March 13, 2017 - Trump launches an Israeli-Palestinian peace process

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses Trump's plan to bring Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to Washington and to send special representative for international negotiations Jason Greenblatt to Israel and Palestine; possible advantages this administration might have over its predecessors in sponsoring a peace process; Trump's drawbacks as a peace mediator; possible collaboration with the region’s Sunni Arab states that need Trump's support against both Iran and ISIS; whether peace process issues are flexible enough to sustain concessions and enable creative compromise in the spirit of Trump’s brand of deal-making; and whether Trump's emerging team of negotiators are aware of important nuances.

 

Q. President Trump is bringing Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to Washington, sending special representative for international negotiations Jason Greenblatt to Israel and Palestine, and talking about convening a regional peace conference. How do you assess this effort?

A. Like so many of Trump’s initiatives, it’s difficult to discern a clear foundation of strategic thinking behind it. Certainly the administration has not sponsored or authored any sort of vision regarding precisely what its end goal looks like. But Trump said this would be the “ultimate deal” and now, barely 50 days into his administration, he has taken the initiative. For purposes of this discussion, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and consider the possibilities.

 

Q. Let’s assume that, following the Abbas visit to Washington, some sort of process is launched. What advantages does this administration have over its predecessors in sponsoring a peace process?

A. Trump does not owe his election to overwhelming pro-Israel or pro-Arab support that has to be reciprocated. Nor does he have any consistent ideological baggage that commits him to one side or another. He has supported West Bank settlements, but also two states--even musing, apparently at PM Netanyahu’s behest--about a one-state solution. He has embraced the challenge of a peace process but also served notice that in terms of content he is a free agent: both Israelis and Palestinians understand by now that tomorrow night Trump could tweet something either useful or outrageous with regard to the parameters for a solution.

Trump has already telegraphed his unpredictability to both sides. Toward Israel, he has on the one hand accepted the contention that settlements are not the heart of the problem and is sending an ambassador, David Friedman, and a personal representative, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, both of whom have records of supporting the settlements. On the other hand, he has asked Netanyahu to slow down regarding settlement expansion outside the blocs that hug the green line 1967 boundary. And he has put a damper on the initial assessment of the Israeli messianic pro-settler right-wing that Trump’s election means the end of US support for the two-state concept.

Toward the Palestinians, Trump began by freezing US financial aid to the Palestinian Authority and announcing that the US embassy in Israel would move to Jerusalem. He then initiated a phone conversation with PLO/PA leader Mahmoud Abbas, invited him to a meeting in Washington sometime in the days or weeks ahead, and dispatched Greenblatt to Israel and the PA.

Whether by design or not, these flip-flop tactics have the effect of upsetting the equilibrium of both Israelis and Palestinians. Accordingly, this gives Trump’s emissaries and negotiators, if they are creative enough, a tactical advantage in terms of demanding concessions from both sides.

Yet another advantage Trump enjoys is regional. The US is not beholden to Arab oil any more. Much of the Arab world is anxious to ensure American support against a perceived threat from Iran, an issue where Trump seems more attractive than President Obama in his day. The Palestinian issue has faded as a central Arab issue, particularly at a time when the Palestinian leadership is hopelessly split between the PLO and Hamas and Abbas is perceived as a lame duck leader. On the face of it, this means that to boost his peace initiative Trump could seek to organize heavy Arab pressure on Abbas as well as Arab incentives--security assurances, normalization--for Netanyahu.

 

Q. And Trump’s drawbacks as a peace mediator?

A.  First of all, he has competition from Moscow. Having established a strategic beachhead in Syria, Russian President Putin is moving forward energetically to stake out a Russian role as arms supplier and mediator in Egypt, Libya and Yemen and to offer his services to the Palestinians as mediator. In recent months, Putin has twice invited Abbas and Netanyahu to sit down with him in Moscow (Netanyahu declined in deference to Trump). And he has convened a dozen diverse Palestinian actors in Moscow ranging in affiliation from Fateh to Hamas in an effort to harmonize their ideological and leadership differences.

Trump’s administration is mired in deep controversy over its attitude toward Russia. Some of Trump’s people have had cozy relationships with the Kremlin, while serious charges of Russian interference in the US presidential election backed by the entire US intelligence establishment are being investigated. When it comes to an effort to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians, Putin can be either a help or a hindrance to Trump.

Then too, on balance Trump has given the Palestinians far more excuses for not embracing his peace efforts than he has given the Netanyahu government. Freezing financial aid is a lot more painful for the PA than pressuring Netanyahu to go slow for a while on settlements. So is the threat to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, which could generate a wave of violence that might threaten Abbas’s rule. It stands to reason that Abbas will confront Trump with demands to rescind both measures publicly as preconditions for entering any negotiating process.

By the same token, Trump’s negotiators and ambassadors enter the arena bearing huge virtual signs on their backs that label them “pro-settlement, anti-Palestinian”. True, that makes any concession or gesture they offer the Palestinians something to be grateful for. And true, too, the Palestinians are accustomed to dealing with American Jewish interlocutors who make no secret of their attachment to Israel. Still, Greenblatt, Friedman, Kushner and company with their orthodox leanings and history of settlement affiliation are ostensibly a far more offensive team in Palestinian eyes and will have to work hard to belay that impression and acquire an understanding of the Palestinian narrative and the Palestinian approach.

 

Q. Unless Trump’s cynical game plan is to apply overwhelming financial and political pressure on both sides to capitulate and make far-reaching concessions to one another. Here Trump might collaborate with the region’s Sunni Arab states that need his support against both Iran and ISIS.

A. Collaborating with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE makes sense and is possible. But thus far we have seen nothing in Trump’s behavior to support the notion that he would risk going all-out to pressure both sides.

Moreover, if I were advising Trump I would point out that the political reality on both the Israeli and the Palestinian side is probably both too extreme and too fragile to enable such a gambit to succeed.

On the Israeli side, Netanyahu is indeed weak enough as a leader and power-hungry enough as a politician to capitulate to American pressures--say, regarding territorial concessions in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But he won’t, because his predominantly right-religious-messianic coalition would revolt against him, thereby causing a political crisis and new elections that would paralyze the system for half a year at least without any clear prospect of a more moderate leader climbing to the top of the Israeli political pyramid.

On the Palestinian side, Abbas’s younger rivals within Fateh would attack him over any capitulation on a major issue like, say, holy places. And Hamas in Gaza could disrupt the process at will by firing volleys of rockets and starting a new war. Worse, to the extent that Trump acts in Syria to remove Iran and its allies from the country--something Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are demanding and Trump may have begun to do with an initial deployment there of US troops--Hezbollah in southern Lebanon could respond by starting a new round of violence “on behalf of the Palestinians”, thereby scuttling a nascent peace process.

In short, neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian leadership situation and political reality would render it easy to apply heavy pressure successfully.

 

Q. Let’s say there is enough fatigue, enough will and enough sensitivity to pressure both sides. Are all peace process issues flexible enough to sustain concessions and enable creative compromise and bridging arrangements in the spirit of Trump’s brand of deal-making?

A. Can presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, a “natural deal-maker” according to his father-in-law, negotiate his way through all the issues even if he is the most talented deal-maker in the world? The answer is no, for two reasons that are based on a reading of lessons derived from nearly 25 years of negotiating the Oslo agenda of final status issues.

Some of the Oslo issues are indeed ripe for compromise. A good example is the extent of West Bank land Israel needs for settlement blocs and what it will give the Palestinians in return (“swaps”): another 1.5 percent here or there can be finessed. So can security arrangements: who will guarantee them, how long they will be in place, exactly where, etc.

But the Palestinian demand that Israel recognize in principle the right of return of all five million 1948 refugees and their descendants--a demand Israel considers to be an acknowledgement that the State of Israel was “born in sin”, hence is illegitimate--has not proven negotiable. By the same token, the Israeli demand to be recognized as a Jewish state or the state of the Jewish people is understood by the Palestinians as a rejection of their historical narrative of unjustified and illegal displacement in 1948. These narrative issues appear to be far less open to compromise than issues of land and security.

 

Q. Then why not discuss just land, security and other non-narrative issues?

A. Because the prevailing ground rule for Israeli-Palestinian final status negotiations, “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”, has become thoroughly entrenched over the past 25 years. This means that the parties can agree on a border between them, one skillfully negotiated by a clever deal-maker, but not reach a final status agreement because they disagree over the right of return--where it has proven virtually impossible to simply “split the difference” as in, say, a property development deal.

 

Q. This brings us to the last question: is Trump’s emerging team of negotiators even aware of these nuances?

A. Probably not, insofar as they are coming into the process from an opening “hard right” set of positions. This means that in the best case they will have a lot of catching up to do.

 

Q. And in the more likely case, in reality?

A. They will crash land, causing a lot of damage along the way. Stay tuned.

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