Trump’s push for Middle East peace: déjà vu od pa’am ahat?

BY MOST ACCOUNTS —even those of the “corrupt, disgusting media”—POTUS Donald’s recent Mid-East vaunt was a resounding success. The Israelis are pleased, the Palestinians not too dissatisfied, and the Saudis of course ecstatic—and soon to be armed to the teeth. James Comey, Robert Mueller, and the Russians—that’s old (if assuredly not fake) news; King Salman, the Gulf States and Israel is where it’s at. President Trump sees “a much deeper path to [Arab] friendship with Israel,” for the Saudi Arabian monarch the visit was a “turning point,” and Palestinian President Abbas is “ready to begin negotiating immediately.” Even the dour, status-quo oriented Bibi has “real hope for change” for the “first time” in his life, or so he says. Between Saudi Arabia and Israel there is talk of overflight rights, telecommunication links, and even tourist visas. That first-ever Riyadh-Tel Aviv non-stop by Air Force 1 may well be a harbinger of things to come. Heck, one can practically even feel Shimon Peres twitching beneath Mount Herzl, overjoyed that his “New” Middle East, albeit after some unfortunate delay, is at last taking shape. Only Melania, if that little hand-whack is to be believed, is not in on the party.

To be sure, much positive has come out of the past few days. Merely by effusing optimism, steering clear of specifics, and avoiding certain actions (i.e. declaring an intention to move that pesky embassy), President Trump has managed to create a much more positive atmosphere and appears to have gained the sympathies of all the major parties. Having re-assured and won over Israelis (all it really took was a photo-op at the Kotel), Trump is now in a position to exert some pressure. Sparing the Palestinians the abandonment they feared (achieved by a mere one-hour stop-over in Bethlehem), he has won some brownie points and may be able effectively to make requests of them as well. And the Saudis are delighted to be back in the White House’s good graces after those years in the desert (so to speak) under Obama.

And yet, I fear, The Donald is falling for the very same trap that doomed his predecessors. Precisely because the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is so complicated, the long-sought agreement as elusive as El Dorado or the river Sambatyon, the temptation is high for any new President—especially one with an ego as large as the Trump Tower is tacky—to attempt and indeed promise success where others have failed. Just as Clinton hoped to out-do Carter, and Obama was convinced his charm and brilliance would achieve what Clinton’s had not, the new president now aims to triumph over all three. Trump’s reputation as the ultimate deal maker, his description of the Mid-East conflict as the “ultimate deal,” his assertion that peace in the region “is not as difficult as people have thought,” and his promise “we will get [peace] done” have raised the stakes enormously and are paradoxically likely to impede progress. For the very expression of determination to succeed only encourages the parties on the ground to drive as hard a bargain as possible, while at the same time whetting the appetites of the saboteurs, always ready to interfere as best they can. As the process unfolds, the already extensive investment in time, resources, and most especially political capital, renders success ever more critical, resulting in ever vaster outlays of all three to ensure that all was not for naught. Which in turn only ensures that it is all the more likely to have been so. Tragically, failure to secure what veteran negotiator Dennis Ross so memorably and puningly styled The Missing Peace does not merely bring us back to where we started, but frequently sets matters back dramatically. The high expectations that have been so irresponsibly raised cannot so easily be dissipated, and frequently result in extensive violence if not outright war.

Notwithstanding Trump’s claims and promises, all in the Middle East is not “great.” The PA remains hopelessly weak, the Palestinians as politically divided as ever. The instability surrounding Israel on all sides—in Lebanon, Jordan, Sinai, and especially Syria, will make Israel think more than twice concerning any territorial concessions. And whatever success Trump and the U.S. achieve in uniting Israel and the Sunni states will only serve to invite Iranian, Hezbollah, Hamas, and/or possibly even Russian sabotage (regardless of whether there was pre-election collusion with the Trump campaign or not). Plus, a circle cannot be squared no matter how much ego and testosterone goes into the effort, and there are circles aplenty to be squared if a complete agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is to be achieved. For in any imaginable accord, Israel will be required to relinquish a long-term presence on much of the one border it has fully secured (that with Jordan). And it will need to accept the geo-political division of its capital. The negotiators dream of either a shared, open Jerusalem, capital for both Israel and Palestine, or a Jerusalem under international control. Yet no city of formally divided sovereignty or internationalized status has ever functioned for more than a handful of years – just ask the residents of Berlin, Gdansk (Danzig), or, um, Jerusalem. To make matters worse, the U.S. appears yet again to have swallowed whole the notion—for which evidence is sorely lacking—that Israeli-Palestinian peace is the key to solving all of the Middle East’s many conflicts.

In short, the investment of this much political capital, the raising of expectations so high, and so early in a presidency at that, is foolhardy and dangerous. Instead of learning from past failures to keep hopes low, to moderate the political investment—at least publicly, and to keep the POTUS at some remove from the pursuit of peace, we are struck by what appears merely an intensification of the long-standing, ever unsuccessful approach—this time, one could say, on steroids.

A wiser strategy would warn of the great difficulties involved in achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians, wonder aloud if the necessary conditions are present, perhaps even downplay the ultimate significance of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and then invest quietly in securing some modest, but critical advances—progress, for example, on easing the Gaza embargo while maintaining Israeli security; securing Palestinian political unity and economic development; limiting Israeli settlement expansion and reducing Palestinian incitement. If gains could be achieved on these fronts, all observers would be pleasantly surprised, the lives of hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of individuals would be improved, and the long-term conditions created for yet further, potentially more substantial progress. Instead we run the risk of deadlock, disappointment, and renewed violence when the illusions of an easy peace are inevitably shattered, yet again.

I hope that everything I have written here is wrong, and will be delighted to see that my warnings were misplaced, that true breakthroughs have been obtained. But if the past rounds of the never-ending story that is the peace process have anything to teach us, it is that the chances of that happening are quite low indeed. Déjà vu od pa’am ahat? Déjà vu all over again?

About the Author
Daniel Stein Kokin is a Visiting Scholar at Arizona State University and has previously taught Jewish and Israel Studies at Yale, UCLA, the University of Oregon, and the University of Greifswald (Germany). He is the creator of the academic performance or hartzagah “Breach of Protocols: Revisiting Zion’s Elders” and of the “All the Points” project, which is developing online, interactive maps exploring the settlement history of Palestine and Israel since the mid nineteenth century.