Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Digital Diplomacy and its Palestinian DiscontentsThe Ramifications of Trump Era Virtual Hectoring for Israel-Palestine

By Avraham SpraragenPublished November 30, 2020

Trumpian online bludgeoning has produced a gaping civility-incivility bifurcation, rendering Israeli-Palestinian peace ever more elusive.
Trumpian online bludgeoning has produced a gaping civility-incivility bifurcation, rendering Israeli-Palestinian peace ever more elusive.

Australian author James Aldridge wrote in 1949 that American diplomats “love to play diplomacy by making scares. It’s a crude method.” Seventy years later, the Trump administration Middle East negotiating team’s approach to Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, notorious for its rhetorical ‘scares,’ fits this description to a tee.

Aldridge’s novel, The Diplomat, tells the story of three emissaries who embark on a peacemaking mission. Similarly, upon assuming the presidency, Donald Trump tasked the infamous trio of the since-departed Jason Greenblatt (Special Representative for International Negotiations), Jared Kushner (Senior Advisor to the President), and David Friedman (U.S. Ambassador to Israel) with the herculean mission of achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace. This amateur delegation of two corporate lawyers and a real estate developer promptly swung at long-standing American foreign policy towards the peace process.

Through a multimedia campaign of anti-Palestinian calumny, the Trump administration has abandoned the historic role of the United States as a relatively neutral arbiter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Meanwhile, veteran Palestinian diplomats have not responded in kind, but have instead adhered to the international legal consensus of “two states for two peoples” living peacefully along the 1967 borders. This asymmetry has positioned the Palestinian leadership as the rhetorically sensitive party in the conflict. Certainly, Israeli governmental intransigence on ‘two states’ has also contributed to this Palestinian unipolarity of reason.

The destructive nature of the Trump approach is encapsulated by Greenblatt and Friedman’s participation last summer in an Israeli settler unveiling ceremony of an archeological dig in disputed East Jerusalem. Inexplicably, the U.S. Middle East envoy and Ambassador to Israel thought it conducive to Israeli-Palestinian peace to swing a sledgehammer at a brick wall beneath the ancient Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan. Jerusalem Bureau Chief of The New York Times David Halbfinger, reporting on Greenblatt and Friedman’s video recorded provocation, wrote of the “pulverized” state of “diplomatic barriers.” This “new low,” as Halbfinger put it, was responsibly met with a recommitment to the two-state solution by the Palestinian diplomats whom the U.S. negotiating team has arbitrarily maligned at every turn.

The now-defunct Trump Mideast trio continued its summer of pulverizing diplomacy at the U.S.-led economic workshop in Manama, Bahrain—the livestreamed conference fatuously aimed at advancing “Peace to Prosperity” for Israel-Palestine, in spite of a reasoned Palestinian boycott. The late PLO Negotiations Affairs Department head Saeb Erekat responded to the diplomatic bedlam at Bahrain via tweet: “The key idea remains ‘land for peace,’ not the fake slogan of ‘peace to prosperity.’” For her part, PLO Department of Public Diplomacy and Policy head Hanan Ashrawi lambasted the maelstrom in Manama as “an act of grand deception” by a U.S. government that seeks to “drop the two-state solution.” Likewise, Palestinian Ambassador to the United Kingdom Husam Zomlot expressed his interest in a “real peace process” based on “two states,” as opposed to Kushner’s PowerPoint presentation in the Gulf.

When Kushner, seemingly determined to break all diplomatic protocol, called the Palestinians “hysterical and stupid,” Erekat replied by tweeting that “maybe hysterical and stupid means to some, those who believe in real peace.” After Kushner again broke protocol by casting doubt in a televised broadcast on the Palestinian ability to self-govern, Zomlot invited Trump’s son-in-law on Twitter to visit with talented, young Palestinian leaders. The international community is watching as veteran Palestinian diplomats play chess, while petulant American officials hurl checkers at the players.

In furtherance of what former Palestinian negotiator Khaled Elgindy termed the Trump delegation’s “elaborate trolling exercise,” Greenblatt was succeeded by Kushner’s 31-year-old “coffee boy,” Avi Berkowitz. Known as Jared’s “mini-me,” Berkowitz met Kushner while playing a game of pick-up basketball and now occupies the position of U.S. Middle East envoy. Consequently, Ashrawi and the late Erekat, both of whom earned PhDs and committed their lives to peace, faced an American counterpart whose last job was producer of the “Trump Tower Live” talk show on Facebook. This embarrassing incongruity is yet another reflection of the disingenuous Trump approach to Israel-Palestine.

To clarify, the Palestinians are not entirely absolved of hamstringing rhetoric either. In a national address at the Jalazone Refugee Camp near Ramallah on August 10, 2019, PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas hailed Palestinian martyrs as “sacred,” despite such discourse posing an obstacle to peace. However objectionable the Palestinian obstinacy on martyrdom, it does not justify the roughshod comportment of the supposed honest broker in the conflict, the United States.

Rebuking the modus operandi of the outgoing U.S. government, Erekat tweeted on two occasions that he “will not go down to such levels” and that “[the negotiators] can differ but be civilized.” Ashrawi also chimed in on Twitter about the importance of taking the high road: “I have tried not to respond to the incessant dribble.” Indeed, Trumpian online bludgeoning has produced a gaping civility-incivility bifurcation, rendering Israeli-Palestinian peace ever more elusive. For the sake of future rapprochement and the eventual renewal of relative Palestinian trust in U.S. mediation, the incoming Democratic administration must take heed of the sober Palestinian response to Trump era virtual hectoring. To begin narrowing the gap, President-elect Joe Biden needs to appoint a team of experienced diplomats who will immediately discontinue their predecessors’ ‘crude method’ of rhetorical torment.