President Donald Trump is heading to Israel for meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (and Bethlehem, for a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas) to restart peace talks. His general approach is both concerning and innovative. Trump doesn’t seem joined to a particular ideology regarding peace between Israel and the Palestinians the way that his predecessors did. While he has mildly called for a decline in settlement building, word on the street is that he won’t call for a settlement freeze in order to facilitate talks the way that Barack Obama did when he was president.
Trump is totally unpredictable, making both Palestinian officials and Israeli lawmakers wary of upsetting him and wanting to stay on his good side. This could be a good thing in terms of forcing the parties to talk — even Abu Mazen is said to be willing to negotiate with no preconditions. So why is Trump, who is widely seen as a failure and a clown, already making progress in areas of “Middle East peace” whereas Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama failed? Why is it that long, carefully drawn out processes developed by the Europeans, or United Nations initiatives, have consisted of so much process and so little peace? Largely, it’s because the Western way of peacemaking in the modern world is a based on a system that turns out to be a series of failures, whether it’s the Israeli-Palestinian process or the Cyprus Problem.
Too often, leaders and officials are focused on “the big picture”, favoring a top-down approach to peace. In Israel, the “core issues” are seen as Jerusalem, security, borders, and refugees, and so leaders immediately rush to talks about these issues. In Cyprus, similarly, the core issues are bizonality, right of return, and the presence of Turkish troops on the island’s north. While these issues, in both the Cypriot and Israeli/Palestinian cases, are clearly important to striking a final deal, the West has already failed by rushing to the table to talk of these issues immediately. Between Israelis and Palestinians, and between Turkish-Cypriots and Greek-Cypriots, there must first be some basis of cooperation and a very basic level of trust before large, controversial issues can ever negotiated.
Trump was wise to press the Israelis (who were wise to follow through) on making goodwill economic gestures to the Palestinians in preparation for peace talks. Included in this package is a set of building permits in Area C — totally controlled by Israel at this moment — for Palestinians who live there, along with the extending of hours of the Allenby Bridge for economic ties with Jordan, and other such rewards. This small-scale level of construction and semblance of institution-building and economic development signals to Palestinians and the wider Arab World, in addition to UN officials and EU diplomats, that even the most right-wing government in the history of the Jewish state is willing to accept a Palestinian state, and creates a level of comfort and confidence among both PA officials and the Palestinian people.
Likely in return for this huge offer and due to pressure from The Donald, Abbas has offered land-swap deals that would see 6.5 percent of Judea & Samaria given to Israel, over three times larger than the traditional offers made by PA leaders. And elsewhere, the Gulf States have offered increased business ties, intelligence sharing, and visas for Israeli athletes in exchange not for a “final peace deal,” as has usually been toted, but instead for a mere freeze on building in some parts of the West Bank and lifting only some trade barriers in Gaza. Not only has this slow approach built a semblance of comfort and trust (perhaps at its most basic level) among all parties involved in the peace talks, but it offers incentives for each side to continue to participate while also feeling that the US administration has its best interests at heart.
In Cyprus, which the international community too often overlooks in terms of a peace process, the UN and other outside actors would do well to help both Cypriot communities build a basic level of trust too. The Nicosia International Airport, which is now under UN jurisdiction, was once a place of employment and cooperation for both ethnically-Greek and ethnically-Turkish inhabitants of Aphrodite’s isle. Among the older generation of Cypriots in both the north and the south, there are fond memories of how the airport transformed Cyprus from a third-world British colony into a world-class resort area that attracted the likes of Elizabeth Taylor. Rather than endlessly occupying the airport and severely restricting entry to Cypriots, seemingly for no reason and to no success, the UN should facilitate talks and a larger project that includes both Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots to discuss the airport’s future. Which parts will be demolished (after 43 years of neglect), which parts to turn into a memorial or museum, and how, if possible or desirable, to make the rest of it a functional airport again. Already on the Mediterranean island, with borders open since the early 2000s, there’s quite a bit of crossing and interactions, with visits to old villages and towns, and cross-border shopping (mainly Greek-Cypriots and tourists buying cheaper goods on the north of the island). Bringing both sides together for shared business projects in the buffer zone (and perhaps, one can hope, beyond it) should be encouraged, funded, and even facilitated by the EU and UN. Tourism would help both peoples on the island (Cyprus is struggling economically), but especially the impoverished north, which still suffers embargo from most of the world.
Peacemaking also requires leadership in the Western World that thoroughly understands the history and mindset of each player/side, and a leadership that is seen by both sides as somewhat fair, just, and likable. A leader that knows the facts (to some degree, at least) of the conflict, but at the same time can appear to both sides as someone willing to learn more from or listen to players on the ground for a more personal experience. The last US President to be seen as a reliable peace partner by both sides was Bill Clinton. Scandals aside, Clinton was enormously successful in the domestic realm. With the end of the Cold War preceding his presidency by a few years, Clinton’s biggest challenge once he entered the Oval Office was repairing the US economy, which had stagnated and fallen into recession after the Reagan-Bush 41 economic period. His charisma at home helped him win the election against an elderly, experienced-yet-unrelatable statesman. Before he even began his second term, Clinton was devoted to making the two-state solution a reality, and put his full efforts into it, with little distractions. Clinton is someone who was — and still is — extremely popular with Israelis, as he promised to always have Jerusalem’s back and look out for its security interests. Although he never moved the US embassy to Jerusalem from the sandy shores of Tel Aviv, he kept the option open, and refrained from doing so because he truly believed a peace deal was imminent. And despite his disagreements with Netanyahu, he continued being seen as a reliable partner for Israel. The Palestinians, too, saw him as someone who was sympathetic to their cause and determined to get them an independent state. In the end, it wasn’t Clinton who failed at achieving peace, but Arafat, who chose intifada and the status quo rather than peace.
George W. Bush and Barack Obama tried and failed to implement a two-state solution, for varying reasons. Although Bush also promised — and failed — to move the embassy to Israel, and certainly opposed settlement building, assassinations of Palestinian terror leaders, and even a full destruction of Hezbollah in 2006, Bush did vehemently advocate for Israel’s security needs and interests, seeing it as a vital partner against terrorism in light of the 9/11 attacks. Bush’s very pro-Israel stance encouraged then-prime minister Ariel Sharon to unilaterally pull out of Gaza and some West Bank settlements as well, which in turn got him a letter of recognition from Bush that the so-called settlement blocs would remain in Israel under any peace deal. As far as the Palestinians go, Bush believed that a Palestinian state could be a partner against terrorism and a democratic state if it was established, and he pushed for both to occur. But Bush was distracted by his wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina, and a failing economy at home, such that the two-state solution could no longer be a priority. Sure enough, in 2008, an election year, peace talks failed yet again when Abu Mazen refused to accept the very generous offer made by then-prime minister Ehud Olmert.
Barack Obama entered office with the goal of making a two-state solution happen, but was too busy cleaning up Bush’s mess to dedicate himself to Middle East peacemaking the way that Clinton had been able to. In later years, Russia, China, Cuba, and the Arab Spring seemed to take up most of his attention regarding foreign policy. But there were other problems. The Palestinians saw Obama’s continued pro-Israel rhetoric and security assistance to the Jewish state as a betrayal of their cause, which he had championed coming in to the White House. And Israel was suspicious of Obama when he didn’t visit Israel in his landmark Middle East trip in 2009, while also implying that Israel was only created due to the Holocaust (a move Obama claimed was unintentional and regrettable). Throughout his presidency, Obama lambasted Israel’s building of settlements as the main obstacle to peace, largely ignoring Palestinian incitement. He obviously refused to move the embassy from Tel Aviv, and wouldn’t recognize the Golan Heights because it allegedly would upset certain Syrian rebel groups the US supported. In Egypt, the administration supported the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, a partner of Israel, in favor of a Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi, who was friendly with Hamas, the Tehran-sponsored terror group in Gaza sworn to Israel’s destruction. Later, when a new ally of Israel emerged in Egypt in the form of Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, he was shunned by Washington. In Libya, the Obama Administration put together a coalition of Arab and European states and launched a campaign to overthrow the dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, leading to a vacuum of power filled by jihadists. In Syria, Obama drew a “red line” against Assad’s brutal use of chemical weapons, but did nothing when they were used and ceded the country to Russia, a traditional rival of Israel and supporter of many of its enemies. Obama hastily withdrew from Iraq, leading to ISIS and Iranian-backed Shiite militias filling the void. And of course, the nuclear deal reached with the Islamic Republic of Iran and the abstention from a UN vote denying Jewish presence or sovereignty in Jerusalem late in 2016 confirmed to Israelis that Obama did not have their back, but was instead intent on stabbing it. No wonder peace talks failed in 2014.
In comes Donald Trump. While unpredictable, unconventional, widely mocked around the world, distrusted, seemingly uninterested and barely committed to a peace deal (or any policy), and often said not to know the fine details of governing or foreign relations, Trump may yet just be the most capable person since Bill Clinton of achieving a peace deal. While Clinton was universally loved, Trump perhaps is universally feared. Neither Palestinians nor Israelis know what to expect from the new president, and nobody wants to get on his bad side. Both Abu Mazen and Bibi are likely trembling with trepidation at his visit and what he’ll demand from them to make peace, and yet also no doubt can’t wait to flatter him so as to reap the rewards (as Saudi Arabia did today). And unlike other presidents or officials, Trump is not dedicated to one dogma or method, and is flexible in many respects. Already, in just 4 months of his presidency, he has gotten the Gulf Arabs to open up more to Israel in their approach and all but commit to be more involved with the peace process. He’s also gotten historic albeit small concessions from Ramallah and Jerusalem towards each other just to restart the process. And perhaps most importantly, his approach seems to be bottom-top—in other words, tackling small issues first, such as “unlocking the potential of the Palestinian economy”.
While many of the things that Trump has done and advocates for are despicable, one can hope that the Western World learns something from his approach, and that of Bill Clinton. Mediation, negotiation, and reaching a settlement is extremely hard to do, but the way the Western World has been going about this for the past 20 years, at least, is a tragic failure. Throwing money at endless, long processes that do nothing but reaffirm the ultimate goal (as happened in January in Paris with the two-state solution) does nothing to advance peace, nor does lambasting an ally openly and continuously. Instead, it requires more slow, grinding cooperation and trust-building among the parties that mutually benefits both sides; listening to their narratives and understanding the basic motivations, values, and goals of each side and their thought process behind some of their rejections; knowing when to listen and appear as if you know nothing (so as to gain knowledge from a local), but also knowing when to make it clear you’ve gotten the background information on the conflict; and knowing the difference between being a mediator in the background and being someone who imposes his/her will or wishes onto one of the parties, or both of them. The top-down approach to peacemaking only increases bloodshed, as well as mistrust between the two parties and against the facilitators. It’s time for a new approach, even if the progress isn’t as instantly gratifying as some would wish it’d be.