WASHINGTON -- In the aftermath of Donald Trump's decision to declare Jerusalem as Israel's capital— as Palestinian leaders began dismissing his administration as a serious arbiter of peace— top officials in the West Wing and nearby Executive Office Building made a decision: They would proceed with a flurry of scheduled inter-agency meetings on their plan for Middle East peace as if nothing had changed.
The White House "peace team" labored for a year to build a delicate trust with the Palestinians, compromised virtually overnight by a series of dramatic decisions made by the president himself. Trump's Jerusalem move came on the heels of the US threatening the Palestinian Authority with the closure of its Washington offices. Now the temperamental commander-in-chief was tweeting threats of aid cuts unless Ramallah began showing him some respect.
Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, and Jason Greenblatt, his special representative for international negotiations, refused to allow a series of confrontations with the PA to affect their peace plan– a working document that has produced hundreds of pages of ideas, and that will for the first time include US-led proposals addressing the thorniest issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Kushner and Greenblatt believe they can insulate their peace initiative from a diplomatic crisis with the PA– and that the plan, once presented, will appeal on its face to the Palestinians and the wider Arab world, effectively nullifying their angry response to the Jerusalem decision.
"Maybe on a personal level they are angry with us," a senior White House official told The Jerusalem Post
this week. "They're trying to make it look like we've lost credibility. But a peace process and a credible conclusion to that process can't happen without the US– they know that. And once the plan is revealed, it will speak for itself."
Each battle with the Palestinians over the last month– over the fate of the ancient city, action at the United Nations and the future of US assistance– has been led personally by the president. It was a characteristically combative entrance for Trump into the conflict. Administration officials said that his moves on Jerusalem and his threats regarding Palestinian aid were not orchestrated or directed by the Middle East peace team– they are not part of its strategy to jump-start direct negotiations– but rather have genuinely been at Trump's own initiative.
Kushner and Greenblatt– who have known Trump for over a decade– were not caught completely off guard by Trump's behavior or by his tweets, all of which have been based on discussions with his foreign policy team. "Ultimately the strategy comes from the president, not the other way around– we work for him," the senior official said.
And yet those tweets have caused great concern amongst Palestinian leadership, which cannot determine whether Trump is getting bad advice from his aides or whether good advice is going ignored.
"It is very clear to us that Trump’s tweets are becoming foreign policy. It is true that they are part of his personality and psychology, but the reality of these tweets is that they form US foreign policy," said Ahmad Majdalani, a PLO Executive Committee member and confidante of PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
Trump wrote last week on Twitter that the Palestinians are not interested in discussing an agreement with Israel and are unappreciative of the "HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS" in US aid they receive each year, after Abbas said that Trump, with his Jerusalem decision, had relinquished his role as a sponsor of the peace peace.
Days later, administration officials acknowledged that the White House would consider various forms of aid cuts to the Palestinians, including through its funding of UNRWA, the UN's relief agency for Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
On top of that, they have endorsed the Taylor Force Act, a bill nearly certain to pass the Senate by springtime that will threaten the PA with a dramatic aid cut if it fails to cease its program compensating the families of Palestinians convicted of murder and terrorism in Israel. "We strongly support it and are waiting to see what comes out of Congress," a senior White House official confirmed over the weekend.
"It is very clear that [Trump] individually makes important and fateful foreign policy decisions irregardless of his advisers’ and the political establishment’s opinions, who and which have a wealth of experience and knowledge in terms of international relations," Majdalani said. "In addition, what is unique about this administration is its lack of experience in managing international relations and the sensitive and grave situation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the peace process in the region."
The peace team recognizes that its working relationship with the Palestinians has been damaged by events of the past month. But Kushner and Greenblatt believe these developments are entirely separate from their core mission– or should be. Recent battles, according to senior White House officials, are actually about Trump's broader attitude toward international bodies, toward foreign aid, and toward people who insult him.
Trump has been threatening to cut or leverage US foreign aid since the 1980s not specifically with the Palestinians but with virtually every country in the world. He has anxiously searched for an excuse to slash funding to international bodies– the UN chief among them. But most importantly, the president feels that Abbas' response to the Jerusalem announcement amounted to a personal attack against him as a leader. And when Trump feels as if he has been hit, he famously feels compelled to hit back.
"Nothing has impacted the plan, or the drafting of the plan," a second senior official said. "But when people say things about us that aren't true, we will respond."
Trump's announcement on Jerusalem felt like a political paradigm shift in the conflict– but his peace team hopes that the presentation of their plan will amount to a corrective, its content so apparently enticing to the Palestinians that they will have no choice but to return to the table.
The team believes its plan will surprise critics who expect it will be a free lunch for Israel, served up by three Orthodox Jews and a Coptic Christian– Kushner, Greenblatt, US ambassador to Israel David Friedman and outgoing deputy national security advisor Dina Powell. One measure of its veracity will be buy-in from Arab powers, who responded mutedly to Trump's Jerusalem move purportedly in anticipation of this lengthier, more substantive proposal.
Assuming Arab capitals support the contents of the peace plan, the Trump administration hopes they will apply subtle pressure on the Palestinians to give it a fair shake.
"We want regional support, not regional pressure – but a nudge for them to give the plan an honest look would be welcome," the senior White House official said.
But Majdalani said that PA leadership is already preparing for a plan that subverts Palestinian interests to Trump's pursuit of an Arab-Israeli alliance.
"What is the goal this political process that President Trump will sponsor other than to establish a regional alliance led by the US with Israel’s active participation to confront and contain the Iranian influence in the region?" Majdalani asked. "This issue– the establishment of an alliance at the expense of our interests– for us as Palestinians, is absolutely not acceptable."
After Trump's Jerusalem move, US allies in Europe called on Trump to expedite the launch of his peace initiative. Both British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron condemned the decision, but indicated they would withhold judgment of the US' overall strategy until after the administration presents its plan.
An administration official said they expect both powers will be supportive. "France and Britain, like many other countries in Europe and around the world, have signaled they are ready to help support us in our efforts to reach a comprehensive peace agreement," the official said.
Dan Shapiro, former US ambassador to Israel under President Barack Obama, encouraged his successors to incorporate "threats and leverage" into a comprehensive strategy that gets both sides back to the negotiating table.
Greenblatt and Kushner "have worked hard to build trust and credibility with all parties, and deserve a chance to have their plan presented without uncoordinated outbursts from the president making it harder," said Shapiro, who is now a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. "Trump's tweets on Palestinian assistance, even if based on legitimate frustrations with Palestinian behavior, are an unneeded distraction, particularly if, as has always been the case in the past, the Israeli government sees its interests being served by the continuation of this aid."
"The Palestinians would be wise to climb down from the limb they are out on, claiming they have given up on the United States as a mediator in Middle East peace talks. There is really no alternative, and time doesn't work in their favor," Shapiro said. "But Trump and his team should focus on our broader strategic interest: the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a negotiated two-state solution."
Trump said in December that he is open to a two-state solution to the conflict that satisfies both sides. This month, he told UN diplomats via video: "The United States remains committed to achieving lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians– there's no reason that peace should not be entered into."
Administration officials declined to provide a timeframe for the release of their peace plan, which no longer includes the active consultation of Palestinian leadership. Israeli officials remain in close touch with the president and his senior aides.
One official characterized bickering with the Palestinians that will invariably continue between now and then as static white noise.
"What ultimately matters is the content of the plan," the senior White House official said.Adam Rasgon contributed to this report.