U.S. Political Affairs: Whither the peace process?

New elections in Israel are just the latest nail in the tire of the deflating ‘Deal of the Century.’

By OMRI NAHMIAS
May 31, 2019 07:35
Jared Kushner

Jared Kushner . (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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WASHINGTON – As any cook learns on his first day of culinary school, it is not safe to defrost a dish and then store it back in the icebox. Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt worked for months on defrosting their much anticipated peace plan, and now it seems like they don’t have any choice but to freeze it again for an unknown period. 
 
In any conversation with administration officials during the past two months, there was one word that you could repeatedly hear: momentum. The peace team members were well aware that they have one opportunity to lay out their vision, and it better be successful. 
 
They decided to wait until the elections in Israel were over, even though their plan was pretty much ready, to refrain from hurting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection campaign. Then they avoided interfering with the political negotiations in the new Knesset, waiting until a new coalition would be formed. 
 
Given that their goal is to build momentum, they then decided to wait until after Ramadan and Shavuot, on June 10. Just 12 days ago, we got the first glance of their momentum-building process, with the announcement of a Bahrain “workshop,” in which the peace team is set to roll out the economic component of the deal. 
 
The Palestinians rushed to announce that they would boycott the event, but regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE confirmed their participation, alongside an Israeli delegation. The fact that such major Arab countries are willing to discuss the economic future of the region with the Israeli delegation while the Palestinians are not present drew many speculations as to the potential reaction of the Arab world to the deal’s future political chapter. 
 
While the Bahrain “workshop” is set to take place as planned, the question is if – not when – we will see the political chapter of the deal. With the Knesset’s decision to dissolve itself and enact new elections, the Israeli diplomatic front is now frozen for the next few months. Given the political schedule, no one can promise that Kushner and Greenblatt will have another opportunity to defrost the plan before the US president enters his own reelection year. 
 
“It was clear during the elections that just ended, that Netanyahu did not want the peace plan presented before the election, in case he would have to agree to something that would be politically charged,” said Dan Shapiro, distinguished visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and former US ambassador to Israel, to the The Jerusalem Post
 
“And during coalition negotiations, when things are so unsettled, it’s impossible to bring forward a peace plan,” he continued. “So we now not only can rule out seeing the peace plan before September 17 but probably before November – by the time a new government is formed. By then, Trump has to think about how presenting a peace plan [could] affect his political future, especially if it’s one that asks Israel to make any hard compromises that his base might not support. So I think the odds are increasing that we won’t see the peace plan this year – perhaps not ever.”
 
Shapiro told the Post that in his estimation, the Bahrain conference will probably occur, but will have a limited impact. “Nobody is going to produce real money and [be] supportive of a Palestinian economic plan that is not attached to a peace plan – that they probably will never see. I think that the Trump administration may be out of business on this file for most of the rest of this year.”
 
When asked why US presidents tend not to reveal any significant policy plan during an election year, Shapiro explained that leaders do not like to take the risk that something will go wrong.
 
“A plan that fails and produces a spasm of violence or some other deterioration is an advertisement for the administration’s ineffective foreign policy. The risks are higher during elections – especially if you look at the [plan’s] realistic prospects, which were always poor.
 
“So if you’re going to engage in a very risky, low-probability venture like a Middle East peace plan, with a high likelihood of failure, maybe doing it right before you’re trying to demonstrate that voters should return you to office is not the smartest choice,” Shapiro concluded.
 
Dr. Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington. He told the Post that he believes the Bahrain conference will take place as planned.
 
“It will set the stage for what comes next. But my sense is that they cannot roll out this new plan, probably not until mid-October,” he said.
 
“Kushner and Greenblatt’s team can’t release this plan in good faith while Israel is about to go into yet another election cycle. It would change everything, and probably not necessarily in a way that would make them happy. In other words, by rolling out a plan that reveals compromises that the Israelis will have to make, the Israelis are likely to dig in; the Israeli Right would vote against it; and you would see a new coalition based on either support or rejection of such a deal,” Schanzer added.
 
He raised another potential problem that might occur because of the political chaos in Israel: “The only question that I have is whether these Arab countries are going to be as open to sitting down with a government whose success is not guaranteed. Will they feel as confident in doing so now?”
 
“I thought it was a major victory, not for Palestinian-Israeli peace, but for the Arab world: to be willing to sit down with the Israelis at the table. So now the question is whether they’re going to feel as comfortable doing so,” he said.
 
Ilan Goldenberg is senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security program at the Center for a New American Security. He told the Post that given that no plan could be revealed before the formation of a new government, “the problem then is you’re already near the end of the year, and now you’re running into the American electoral calendar. I think it dramatically reduces the chances that this plan ever even gets to be put out there.”
 
He added that another significant development is that the Palestinian Authority is going through a financial crisis due to its refusal to receive a reduced amount of taxes from Israel, a problem that could be intensified during the election period. The Israeli government decided to deduct each month the amount of money that the PA is paying to families of Palestinian terrorists from the taxes it is collecting.
 
“What everybody had speculated was: once you had the Israeli election, you would quietly find a way to give them the money so that the Palestinian Authority doesn’t collapse. They don’t have until the end of the year. This, in some ways, might be the most profound implication in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So that, I think, is actually very much worth keeping an eye on,” said Goldenberg.
 
He also told the Post that it would be better for the administration to postpone the Bahrain “workshop.”
 
“There is no point in doing any of this right now,” he said. “The workshop was dead on arrival anyway, given that you literally had no Palestinians willing to engage in a conference about the future of the Palestinian economy. It might be that that’s a train wreck waiting to happen, but now the Trump administration has an opportunity to quietly walk away from that for a very good reason.”

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