Eyeing detailed peace plan, Trump team could invest years in effort

White House peace team rejects deadlines as it prepares an 'architecture' for serious negotiations.

By
November 18, 2017 20:33

Palestinians and Israelis expect little after Trump/Netanyahu meeting (credit: REUTERS)

Palestinians and Israelis expect little after Trump/Netanyahu meeting (credit: REUTERS)

 
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WASHINGTON — Senior Trump administration officials are working tirelessly on an airtight diplomatic structure that, once revealed, will demonstrate just how serious they are about negotiating a comprehensive peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. But if you ask them, they are not working against a clock.

Deadlines are not a part of President Donald Trump's peace effort, led by Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, and Jason Greenblatt, the US special representative for international negotiations. These two refuse to bind themselves in timetables as they prepare what they describe as an "architecture" for their upcoming initiative.

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It is a notable break in strategy from those of past diplomats who have tried, and failed, to bring peace to the Middle East, along the way claiming time is not on the side of Israelis or Palestinians, and that facts on the ground are diminishing the feasibility of a settlement to this dynamic conflict.

When it is ready, the White House-based team will release what has been described to The Jerusalem Post as an intricately detailed plan– not a grand vision of peace from on high, but specific US proposals to specific disagreements, formed based on months of listening to the parties.

Greenblatt, in particular, is singularly devoted to its preparation, and is less concerned with time pressures than he is with getting all of his ducks in order before the administration's plan becomes official and public.

He knows that, once it does, the scrutiny will be immense – and that the privacy his team has enjoyed thus far in laying its groundwork will come to an end as politics and hard choices come into play.

"Everyone has their own approach," Greenblatt told the Post, "but our goal is to facilitate a comprehensive, enduring peace agreement, and we need the time and flexibility to get that right, which is why we are avoiding artificial deadlines."

After their peace initiative launches, the Trump administration will likely set "targets" over the course of a negotiation that could last between six and 24 months, depending on their initial success. Some of those targets may appear to the casual observer as simplified deadlines for rather modest, incremental diplomatic goals. But the administration does not plan on setting their endgame – a final agreement – up against a hard, preset stop date.

They believe a comprehensive Mideast peace deal can be negotiated in two years.

"We're not focused on when we air this first part – we're focused on baking this and getting it right," a senior White House official told the Post. "We're always going to have haters out there who don't believe we can accomplish anything, or that we're stalling."​

Past US-led initiatives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – including the Camp David Summit in 2000, the 2003 "road map for peace" and a 2013-2014 effort led by former Secretary of State John Kerry – all incorporated fixed deadlines that experts say may have contributed to their failure. Greenblatt says that any success his team achieves will be on the shoulders of those who came before him. But he is also trying to learn from past errors.

Marco Pinfari, an associate dean at the American University in Cairo and author of Peace Negotiations and Time: Deadline Diplomacy in Territorial Disputes, told the Post that deadlines at best produce short-term diplomatic achievements rather than durable, long-term solutions to complex and age-old problems.

"Deadline diplomacy works best in simple negotiations," Pinfari said. "Despite the impression that time pressure can help get things done more quickly and efficiently, in peace negotiations the presence of tight deadlines usually exacerbates in-group rivalries and makes negotiators more sensitive to negative information, uncomfortable with managing multiple tasks, more risk averse and less willing to show flexibility."

In particular, Pinfari warned against using deadlines in the way that US diplomats did in 2003, when three distinct phases were proposed with broad, unrealistic goals pegged to each. As deadlines came and went without progress, the credibility of the entire process was undermined.

In the words of another esteemed thinker on the psychology of negotiations and conflict management, Peter Carnevale, the Camp David Summit showed that deadlines are not designed "to resolve a one hundred-year conflict in a matter of months.” Hurrying based on “mismatched timetables” is a recipe for failure, Carnevale wrote in his 2005 work, Psychological Barriers to Negotiations.

In 2013, when Kerry launched direct talks on a fixed 10-month time-frame, it was the Palestinians who insisted on a deadline, one former diplomat involved in that negotiation recalls.

"The Palestinian side did not want to miss more than one cycle at the United Nations where they could grandstand on this issue, so I think the deadline was actually forced in that sense," said David Makovsky, director of the project on the Middle East peace process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a veteran of Kerry's team. "Of course, if things were going really well, those deadlines could have been deferred."

"The Palestinian view is that everything had already been discussed ad nauseam and that it was a time for decisions," Makovsky added. "They felt you didn't need much time, and the Israelis disagreed."

When there is an imbalance in the politics of time– when the conflict at hand is not static, and when facts on the ground are changing in favor of one party over another– deadline diplomacy is virtually guaranteed to fail, Pingari warned, based on an analysis of major peace efforts launched in the post-Cold War period. In this case, one can argue Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has time on his side as settlements continue to grow, and with them, the base of his political coalition expands.

Former President Barack Obama and his administration argued to the contrary that settlements were, in fact, Israel's own worst enemy: That the more politically relevant their inhabitants became, the more beholden Israel's future will be to a political fringe denying the country a viable and long-term peace.

To Obama and Kerry, the time pressures on negotiating Israeli-Palestinian peace weren't artificial: They were real, based on developments in the conflict that in their view were quickly closing the window for a durable settlement.

The Trump administration does not necessarily disagree – but it also does not believe it is Washington's place to impose on a sovereign ally its own vision for their future. The White House acknowledges that settlement activity is unhelpful to the pursuit of a genuine peace agreement, and understands that their unchecked expansion would ultimately deny Palestinians the possibility of a sovereign state. But it does not believe that so many homes will be built in a two-year negotiating period that the grounds will shift decisively, rendering a comprehensive peace agreement – ostensibly resulting in two states for two peoples – unattainable.

"There are negatives," the White House official said, "but there are also positive factors on the ground to work with."

Indeed, an alignment of interests between the Arab world and the Jewish state could not have been forced within a set time frame – it happened organically, and the administration plans to leverage regional developments it considers serendipitous to the greatest extent possible.

But for now, the administration is focused on preparing a thorough framework that all parties will respect – and on preparing the Israeli and Palestinian people for a serious discussion on resolving their conflict for good.

"We needed to focus on getting peace back in the conversations of both societies," the official added.


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