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US PRESIDENT Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold up a proclamation recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights at the White House in March..(Photo by: LEAH MILLIS/REUTERS)
A dishonest broker?
By ELIE PODEH
07/22/2019
Negotiations succeed or fail not only because of the mediator’s skills and personality.
Jason Greenblatt, US special envoy, said in a recent interview, “There has never been an honest mediator for this conflict. The mindset of a so-called honest mediator never existed and will never exist…” His comment stems from historic ignorance or perhaps simply a desire to cover up the obvious fact that at this stage, the United States cannot serve as an honest broker between Israelis and Palestinians.

Negotiations succeed or fail not only because of the mediator’s skills and personality. Various reasons may explain why Israeli-Palestinian talks have failed over the years. However, history shows that a broker whom both sides regarded as just and honest was an asset in reaching agreements. Such was the case when Henry Kissinger mediated between Israel and Egypt, on the one hand, and Israel and Syria, on the other, reaching the 1974-75 disengagement agreements. The Arab side never regarded Kissinger’s Jewish faith as detrimental to his mediation capabilities. US president Jimmy Carter, too, successfully maneuvered between prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in the 1978 Israeli-Egyptian talks at Camp David ahead of the 1979 peace treaty. Personally, Carter appeared closer to Sadat than to Begin, but this did not prevent him from conducting negotiations in an impartial manner. In his mediation between Israel, the Palestinians and Syria, president Bill Clinton also convinced the sides of his impartiality although he was personally closer to the Israeli leaders and almost all his advisers were Jewish.

The US stance under the President Donald Trump is so blatantly pro-Israel that the question arises whether it can mediate between the sides at all. Several examples point to asymmetry or inequality in its conduct. Firstly, since assuming office, Trump has met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the US and Israel seven times; he only met with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Washington and Ramallah twice.

Secondly, the Trump administration has made several historic decisions in total contradiction with previous US policy, all of them supportive of Israel and/or damaging to the Palestinians. The list is long. Closure of the PLO office in Washington in September 2018; US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December 2017 and the transfer of the US embassy there; and US funding cuts to UNRWA in September 2018. One can also add Trump’s 2019 declaration recognizing Israel sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which while unrelated to the Palestinians, certainly buttresses the image of the US as a one-sided Israel backer.
Thirdly, the US consulted over its peace plan almost exclusively with the Israeli side only. The ultimate move was the participation of Greenblatt and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman in a recent ceremony inaugurating a tunnel in Silwan, an archaeological project funded by Elad, an NGO dedicated to strengthening the Jewish link to Jerusalem with government help. Moreover, the US position toward the Jewish settlements stands in sharp contrast to all previous administrations, which the saw the settlements as an obstacle to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

This was the context of the Palestinian refusal to take part in the recent Bahrain economic “workshop.” The Palestinian objection to the conference stemmed not only from concern that the economic component of the peace plan would serve as an alternative to the real thing. It was also an expression of anger, frustration and helplessness over what the Palestinians perceive as humiliating US behavior that ignores them. Thus, the Palestinians – and part of the Arab world – view the Trump administration as a dishonest, unreliable broker and therefore untrustworthy even before his peace plan has been unveiled.

PUTTING TOGETHER a peace plan is a complex undertaking consisting of several phases. First, studying past proposals to understand what they included, what worked and what failed. The Americans seem to assume that everything that had been tried in the past had failed, requiring new “out of the box” thinking. This may perhaps be logical, but nevertheless mistaken, because “the box” evidently contains some good ideas.

The second stage is preparing public opinion around the world and in the region ahead of the new plan’s presentation, while stressing that this is a historic opportunity for its implementation. So far, it seems that the Americans put a lot of work into this stage.

The third stage – and the most important one – is preparing the various sides to the conflict for the compromises (or rather sacrifices) they will have to make. A lot of work went into this vis-à-vis the “moderate” Arab states, but the Israeli and Palestinian arenas were totally ignored.

The only way the Trump administration can regain Palestinian trust is by submitting a plan that offers some solutions to the central issues – namely, the question of borders (including the settlements), Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees. Media reports so far do not suggest this is where the Americans are going. Moreover, when Greenblatt tells Makor Rishon that he never uses the term “two-state solution,” he is already mapping out the direction of a “stateless state” that the Palestinians are bound to reject (as will the Arab world to a large degree). On the other hand, a plan that provides a response, even a partial one, to Palestinian aspirations, would meet with harsh criticism in Israel, which has become used to free lunches in the Trump era.
If the Trump administration succeeds in pulling off a deal, it will certainly be the “Deal of the Century,” if not “of the millennium,” given all the mistakes made on the way. However, a sober analysis of the process so far leads to the assessment that the plan is destined for failure and the blame should be placed squarely at the door of the dishonest broker.

The writer is a board member at Mitvim and a professor in the Department of Islam and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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