Washington Watch: The peace gamble

“He’s a good boy and he will get an Israel agreement that no one else would pull off.”

January 18, 2017 21:44
Mideast peace conference

US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with European Union Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini as they take part with other foreign ministers and representatives in a family picture during the Mideast peace conference in Paris, France, January 15, 2017. . (photo credit: REUTERS)

The Middle East peace conference in Paris last Sunday was like a shotgun wedding without the bride and groom. Or a loaded gun.

Bridesmaids from 70 or so nations showed up, but the unhappy couple stayed away. In fact, they’re barely speaking. The problem is simple: they don’t like each other, they can’t agree on the pre-nup and they’re not really interested in tying the knot.

The French government thought it could play matchmaker but failed dismally. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it “rigged” and refused to attend, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was told to stay home to give the conference an appearance of impartiality.

It was another display of European paternalism, as the French foreign minister explained the conference was necessary to “help [Israelis and Palestinians] help themselves.”

The gathering was “an exercise in futility” that achieved little beyond generating hot air, observed The Telegraph.

Netanyahu calls for unconditional direct talks despite his list of non-negotiable conditions, and Abbas wants assurances in advance that his demands will be met. In other words, they’re looking for excuses, not solutions. Netanyahu would prefer extending the status quo, which means Israel would continue expanding West Bank settlements, and Abbas wants the international community to press Israel to accept his terms.

John Kerry, the lame-duck American secretary of state, was an observer at the Paris talks. The Trump transition team, which had tried to persuade the French to cancel the conference, let it be known the new administration would veto any such resolutions that resulted. Britain refused to endorse the conference’s final communiqué, effectively blocking the EU from doing so.

Two large shadows over the Paris meeting were cast by history’s newest odd couple, US President-elect Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

France’s failure to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process may give Putin the opening he is looking for to restore Russia’s superpower status and take the leadership role in the region that it has long been denied.

While dozens of other foreign ministers were in France, Sergei Lavrov was back in Moscow meeting with Saeb Erekat, the PLO secretary general and chief negotiator with Israel, telling him Russia “will work to create the conditions for a sustainable dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis.”

Putin has spoken of restarting the peace process, and Trump – despite his hard-right rhetoric – may be amenable as he strives to show he can repair US relations with Russia and make the deal of the century at the Middle East peace table.

The Russians thrive on instability and conflict, and show little sign of changing. The Soviet Union’s main role in the region was destabilizing pro-Western regimes, supporting the radicals like Syria and arming and training terrorists like the PLO. For half a century it has been crowded out of a meaningful role at the peace table, with one exception. Putin longs for those “good old days.”

In 1977 a naïve and hapless president Jimmy Carter invited the Soviets to partner in a new peace push; that so terrified both the Israelis and Egyptians that Anwar Sadat, who’d already expelled his Soviet advisers, decided to fly to Israel to make peace on his own.

Trump likes to boast about his relationship with Putin – though he finally admitted they’ve never met and have spoken only once, briefly —and how he can improve the frayed bilateral relationship.

That’s an opening for Putin to exploit and invite Trump to partner with him to make his dream deal.

So far Trump’s team consists of three novices: a secretary of state with close ties to Russia and a friendship medal from Putin, an ambassador to Israel who is a leading fundraiser for the settler movement and opposes Palestinian statehood, and his Orthodox Jewish son-in-law, another settlement supporter, who has no experience in foreign policy.

Veteran American peace processors have been reluctant to criticize the Trump team because instead of winding up on his growing enemies lists they want to be the ones called on to take over once the amateurs begin to grasp the complexity of the job and the toughness of the Russians, Israelis and Palestinians.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, comes with a strong endorsement from the incoming president: “He’s a good boy and he will get an Israel agreement that no one else would pull off.”

It will be tough for Trump to turn down a call from Putin to join him in peace processing, especially if there’s even a shred of truth in reports of the incriminating evidence Russia has collected on Trump. And it’s hard to imagine any Russian-brokered deal that will be welcomed by Israel’s hard-right government and its American Jewish supporters.

Netanyahu has been courting Putin in recent years in part because of Israel’s large Russian immigrant population and as a way to poke President Barack Obama in the eye repeatedly as punishment for trying to push Netanyahu to the negotiating table and other perceived slights.

A Russian peace initiative can be a test of Trump’s priorities. Will he follow Putin’s lead because he wants to show he can make a friend of Obama’s foe, even if it means confrontation with Israel, or will he feel choked by the hug of the Russian bear? Or did Putin’s spooks uncover enough to control the American president? The latter mystery has reportedly led American intelligence officials to warn their Israeli counterparts to be careful what they share with the Trump White House because it could wind up in Moscow and make its way to Israel’s enemies.

Netanyahu called the Paris conference the “final palpitations of yesterday’s world. Tomorrow will look a lot different, and tomorrow is very close.”

Translation: I’ve got Trump and the US Congress in my pocket and they will protect me from you – so forget about any serious peace negotiations for the next four years.

But with the Trump-Putin relationship a priority, the Israeli leader could be in for a big surprise as Russia moves to expand its influence in the region.

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