Earlier this year, I was convinced the US plan for Israeli-Palestinian talks would never be published. The timing is terrible and the impact of another failed initiative could be disastrous given the heightened tensions and multiple conflicts in the region. But Donald Trump has other ideas.
Jared Kushner, who is leading the project for his father in law, insists the plan will be released within weeks. He has promised surprises and warned that both sides will face tough compromises. Sources consulted by the US team believe it will be a detailed and lengthy document.
US, Israeli and Arab media have been churning out stories for months hanging on every word from Kushner, Jason Greenblatt the Middle East envoy and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. But credit where its due to this tight knit team, in a dysfunctional White House, little has leaked out. This is largely because they haven’t involved the officials and experts at their disposal. One senior State Department official recently refused to answer any questions about the plan because he hadn’t seen it.
When Trump was elected in 2016, Israeli and Palestinian leaders were far away from a convergence of interests that merited reigniting fresh negotiations. Obama and Kerry had tried and failed in 2014. There was no sense of possibility for a new round of talks, but Trump promised to have a crack at what he called ‘the deal of the century’. Perhaps it was the allure of succeeding where Obama failed, or maybe he really believes it’s just a real estate deal cursed by inept lawyers.
The US plan is expected to be published in mid-June, after Ramadan, Shavuot and when the new Israeli Government is in place. In the final week of the Israeli election campaign Benjamin Netanyahu won over radical right-wing voters by promising to apply Israeli law to all Israeli settlements in the West Bank. His potential coalition partners support the move and oppose dismantling illegal outposts or ceding territory to the Palestinian Authority (PA).
The PA has boycotted the US administration since it moved its embassy to Jerusalem and cut funding to UNRWA, the agency that supports seven million Palestinian refugees and their descendants. PA President Mahmoud Abbas says he will reject the US plan, expecting it to offer nothing for the Palestinians.
The PA is deep in financial crisis after refusing to accept tax revenues from Israel after the Israeli Government decided to implement a new law to deduct from those revenues the amount that the PA pays to Palestinians convicted of terrorist offences and their families. The PA’s resulting austerity measures are hurting the local economy. Key officials, fundamental to Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation, haven’t been paid for weeks.
Israel, Hamas and Islamic Jihad were last week engaged in serious hostilities, 4 Israelis were killed after 690 missiles were fired from Gaza and 25 Palestinians were killed in Israeli air strikes. A ceasefire has been agreed but the situation is fragile. Hamas and Islamic jihad have got bolder and in Israel the debate has switched to when, not if, a ground operation will be launched in Gaza.
If the US plan is published in mid-June the White House has only a wafer-thin window to invest serious energy and political capital in it. By September, Trump and his top team will be sucked into the 2020 election timetable, unable to focus on a complex series of international negotiations and diplomatic meetings.
Previous US administrations have cleaved close to the international consensus that the route to Palestinian acceptance of an agreement is a Palestinian State, a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem, Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and land swaps of Israeli land to compensate for Israel keeping settlement blocs part of Israel. Finally, it requires a concrete offer for Palestinian refugees and their descendants. But Jared Kushner has rightly pointed out that the Palestinians have rejected Israeli offers on this basis so the time is right for a completely different approach. He has implied his plan may not propose any of the traditional components of the two-state solution and, though it will address the major political issues, will focus heavily on economic development, jobs and infrastructure.
The US plan will likely fudge the crucial issue of Palestinian sovereignty by suggesting a form of Palestinian autonomy within Benjamin Netanyahu’s comfort zone of a ‘state minus’. This would allow the US team to try and sell the deal as a generous form of self-government that upgrades the current fragmented scenario of Palestinian self-rule. The Palestinians will retort that without a sovereign Palestinian State they are doomed to perpetual occupation by Israel.
US references to safeguarding Israeli security suggest a detailed blueprint for Israeli control of the Jordan valley and demilitarising Palestinian areas. But for Israel to embrace the plan it needs to address the fear that an expanded Palestinian autonomous area could quickly be taken over by Hamas and turned into another Gaza.
Veteran Israeli, Palestinian and US negotiators warn that failure has a cost. Quite simply, publishing plans and talking about talks raises expectations. Failed attempts to conclude an Israeli-Palestinian deal can set off a chain reaction. The Palestinian leadership have rejected the plan even though they haven’t read it. They have launched a frenetic diplomatic initiative to secure support for their position and there is talk in Ramallah of a united Arab front to relaunch the Arab Peace Initiative as a counter offer. But if they quickly reject the US plan, Donald Trump will seethe with rage and threaten dire consequences. Abbas will ramp up his rhetoric against the US and Israel. The new Israeli Government could seize on the PA’s rejection as an opportune moment to apply Israeli sovereignty to areas in the West Bank.
President Sisi of Egypt is expected to support the plan in return for economic assistance and as a quid pro quo for the proposed US ban of the Muslim Brotherhood. Given its weak economy and fragile politics, King Abdullah of Jordan has no choice but to vocally oppose the plan which will in turn embolden those in the kingdom who oppose peace with Israel. Saudi Arabia has long been touted as key to encouraging the Palestinians to consider the US plan carefully and leverage Gulf cash to make it a reality. This presents a dilemma for the Saudi King who is close to the US in the fight against Iran, but determined to avoid being linked to an unpopular US policy condemned in the Arab world.
It is possible that an entirely different scenario plays out. Kushner’s surprise could be a plan that is far closer to previous US proposals but with a new twist.
It could involve a generous political offer to the Palestinians, a surprisingly large amount of aid and investment and a creative new map for the West Bank that takes Benjamin Netanyahu and his new coalition parties far outside their comfort zone.
President Abbas may then change his approach and take time to study the plan and work out a constructive response with EU and Arab states.
As tensions escalate in the Gulf, Iran will do everything it can to expose fault lines and exploit divisions between the US and the Arab states.
Ironically, this means that the US plan, with its likely chain reaction, will at least be warmly welcomed in Tehran.