There’s no doubt that Trump’s presidency will be a game changer for the US foreign policy. But many people have been asking what will his approach be toward the Arab-Israeli and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
I am using the word “conflict” and not “peace process” on purpose. There’s no peace process in place. President Obama removed the possibility of negotiations and starting a peace process when at the very early stage of his presidency he blamed the settlements as the key obstacle towards any peace initiative.
By generalizing “settlements” and including Jerusalem’s Gilo and the other big blocs in the West Bank within his definition of settlements, Obama reset the discussion over points that had already been agreed upon in the drafts of agreements between the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the former Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, and even between Rabin and Arafat. As agreed in those drafts, Israel would keep the big settlement blocks, and would return more than 95% of the West Bank, dismantling smaller settlements and outposts that are spread over that area.
Obama’s generalization of settlements and disregard of previous agreements was rejected not only by the Israeli government, but also by most of the Israeli political parties and population, excluding the far left and the Arabs.
At the same time, this removed any incentive for PA President Mahmoud Abbas to come to the negotiating table. In his mind, by making the demand of settlements’ freeze the fundamental point towards jump-starting peace discussions, President Obama was negotiating on Abbas’ behalf. So why would Abbas need to do anything?
Moreover, Abbas had the backing of the Arab states, which insisted that any normalization initiatives between them and Israel should be done only in the context of talks that involved the Palestinians. In other words, Obama’s demand paralyzed the entire process.
It baffles me how our President’s circle of Middle East experts would not see that.
With President-Elect Trump this is set to change.
Trump’s presidency can be fundamental towards setting a new stage when it comes to Israel and the Arab world. My prediction is that two initiatives will be triggered once he takes office:
President Trump will ask Netanyahu for a freeze of the settlements over 95% of the West Bank, excluding areas like East Jerusalem, Ariel, Betar Illit, Maale Adumim, Modiin Illit and others along the green line, which include less than 5% of the West Bank. Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu, in a goodwill gesture towards the new American President will agree.
This will allow incoming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, given his very close relations with the Arab Gulf States, and the respect that he has from its leaders, to convince them to start normalization conversations with Israel – something that the Arab States have been very eager to do, but need some sort of a “save-face” to get started. The “save-face” will be Netanyahu’s acquiescence to Trump’s new approach towards settlements.
Some may be asking “and what about the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem, won’t this jeopardize all the above?”
There are two possibilities in that regard: a) the embassy will be moved, but at the same time conversations will already be under way with the Israelis, Palestinians and Arab States indicating that the sooner they all agree on the new trajectory towards peace agreements, the sooner the Palestinians will also have their capital in East Jerusalem, or b) the negotiations between Israelis, Palestinians and Arab States will get jump started, and moving of the embassy to Jerusalem will be used by the Trump administration as a bargaining chip with both sides in those negotiations.
Prime Minister Menachem Begin once said that “the difficulties of peace are better than the agonies of war.” Several Israeli Prime-Ministers, including Netanyahu, said that Israel is ready to make painful concessions towards peace, without compromising its security. It is important that the Palestinian leadership understands that an agreement that responds to Israel security needs, also protects them from ISIS and the likes.