Donald Trump’s latest intervention in the Middle East peace process – one he has already upended by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – looks like being his most chaotic move yet.
After appointing his son-in-law Jared Kushner as regional adviser and naming the fiercely pro-settlement lawyer David Friedman as his ambassador to Israel, the US president has blundered from crisis to crisis in recent weeks.
His speech recognising Jerusalem as the Israeli capital breached international consensus and UN resolutions. But the latest move – a threat to cut funding to UNRWA, the UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees, and to the Palestinian Authority – is more dangerous still, demonstrating a lack of understanding of the delicate mechanics that help maintain relative peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Parsing the Trump approach several things are clear: the current administration sees threats to foreign assistance as a means of leverage and views conventional negotiating strategies used by past US administrations in the Middle East peace process as failures, with new tools required.
What is also evident is that Trump and his advisers regard the moves at the UN security council and in the UN general assembly to condemn the Jerusalem announcement as an escalation calling for a response.
That response has homed in on some of the most sensitive pressure points in Palestinian society and the peace process more generally.
The Palestinian camps run by UNRWA contain many of the poorest and most disadvantaged Palestinians. It is in these camps, in places such as Ramallah, Nablus and Jenin on the West Bank – and across Gaza – that many of the most radicalised of the Palestinian factions reside.
It was from these camps that the first and second intifadas emerged and where both Fatah and the Islamist group Hamas were born. They are places that pride themselves both on their resilience and on being the conscience of the Palestinian national movement.
Since the second intifada the weapons still held by the factions have largely remained inside these camps, kept under control by the Palestinian security forces of President Mahmoud Abbas.
The interventions by Trump and, hours earlier, his UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, would seem to hit the twin poles of that fragile arrangement: UNRWA and the wider Palestinian Authority.
There is another, more far-reaching impact. For years, the international community, with the US at its head, has “coup-proofed” the Palestinian Authority, to use the term popularised by the political scientist Edward Luttwak.
International financial and technical support for Palestinian bureaucracy has paid salaries and supported NGOs working in key social areas, a flow of cash that has underpinned the Palestinian Authority’s security cooperation with Israel, thereby checking the influence of Hamas on the West Bank.
More serious still, while as yet still a distant prospect, is concern over what would happen if the Palestinian Authority collapsed. One consequence might be a return to Israeli responsibility for administering services in the occupied territories.
Trump and Haley have demonstrated either that they do not understand any of this, or that they do understand but do not care.
The US president is treating the Middle East peace process like a Manhattan property deal that he can bully to the table. But peace negotiations are not property deals, and in a few short weeks Trump has pushed the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Palestinian leadership into a position where it appears they have next to nothing left to lose.
“It’s over,” one Palestinian official told the Guardian. “By tweeting that he has taken Jerusalem ‘off the table’ as an issue he has admitted that US diplomats were lying when they said Jerusalem’s status has not been decided. Instead he is trying to use blackmail and a blame game against the Palestinians. What he is admitting is there is no peace process and no peace plan.”
“His mistake is that he thinks this is one of the deals he is familiar with. But the Palestinians are not a weak company to be taken over. He is ignoring the issue of dignity, which people are prepared to die for.”
Like so much of Trump’s rhetoric, the best hope is that it is no more than hot air. Because the alternative is not Trump’s much vaunted “ultimate deal” but the ultimate destruction of the peace process and all that it entails.