Hard Questions, Tough Answers (June 19, 2018) - Trump’s Mideast peace emissaries are back in the region. So?

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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 Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt's trip to the Middle East, during which they will not meet with the Palestinian leadership or release an “ultimate deal” peace plan; whether Israel, the Palestinians, and other Arabs should be pleased or concerned with Trump’s performance in Singapore; whether bringing investments to Gaza’s two million inhabitants will be good for peace; Hamas and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas's anti-Semitic gospel; Netanyahu's meeting in Amman with Jordan’s King Abdullah II; how tuned in the Israeli public is to all this maneuvering; and current events in Gaza.

 

Q. Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, Pres. Trump’s Middle East peace emissaries, are back. But they won’t meet with the Palestinian leadership and don’t yet have an “ultimate deal” peace plan. So what’s the point?

A. One explanation for this visit is an understandable desire to leverage the perception of President Trump’s successful Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jung-un. This puts the focus on US designs regarding Iran, not Israel-Palestine, and helps explain why Saudi Arabia and Qatar are on the emissaries’ itinerary, along with Egypt, Jordan and Israel.

Kushner and Greenblatt have also let it be known that they hope to recruit up to one billion dollars from the Saudis and Qataris for building key infrastructure either in the Gaza Strip itself or nearby, in Egyptian Sinai where electricity generation and desalination would service neighboring Gazans. Here the assumption is that a more prosperous and economically stabilized Strip will be beneficial to the peace process and that Egypt can hardly say no to investment in northeast Sinai, where Cairo is hard put to suppress ISIS forces.

Then too, Kushner and Greenblatt reportedly plan to consult with their Arab and Israeli interlocutors regarding ideas for the Trump peace plan, including the timing of its presentation. Note that there is no deadline and that the US peace team now apparently emphasizes that’s its eventual proposal will not be a take it or leave it “ultimate deal” but rather an agenda for renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Is this a tiny note of realism? Or, rather, is it a signal that the Trump peace plan will have little to do with Palestinians and a lot to do with galvanizing an Arab-Israel anti-Iran front at the expense of both the Palestinians and--absent a viable two-state solution--Israel’s status as a democratic Jewish state?

 

Q. Let’s break down the rationales for the visit one-by-one. Should Israel and the Palestinians and other Arabs be pleased or concerned with Trump’s performance in Singapore?

A. Everyone should be concerned with an achievement that was best described by veteran US Middle East expert Rob Malley as “Little gained (statement about as vacuous as possible), little lost (no irreversible commitment by either), much avoided (prospect of war receded), everything left to be done. . .”. That leaves Iran cautiously optimistic that Trump’s treatment of the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal will also consist primarily of smoke and mirrors. Israel, on the other hand, has to ask itself how far it can trust a US leader who unilaterally and unsentimentally cancels military understandings with another veteran ally, South Korea, just two days after trashing (at the G7 in Canada) those other veteran allies, the Europeans.

Still, to the extent the message of Singapore is perceived as “Iran is next”, Israel and the Sunni Arab countries are reacting optimistically.

 

Q. Do you share the concept that bringing investments to Gaza’s two million inhabitants will be good for peace?

A. It will be good for Gazans, who are sinking into a humanitarian crisis, and that in itself is a good thing. Both Qatar and Egypt are on talking terms with Hamas, so they are the obvious conduit for both Saudi and Qatari aid. Here, by the way, the Trump team will have to tread carefully in view of the feud, now going on for more than a year, between Qatar on the one hand and the Saudis and Emiratis on the other.

But rebuilding Gaza under Hamas rule will do little if anything for peace. At least in the Palestinian context, “economic peace” has never succeeded, because this is a territorial, ideological and increasingly religious conflict that is not mitigated by economic aid. To the extent the US plan is to base Israeli-Palestinian peace on a prosperous Gaza Strip led by Hamas--which still calls for Israel’s disappearance and endorses the Protocols of the Elders of Zion--that plan will be built on quicksand.

Still, no one can begrudge an effort to improve the quality of life of Gazans. And if new infrastructure for Gaza is located across the border in Egypt, then at least it won’t be destroyed in the next Israel-Hamas round of fighting. Clever idea! But will Egypt agree to accept such deep responsibility for Palestinians, who they argue are Israel’s problem?

 

Q. Like Hamas, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) also repeats anti-Semitic gospel. And he refuses to talk with the US peace emissaries. Where does that leave us?

A. Abu Mazen has also been withholding PA funds from Gaza, thereby further exacerbating the Strip’s economic plight and contributing to the current Gaza violence and the Trump administration’s perception that there is no one to talk to in Ramallah. And Abu Mazen has directed PA security forces to violently suppress West Bank demonstrators who support the Gaza fence demonstrations and incendiary kite attacks against the Israeli Gaza periphery settlements.

All this appears to reflect Abu Mazen’s growing dilemma. His positions regarding several core issues of the conflict with Israel render him an unproductive negotiating partner even if he does talk to the Trump team. His leadership profile is fading and his many rivals are rearing their heads. Chief among these is Hamas itself, which has been investing increasingly in forming West Bank-based terror teams, one of which was uncovered last week by Israel before its 20-some members could detonate large explosive devices in Tel Aviv.

A productive peace process could give Abu Mazen a platform for continued leadership. But beyond his own extreme demands on issues like the right of return and the status of the Temple Mount, he and his peace team understandably see nothing constructive or useful in the positions laid out to them thus far by the Greenblatt team. In recent weeks the huge gap between US proposals and the Ramallah-based PLO/PA was discussed for all to see in an exchange of op-eds in Haaretz between Greenblatt and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat.

Greenblatt argued that “there’s no Palestinian partner” and that the Palestinians are engaging in “overwrought rhetoric”. Erekat claimed that Greenblatt had, in their meetings, refused to discuss the settlements, future borders or even a two-state solution. Note that Greenblatt, Kushner and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman are all supporters of the settlements and have not endorsed a two-state outcome. This is the backdrop to the decision of the Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership to cut its ties with the Trump peace team over Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the opening of a US embassy there, which according to Trump “took Jerusalem off the agenda” as well.

Increasingly, the Abbas peace team feels it is being isolated and maneuvered into a minor role in a glorified autonomy scheme that ostensibly is endorsed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MbS) in return for US backing against Iran and perhaps a Saudi role regarding Jerusalem’s Muslim holy places. If Abbas is withholding funds from Gaza in the hope of starving it into submission to the PA, he can hardly be happy with the Trump team’s ambitious economic and perhaps political plans for the Strip.

 

Q. On Monday Netanyahu met in Amman with Jordan’s King Abdullah II. Is this connected to the US plan and the peace team’s current visit?

A. The timing would appear to indicate that there is a connection. True, a meeting was long overdue after the rift in Israeli-Jordanian relations caused more than a year ago by a security incident at the Israel Embassy in Amman and Netanyahu’s ostentatious hero’s welcome for the Israeli security guard who killed at least one innocent Jordanian.

But the timing hopefully reflects a desire on Netanyahu’s part to reassure the king that, whatever the US team and MbS are cooking up in terms of an enhanced role for the Saudis in Jerusalem as part of a peace deal, Israel would stand by the Jordanian king. Jordan’s responsibility for the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif as a Muslim holy site is anchored in the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty. Jordan is also a far more reliable security partner for Israel than Saudi Arabia.

As for Abdullah, he presumably reiterated to Netanyahu Jordan’s traditional support for a full-fledged Palestinian state in the West Bank as demanded by the Palestinians and as required by the Hashemite Kingdom for its own national integrity. He may also have shared his concerns regarding Saudi support for a US solution that falls short of a viable Palestinian state, thereby generating new Palestinian political and demographic pressures on Jordan.

In any event, Jordan is at odds with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have been pressuring Jordan to take their side in the dispute with Qatar, which Jordan has refused to do. Recently MbS relented and agreed to bail out the crisis-stricken Jordanian economy. Abdullah was careful to solicit a donation from Qatar as well in order to maintain balance.

We have to hope that the Netanyahu peace team is aware--before it does too much damage--that MbS is a serial bungler when it comes to Saudi strategic initiatives, e.g., the disastrous war in Yemen, the abortive detention of Lebanese PM al-Hariri, and the unproductive squabble with Qatar. Indeed, how Kushner and Greenblatt hope to finess all these inter-Arab tensions while pushing a peace plan that is detached from the realities of Palestinian geopolitics is truly hard to comprehend.

 

Q. How tuned in is the Israeli public to all this maneuvering?

A. As of Tuesday, the current Greenblatt-Kushner trip was barely covered on page 7 of the Israeli daily newspapers. It was not mentioned on TV and radio news. After all, no new peace plan is going to be unveiled, and whatever investments are recruited for Gaza will be channeled via Egypt, not Israel.

Curiously, Israelis are far more preoccupied with two issues that indirectly link up to the country’s main strategic challenges. On the Iran front, the General Security Service just arrested a former government minister, Gonen Segev, on charges of spying for Iran. The security damage is apparently minor, but the shock is considerable.

And on the Palestinian front, following Argentina’s conspicuous Jerusalem-linked no-show for a pre-World Cup soccer match in Israel’s capital, PM Netanyahu is maneuvering to rebuff yet more overflow from last month’s US embassy opening. He now confronts a growing campaign to prevent next year’s Eurovision song contest from being held in Jerusalem.

 

Q. Meanwhile, back in Gaza . . .

A. Incendiary kite and balloon attacks from Gaza continue and Israelis are confronted daily with the scorched-earth specter of more than 6,000 acres burned on the Israeli side of the Gaza fence. True, no lives have been lost and only 25 percent of the burned land is agricultural. The IDF insists these daily arson attacks are not a casus belli; it has not directly targeted the civilian kite launchers. It does however retaliate against Hamas, which supplies the kites and responds with rockets, and the resultant tit-for-tat could easily escalate into a new Gaza war. The IDF much prefers to concentrate on Israel’s Iran front in Syria, where the Israel Air Force reportedly killed dozens of Iranian-proxy Iraqi Shiite soldiers on Sunday in eastern Syria.

Between the “campaign-between-wars” on Israel’s northern front and the risk of war on the Gaza front; between Abu Mazen’s obstinacy and Netanyahu’s complacency on the Palestinian front; between the Trump team’s ignorance of the true nature of the Palestinian conflict and MbS’s serial foreign policy gaffes--don’t expect a positive outcome this time around from Jared and Jason.

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