Sometime in the coming weeks, the US will present the much-anticipated peace plan it has been working on since President Donald Trump entered the Oval Office 18 months ago.
What the plan exactly contains remains a mystery, but based on rumblings in Washington and Jerusalem, it has the potential to shake up the region. Here is why:
First, the plan is one of the closest-guarded secrets in Washington these days, with the White House going to great pains to ensure that nothing leaks out.
Until now, the written version, for example, could not be sent by email and could only be viewed from within the White House or the adjacent Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where Trump’s Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt and his team have their offices.
The plan is split into a number of subjects. There is, for example, an entire section on Jerusalem, on the settlements, on the Palestinian refugees, as well as on all of the other key issues at the core of the longstanding conflict. Some sections are hundreds of pages long. Others are shorter.
The executive summary is likely to be just a few dozen pages, long enough to go into some detail on the core issues but also short enough for the sides to read once it is presented to them. The Mideast tour this past week by Trump’s Senior Adviser Jared Kushner and Greenblatt – including stops in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel – appears to be a final round of consultations before the roll out. Basically, an opportunity to test the waters one more time.
How the plan will be rolled out is an interesting question of its own. It can’t simply be posted online or just given to the different sides. Trump will likely need to give a speech providing the basic outline of the plan alongside a call on the sides to renew talks.
Another option is for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to make an announcement, although it seems that his involvement on the issue remains minimal.
Israeli officials have not seen the final plan, but some claim to have learned bits and pieces. For example, in May we published
how Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman understood during his recent trip to Washington that the plan would call for the establishment of a Palestinian capital in some of the Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem.
The White House denied the report, but then a few weeks later, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid declared that the plan would designate Abu Dis
, a Palestinian village outside Jerusalem, as the capital of the future Palestinian state.
Obviously, the Abu Dis option would be more politically compatible for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. East Jerusalem would be more complicated.
The same applies to the Palestinians. They would likely not be able to accept a plan that designates Abu Dis as their capital, but calls on them to relinquish their rights over east Jerusalem, something that was part of past offers made by prime ministers Ehud Barak (2000) and Ehud Olmert (2008).
What about the future of settlements in the West Bank? Do those beyond the barrier and outside the blocs get evacuated, or are they allowed to remain?
Israel would prefer a plan that doesn’t require a mass expulsion of Jews from the West Bank, as would some Americans who question how pushing for a move that could ignite a civil war in Israel serves US interests. The US, these people claim, needs to ensure the stability of its strongest ally in the Middle East, not weaken it.
And then there is security control over the Jordan Valley and the rest of the West Bank. Does Israel get to keep a presence there indefinitely or will the time frame be limited?
These are just some of the issues that have the potential to end future peace negotiations before they begin. The fact that Kushner and Greenblatt were not scheduled to meet this week with Palestinian officials makes one wonder what hope there can be for a plan if one of the sides has nothing to do with it.
This is where the innovative American thinking comes into play. Based on talks with Israeli, American and European officials in recent months, it seems to me that the administration has two different agendas at play behind its interest in advancing a peace plan.
The first is a genuine desire to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinian people. Trump spoke about it immediately after winning the election in November 2016 and has called it the ultimate deal.
After a successful summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, he sees no reason why he can’t achieve the same with two parties that enjoy close ties with the US as well as direct security assistance. That dependence, in Trump’s transactional mind, should come with a tangible return or at the very least the launching of direct negotiations.
The chance of a deal being reached seems far fetched. The obvious reason are the Palestinians themselves. Mahmoud Abbas is a failed leader who prefers to pay salaries to jailed terrorists and incite against Israel than work toward reconciliation.
As long as he remains in power a deal seems impossible. I could go on about Hamas being in control of the Gaza Strip, the failure of Abbas to reunite his people, and the fact that a peace deal that does not end all hostilities and future claims (since Hamas won’t be a side to it) is probably not worth signing.
But there is no better proof of its likely failure than the fact that Abbas has already refused every deal until now, even those mediated by administrations much more sympathetic to him and his cause. To think he would get a better deal now and suddenly accept it is hard to imagine.
And then there is Netanyahu.
While the prime minister says he is prepared to renew negotiations, he also has been known to be intransigent at times especially when facing political challenges. Elections are going to take place sometime in the coming year, and all indications are that Netanyahu will want to go to polls before a decision is made to indict him in any of the ongoing police investigations. He will not want to do so from a position of someone who seems to be making concessions to the Palestinians.
On the contrary – Netanyahu always does better in elections when he appears tough with the Palestinians. Just look at his last-minute rejection of a Palestinian state in the 2015 elections, when he declared that if he is elected there would not be a Palestinian state. Now try walking that back again with elections looming on the horizon.
Which brings us to the administration’s second interest: moving the goalpost.
From Day One, the Trump administration said it was approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a clean slate and without a bias toward one solution (two states) or the other (one state). What this effectively meant was that all past assumptions were no longer set in stone. The fact that until now the Palestinians assumed, for example, that east Jerusalem was theirs and that all settlements would be removed became meaningless.
This served two important purposes. First was getting the Palestinians to realize that time was not on their side. Moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv was a further demonstration of that exact point. Under Barack Obama, the Palestinians could sit and have the US do its work. With Trump, that is no longer the case.
The second purpose was moving the goalpost. If the peace plan, for example, says settlements should remain in place and not be evacuated, that is a significant change. If it recognizes all of the settlement blocs and allows Israel to build there, that is also a significant change. Both would potentially apply to future administrations when and if they try to broker a deal.
According to this strategy, the idea is not simply to try and reach a final deal now, but also to create a tangible change in assumptions to enable a deal when the conditions are ripe. While that might not seem like much, it is. After 25 years of trying the Oslo paradigm and failing, now is as a good time as any to shake things up.
This might also explain why the lack of a meeting between Kushner, Greenblatt and the Palestinians is not seen an obstacle. The plan is simply not for Ramallah. It is for Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
If they all accept the deal, or at the very least praise it as a positive step, the Palestinians will have difficulty rejecting it. If all these countries say, for example, that the “deal is an important step toward peace,” it will be difficult for the Palestinians to turn it down.
And after all of this, there is one wild card no one can anticipate: the president himself. There is no clear equation for how he operates or when he tweets against one ally – recent examples are Canada and Germany – or another.
Trump’s unpredictability is actually an asset in this case. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is in desperate need of a shake-up. It is like a bad 1980s TV rerun, and has been that way for a long, long time.
With Trump at the helm, we can expect the unexpected. What remains to be seen is if his unconventional tactics will work on this age-old conflict.
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