by Mitchell Plitnick
The regional tour of Donald Trump’s primary Middle East envoys—his lawyer, Jason Greenblatt, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner—has concluded. So, it’s an appropriate time to take stock of the peace plan the Trump team seems to be formulating.
Only the Trump team seems particularly eager to see this plan come about, which is telling. It is hard to be optimistic about the deal, given that the Kushner & Greenblatt Traveling Road Show met with everyone involved except the Palestinians. No matter what Jason and Jared may have heard, none of their Arab interlocutors is in a position to move forward on a deal that the Palestinians have summarily rejected.
Trump approaches the entire question of Palestine transactionally, in line with his approach to most issues. This view was reflected in an interview Kushner gave to the Palestinian newspaper, al-Quds. He told reporter Walid Abu-Zalaf, “At the end of the day, I believe that Palestinian people are less invested in the politicians’ talking points than they are in seeing how a deal will give them and their future generations new opportunities, more and better paying jobs and prospects for a better life.”
If Kushner believes that a slight uptick in average household income will obscure Palestinian concerns about settlements, refugees, Jerusalem, and the very nature of their national existence, he is gravely mistaken. But the entire interview seems to reflect just such a view. Referring to Palestinian spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh’s statement that the US efforts were doomed, Kushner remarked that the “Palestinian leadership is saying those things because they are scared we will release our peace plan and the Palestinian people will actually like it because it will lead to new opportunities for them to have a much better life.”
These statements make it clear that Kushner has not only misunderstood the Palestinian leadership, but Palestinians in general. US negotiators have routinely, and justifiably, been accused of being deaf to the pulse of the Palestinian people, but Kushner seems even more hard of hearing than usual. And there is virtually no chance that Greenblatt, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, or certainly Trump himself know any more about Palestinian sentiments than Kushner does.
The Trump team has shrouded the peace plan in mystery. If there are any seasoned and informed hands talking to them, they’d be well-advised to urge Trump to delay revealing this plan indefinitely. Right now, the plan has no chance of success. Indeed, it could do a great deal of damage.
Although nothing has been confirmed about any potential Trump peace plan, there have been persistent rumors about the basic points. Nothing is ever certain with Trump, but the details that have been circulating are cause for great concern.
- “The Americans are indeed planning to offer the Palestinians Abu Dis rather than East Jerusalem as the capital of their state. In exchange, Israel will withdraw from three to five Arab villages and neighborhoods east and north of Jerusalem. The Old City will remain in Israel’s hands,” according to Haaretz’s Amos Harel. Saudi Arabia would be given some involvement in administering the Temple Mount, although exactly what that means is unclear.
- Israel would not evacuate any other West Bank settlements and would maintain full control over the Jordan Valley.
- The “Palestinian state” would be completely de-militarized.
- If Hamas remains in power in Gaza, the US would raise $1 billion from Gulf states for infrastructure projects that would be focused on creating a free trade zone in El-Arish, in the Sinai desert. Egypt would facilitate movement of workers from Gaza through the Rafah crossing. Israeli restrictions would continue as they have been.
If these points are accurate, the plan is a recipe for disaster. And the repercussions would be felt not only in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, but all around the region.
The plan amounts to a thinly veiled threat to the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority (PA). If the plans for El-Arish move forward, it further entrenches the separation between Gaza and the West Bank and makes reunification more complicated. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, already enduring fierce and justified criticism for being the biggest obstacle to reunification, can’t afford to be seen making it even harder.
That threat is implied more by Egypt’s support of this aspect of the plan than anything else. According to Haaretz’s Zvi Bar’el,
It seems that the Egyptian message has been heard, and according to a senior Fatah official in the West Bank, Yahya Rabah, the PA will begin paying the salaries to Gaza officials that it had suspended. Also, in coordination with Egypt, Fatah-Hamas reconciliation talks will resume with the goal of reviving the national-unity government in Gaza.
But whether or not there is movement toward reconciliation, the rest of the plan is a non-starter. No matter what kind of economic incentives the United States and its partners in the Persian Gulf offer, Palestinians are not going to accept a deal that leaves Israel in control of their freedom of movement from one population center to another and of the growth of their towns and cities. They will not accept a capital in Abu Dis just because they are being “allowed” to rename it al-Quds. They will not accept a pseudo-state with little sovereignty. And they will not simply forget all about the millions of Palestinian refugees living outside the West Bank and Gaza.
Abbas will reject the plan. As Kushner’s tone-deaf interview demonstrates, the Trump team won’t come up with a plan that could convince Abbas to come back to the table, let alone one that he could accept. In the short term, most Palestinians will welcome his rejection of it, but in the long run, it will only serve to underscore yet again that Abbas’ approach of talking rather than fighting has failed. Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will paint him as intransigent, and he will also likely face some backlash from the Saudis.
Hamas, since it too will certainly reject the deal out of hand, will need to find a way to keep working with Egypt. This plan allows for that possibility.
The Israeli government seems decidedly unenthusiastic about the Trump peace plan, and for good reason. The love affair between Netanyahu and Trump continues apace. The status quo may not be perfect, but it’s working well for most Israelis, and certainly for Netanyahu. The unrest in Gaza is little more than an unpleasant news story for most Israelis. The PA continues to maintain quiet in the West Bank, where in recent months even isolated attacks have been few and far between. The European Union is too concerned with Trump’s trade war and his violation of the Iran nuclear deal to worry about the occupation. Meanwhile, Israel’s relationships in the Gulf are moving along slowly, set back but not derailed by the US move of its embassy to Jerusalem.
Netanyahu’s domestic issues are overshadowed by these conditions. An indictment that seemed imminent at the beginning of the year continues to loom just beyond the horizon. The prime minister has managed to leverage Russia into pushing Iran out of Syria and has emerged from the first Israel-Iran engagements as the victor. Most Israelis are unaffected by the opprobrium their government has gotten for its response to peaceful protests in Gaza.
Neither the Israeli public nor Netanyahu wants to see the boat rocked right now. Israel’s leadership cannot help but realize that the Trump peace plan is a non-starter and, while they will humor Trump and are certainly prepared with their talking points to capitalize on the inevitable Palestinian rejection, they’d surely be just as happy if the plan remained a rumor.
Perhaps the most baffling part of the rumored plan is the idea of giving Saudi Arabia an increased role on the Temple Mount. Exactly what that might mean is unclear, but any increased role for Saudi Arabia diminishes Jordan’s influence. Jordan’s role as guardian of Jerusalem’s holy sites is one of the pillars of the Hashemite dynasty’s increasingly shaky legitimacy. It was also the key selling point for the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel that has allowed the survival of an agreement highly unpopular among Jordanians.
Given the recent instability in Jordan and the role the kingdom plays in maintaining the status quo on the explosive issue of the Temple Mount, this point is a matter of grave concern. So much so, in fact, that Netanyahu made an impromptu trip to Jordan to meet with King Abdullah II. Just holding that meeting in Amman was a risky decision for Abdullah, as the recent protests in Gaza have intensified the always significant anti-Israel sentiment in Jordan. But the gravity of Abdullah’s concerns prompted him to meet with Netanyahu, presumably to shore up the Israeli prime minister’s support for his position.
Netanyahu surely must understand that there is no good, and potentially a great deal of harm, for Israel in shifting the status quo on the Temple Mount. He is very likely to intercede on this point on Abdullah’s behalf, especially since the deal will surely ignite a great deal of anger among Jordan’s own Palestinian population. Trump and his team, who tend to support the initiatives of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) might not have taken Abdullah’s side over their close ally, but they are much more likely to listen to Netanyahu. It would not be surprising to see this plank removed from their peace platform, but then it remains to be seen how MbS will respond.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE
MbS is quickly developing a reputation as a policy bungler to go along with his much more positive reputation as a power broker.
It’s easy to understand the Saudi crown prince’s motivation to get a foothold in Jerusalem. It’s the one major Arab Muslim focal point that is outside of Saudi control. But bringing this controversy into an already fraught peace plan is simply foolhardy.
One effect of the Trump peace plan would be to relegate the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative—something Saudi King Salman sees as a major diplomatic accomplishment—to the dustbin of history. Indeed, Zvi Bar’el reports,
According to Arab sources, Saudi King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, seem to disagree over this issue. While Mohammed is an enthusiastic supporter of the American plan and the separation of Gaza from the West Bank, his father is concerned about the criticism he could expect if he relinquished the principles of the 2002 Saudi peace initiative by splitting the ‘Palestinian problem’ into two parts and abandoning the position that East Jerusalem be the capital of Palestine.
The question is whether MbS would feel so slighted if the US canceled this part of the proposal that he would reduce his political or financial support for the rest.
These issues also touch on the ongoing dispute among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Trump wants Qatar involved in the financing of the Gaza projects. This is actually sensible, as far as it goes. Though ham-handed, it could be the Trump team’s attempt to start healing the GCC breach (which is at least to some degree Trump’s creation). It also makes sense to have Qatar, along with Egypt, continue to be a player in Gaza if Israel and the US want to reduce any potential for Iran to take a more substantial role there.
The Saudis and the United Arab Emirates, however, do not agree. Although their accusation that Qatar’s involvement would allow Iran to enter Gaza surreptitiously is disingenuous, they’re clearly not interested in repairing the year-long breach. They are so anxious to cut Qatar out of the equation that they have said they will pay more for the Gaza projects to make up for blocking the Qataris.
This is all simmering now, but it promises to be a much more difficult enigma for the US and the region if and when the peace plan is announced.
Last Thursday, Egypt issued this statement: “Egypt supports all efforts and initiatives to reach a comprehensive agreement, based on international resolutions made in the past and on the principle of two states for two peoples in the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine.”
This would seem to fly in the face of the Trump plan. Egypt appears pleased with the idea of some investment in the free trade zone that might help to quell the violence in Sinai and ease conditions in Gaza. But Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seems to recognize that this is not a substitute for a political solution. The statement clearly contradicts any plan for a Palestinian capital other than East Jerusalem and would also implicitly reject Israeli control of the Jordan Valley.
This schizophrenic attitude toward the Trump plan reflects the dueling impulses among an Arab leadership weary of Abbas and frustrated by the Palestinian issue. The MbS-led faction seems decidedly indifferent to the plight of the Palestinians, would like to work much more closely with Israel, and is not eager to differ with Trump. Somewhat more seasoned heads, such as al-Sisi and Abdullah, recognize the pitfalls of a plan that attempts to force a one-sided resolution down the Palestinians’ throats.
Like King Salman, al-Sisi does not favor entrenching the split between Gaza and the West Bank, which seems to be the strategy at the heart of this plan. Territorially, it reflects the desires of the Israeli right. But Netanyahu and his allies have pursued their vision of control of the Jordan Valley, keeping the settlements in place and isolating Gaza, in smaller steps. The less patient Americans are trying to move the process along faster, oblivious to the risks it entails.
The optimal outcome is for Trump to bury this plan. It stands to reason that a group of US Jews from the far right, who support Israeli settlements and hold Palestinian rights in low regard, is not likely to come up with a viable plan. Unless the rumored details are way off the mark, this plan cannot possibly succeed.