Trump’s Middle East Peace Plan: Dead on Arrival?

NOTE: An edited version of this piece was published last week by Middle East Eye.  This is an expanded version of that article.

From almost the first day of his presidency, Donald Trump bragged that he would solve the Israel-Palestine conflict.  Among his claims was that he could do what no U.S. president had done.  He called it “the ultimate deal.” By now, most of the world knows Trump is an empty braggart and that his boasts have almost no connection to reality.

But over the past week or so the New York Times and Israeli media have reported that a Trump peace plan is indeed taking shape.  Sources have been vague about the exact contents of the plan though one feature common to every report is that the U.S. will recognize a Palestinian state as part of the overall deal.

Though Trump’s negotiators have also declared they won’t force the parties to adhere to a timeline or deadline to resolve the matter, this Israeli media report indicates Trump has plans to introduce the plan publicly as early as January.

Trump, MBS and ‘the boys’ ‘puttin’ on the Ritz’ [Carlton], where half the royal family is currently imprisoned (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The Plan: What’s in it

Last week, the Israeli news show Hadashot laid out the provisions of the peace plan that had been leaked to it.  Beyond the recognition of a state, the deal would offer Palestinians almost nothing further.  Jerusalem would not be accepted as Palestine’s national capital.  No settler would have to evacuate a single settlement, let alone an entire settlement.  Israel would hit a payday in terms of getting almost all of what it’s demanded and failed to get from previous U.S. administrations:

The US would recognize most of Israel’s stated security needs, including for the ongoing presence of Israeli forces along the Jordan border, the TV report added. It said Netanyahu, for his part, was pushing for the retention of overall Israeli security control in all Palestinian territory. (This is a position Netanyahu has publicly demanded, and which, if granted, would underline that the Palestinians would not be gaining full sovereignty.)

The New York Times earlier reported that under the provisions of the agreement Israel would open trade with the Arab world and its airlines would be permitted to overfly Gulf airspace.  Israeli business people would could now compete openly for major oil, weapons, security consulting and surveillance deals (now they can only do so covertly using European intermediaries established expressly for this purpose).

There would be “land swaps,” but considering that no settlements or settlers would be removed, it’s unclear what land would be swapped and why.  Or as the Times of Israel summarized the Hadashot report: “The borders, however, would “not necessarily” be based on the pre-1967 lines.”

Why, you might ask, would any Palestinian agree to such a deal?  Well, apparently Trump and Bibi Netanyahu believe that Arabs are so venal that they will sell their birthright for a few billion Saudi petrodollars:

Sunni Arab states and others would provide hundreds of millions of dollars in economic assistance for the Palestinians under the plan, to help encourage Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to accept the deal, the report said.

I would venture to say that if you asked any Palestinian whether, if offered a choice, he would prefer to be personally wealthy over his nation achieving full recognition and sovereignty—we would know what the answer would be.

Palestine: It’s Politics, (not Economics), Stupid!

Such a strategy follows a longstanding false assumption by Israel and the U.S. that the Palestinian problem is an economic one at its root, and not political.  Secretaries of State and Israeli prime ministers have touted improvements to the Palestinian economy as the way to resolve the overall conflict.  This is a false and insulting premise.  Can you imagine Britain’s military commander during the Revolutionary War, Lord Cornwallis offering to pay for the construction of Monticello if Thomas Jefferson would agree to America becoming an “autonomous” colony of King George?

In case you’re wondering how or why the plan was leaked now…remember that Bibi Netanyahu faces four separate corruption scandals.  He’s been interrogated for the sixth time by Israeli police this week.  He is desperate to change the subject.  What better way to do that than by leaking to the Israeli public that he might achieve what no other Israeli leader has ever achieved: lasting peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors.

Al Jazeera dismissed the offer to the Palestinians as not only demeaning, but also a repudiation of the Saudis’ own 2002 Peace plan:

…The Kushner deal will not do even minimum justice to the Palestinian national project. While the deal offers strategic gains to Israel, such as ending a Saudi Arab boycott, it offers only tactical gains for the Palestinians, such as financial assistance, prisoners’ release, and a silent, partial freeze of settlement activities outside the large settlement blocs.

The Kushner deal will practically fragment the Saudi-sponsored 2002 Arab Peace Plan that offered Israel full normalisation in return for full withdrawal from Arab lands occupied in 1967. By pressuring Abbas to accept the deal, the Saudi leadership is undermining its own initiative, accepting to partially normalise relations with Israel in exchange for an alliance against Iran.

Though the U.S. has suggested that one way in which its approach is different from previous peace plans is that neither party will be pressured to agree.  There will be no threats.

Abbas, summoned to Riyadh, sits in MBS’ gilded cage (AFP)

Saudi-U.S. Threats Against Abbas

This claim has already been belied by two separate media reports of threats being made against the Palestinians if they reject the deal.  In the first instance, Israeli media reported that when King Salman summoned Mahmoud Abbas to Riyadh for talks, apparently the Palestinian leader pointed out that the deal being offered was less than any Palestinian could accept.  The Saudis were having none of it and presumably told him that if he rejected the deal they would make his life a living hell.  He should, in that event, resign.

Presumably, that would enable the Saudis to install a more quiescent figure like Mohammed Dahlan, now comfortably ensconced in Dubai, who would do their bidding.  In fact, Al Jazeera reports that none other than Dahlan himself “happened” to have been invited to Riyadh at the same time Abbas was there.  Abbas detests Dahlan, who could also be called the Butcher of Gaza.  The Saudi message to Abbas was clear: if we can’t get you to do what we say, we’ll find someone who will.

Considering that they’d just successfully forced the Lebanese premier, Saad Hariri, to resign, the Saudis thought this would intimidate Abbas.  Though the leader of the Palestinian Authority is known as an exceedingly obsequious figure to anyone who offers the right price, even he realizes if he sells out the Palestinian cause history will make a mockery of him.

Last week, the State Department “miraculously” dusted off an obscure 1994 law declaring if the Palestinians call for the International Criminal Court to investigate Israeli war crimes that the U.S. must close the PLO mission in Washington DC.  The U.S. has noted that Abbas’ speech to the UN General Assembly last fall did just that: it called for the ICC, which now included Palestine among its members, to hold Israel accountable for the massive loss of civilian life in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge.  Unspoken in these reports, was the not so subtle threat that the U.S. would close the mission if the PA rejected the Trump peace plan.

Though Abbas isn’t known for having much political spine, Saeb Erekat didn’t miss a beat in responding that if the U.S. did close the Palestinian diplomatic facility, that the PA would cut off all communication with the U.S.  That would certainly put a crimp into Trump’s peace plan.

Through all this we’ve come to see the outlines of what a Trump deal would involve: the provisions would be highly favorable to Israel and dismissive of the Palestinians.  The urge of the latter to summarily reject the deal would be mitigated by overwhelming pressure from the Saudi royals to accept it.

Frankly, despite the near universal consensus from Israel, the U.S., and Saudi Arabia that this deal is a good one; and despite the enormous pressure they can bring to bear on the Palestinians to accept it—I don’t see how they can pull this off.

The U.S. may be banking on the universal acclaim they expect from the world, to finally see a serious peace plan accepted by almost all the parties to the conflict.  But I’d bet that the world will see through the proposed agreement as a sham being perpetrated on the Palestinians.

Stephen Walt, the Belfer Professor of international relations at Harvard University, told me:

…It is hard to believe that Kushner, Friedman and co. are going to come up with a deal that would work, because creating a viable Palestinian state at this stage is impossible without enormous Israeli concessions (reversing forty years of policy) and this Israeli government isn’t going to do that.

One of Netanyahu’s former national security advisors made an amazingly cynical statement essentially saying the Saudis don’t care what peace plan results.  I’m not exaggerating terribly much in summarizing Yaacov Nogel’s account thus: If the deal had nothing more than a “X” on the page along with Abbas’ signature, that would be good enough for MBS.  Nogel’s message was that the Saudis are going through the motions in supporting the Palestinians.  It’s a sham and a show for the rest of the Muslim world.  The only thing that matters for the Saudis is Iran.

You have to immediately discount much of what a figure such as Nogel says.  He’s spouting an Israeli line that reinforces Israel’s interests.  He may just as well have made the entire thing up.  Israelis often do.  But alternatively, some or all of what he claims here may be true.  In fact, it’s likely it is.  And that’s what’s truly sad and predictable about the history of Palestine’s erstwhile Arab allies.  There are so many who’ve parroted solidarity for so long.  But when push comes to shove, they either betray the Palestinians for their own self-interest or stand on the sidelines immobilized.

Iran: the Elephant in the (Israel-Palestine) Room

Middle East observers have noted another long-term factor favoring an agreement: Iran.  Both Israel and the Saudis see Iran as a far more formidable, intractable obstacle than the Palestinians are.  They believe if they can solve the smaller problem (Palestine) the world will look far more favorably on their aggressive approach to confronting Iran and Hezbollah:

“The Arabs and the Israelis are facing two enemies, Iran and terrorism, and they must form an alliance to confront them,” a western diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“But this alliance cannot be established without resolving the Palestinian issue; Saudi Arabia cannot work openly with Israel in the face of Iran, before solving the Palestinian issue, and having the Palestinians themselves involved directly in such an axis.”

In the past few days, both the Washington Post and NY Times have published profiles of Jared Kushner which suggest that he’s lost considerable sway in the Trump orbit.  As he is the one who’s carried the Middle East plan forward and been intensively involved in the regional travel and negotiations to bring it to fruition, this may mean that the plan is dead in the water, as far as making it a major Trump priority.  I would predict that if Kushner is indicted by the special counsel this will kill the deal entirely.  Similarly, if Netanyahu is indicted, it could complicate the process.  Though in Israel’s case, any new prime minister would have similar views and welcome the type of deal which Kushner appears to be selling.