It’s embarrassing to propose with a straight face that the Trump administration might engineer a brilliant diplomatic breakthrough in the Middle East — a little like believing in fairies, nostalgia for disco, or spending time with reality TV. It doesn’t fit: the Israel-Palestine feud is absurdly complex, whereas in Washington there sits a president who has trouble knowing what to capitalize.
To that we can add that Trump is already much discredited among the Palestinians, having ignored most of the planet on the Jerusalem recognition issue and alienated the Ramallah leadership by wheeling out a settler-supporting trio of US Jews as “negotiators” with the pro-settler government of Israel.
But that’s the heedless way Trump rolls, whether he’s disdaining NATO, browbeating the FBI, handing markets to the Chinese, embracing autocrats or tearing up agreements without regard to US credibility. If anything he seems to relish the ridicule of the establishment, and his furiously unhappy base only loves him for it all the more.
If there’s a Trump sweet spot, furthermore, it is when he can delight the mob by casting global “elites” as suckers or schemers. The “Middle East peace process” is cut straight from this cloth: an egg-headed project that has cost a fortune, failed spectacularly, and now limps about in its decrepitude, refusing to leave the stage.
Sharp establishment minds — the same ones who didn’t know the British would want to stay British — got us here.
But there’s still a problem on the table. And despite the Israeli right’s inability to understand, it is strikingly clear: between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River live 13 million people divided equally between Jews and Palestinian Arabs. Even without Gaza in the equation, about 40% are non-Jews, yet the Jews are mostly in control. Without another mass immigration of Jews, Israel is not the Jewish state it purports to be. And without a partition, unless the Palestinians get the right to vote, it is no democracy either.
The autonomy arrangement did not solve the problem, as some people mistakenly believe — the Palestinians remain under Israel control in a way that is cruel, unusual, and plainly not tenable.
The Palestinians must tolerate Islamist rule in Gaza while in the West Bank there is a bizarre mix of Israeli military dictatorship complemented by the Palestinian Authority’s autocratic and at this point unelected local government. Unreasonable difficulties in moving from place to place, even for cancer patients or innocent students just trying to pass through, are the norm. And inequality unbecomingly reigns: Palestinians and settlers receive unequal treatment on everything from property rights to the distribution of water to court proceedings.
But here’s the interesting thing: viewed from higher altitude it is Israel that has the most to lose, and not just because the situation is a moral stain.
When the number of settlers rises to the point that it is truly impossible to divide the land, the Palestinians will demand annexation and voting rights — and the world will back them in ways that will become very difficult to resist, and unpleasant to experience. So even though nationalists hold sway, Israel is in real danger of being ultimately replaced by a binational and eventually mostly Arab state that might or might not be democratic, might or might not be the worst option, but certainly will be the end of the Zionist experiment.
Is there, then, a sense of urgency? Not so much.
Even moderate governments have set conditions and made demands of the Palestinians in exchange for partition, as if they had all the time in the world. That may seem reasonable until you consider that Israel is in effect trying to trade away something – the West Bank and previously also Gaza – that is not a net asset but a net liability (because keeping these areas would be fatal). That would not work in commerce, a field Trump professes to understand so well, and it is not working here. The Palestinian leadership, quietly understanding this advantage and blessed with a somewhat pliant populace, seems in no hurry either. And that makes sense from its perspective, if one is patient.
Despite all this, the peace-negotiations industry — from Western globalists to regional dreamers — continues to insist that “everyone knows what the final deal will be between Israel and the Palestinians.” They say and write this all the time. But they’re wrong. Some Israelis in the center-left know what seems reasonable to them. Some Palestinians may agree. But neither speaks for anyone in power in Ramallah, Jerusalem or Gaza. They have also not convinced the Israeli center that this supposedly inevitable deal can work on the ground.
The fact is that the maximal offers of even moderate Israeli governments have not met the Palestinians’ minimum demands for “end-of-conflict,” and this is likely to continue. Nothing short of a catastrophic war or unexpected pressure will move the Israeli people significantly leftward. Some of them are in denial, some in catatonic despair, some hope for a miracle and many are blissfully unaware of the demographic and political facts.
Anyone who wishes well to both the Israelis and the Palestinians might welcome a new approach. So here’s one: It is worth considering a halfway agreement that would be attractive enough to entice the Palestinians to settle for only some of what they want while both reserving the right to make future demands and accepting non-belligerence for now — while Israel exits considerable territories without receiving an “end of conflict” guarantee.
The Palestinian leadership hates this scenario because they rightly fear it will become permanent. Even though they want a state as they say, and they could have a state, that is not the main thing for them: getting justice as they see it is.
The Israeli leadership will hate it too, because they will need to take risks and probably give up real assets in Jerusalem, without receiving a promise that the conflict is over. It would ensure that Israel remains a democracy with a Jewish majority, as almost claims all the time they want, but the truth is that they also want all the land, somehow, as well.
Breaking through this will require a lot of things including luck, a creative new arrangement in Jerusalem, and a tremendously generous package to the Palestinians. But mainly, unsophisticated though this may be, it will require massive pressure (by the West and probably the Gulf and Egypt, but mainly by the United States). The Arab world is more prepared to back a creative solution than appearances and history might suggest. After all, the Arab League peace offer, which Israel has foolishly ignored, has survived 13 years and counting.
Getting Israel to take risks and the Palestinians to agree to anything at all will need an American leadership prepared to be cynical and tough and perhaps a little thuggish. It will not be pretty.
Does this sound more like the dignified and contemplative Obama — or his unpolished and boorish successor? While I am not betting on this, it is fascinating to contemplate that the Trump administration is a better fit for this scenario. Indeed both sides could use — if only for political cover — the presence of a key player on the field who is prepared to crack skulls. If — and it’s a big if — he is actually willing to do it, and be egalitarian about it.
I have a dream, and in my dream I see a tweet: “I unlike @presidentObama deserved My nobel Prize!”
The writer was the Cairo-based Middle East Editor of the AP and chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Israel.