israelis will ultimately pay the price after the Trump hit team are back in their corporate law offices. Sadly, if history is any indication, Palestinians will bear the lion’s share of the death toll, to the tune of approximately 1000 to 1; let there be no doubt that all 1001 lives could and should be spared!

As an American, I join House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who recently said, “In any event, I pray for the president of the United States and I pray for the United States of America.

Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American business consultant from Ramallah/Al-Bireh in the West Bank. He is Board Chair of Americans for a Vibrant Palestinian Economy (AVPE) and serves as a policy adviser to Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network and is co-editor of “Homeland: Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians” (1994). He blogs at @SamBahour

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