President Donald Trump's plan for face-to-face nuclear weapons talks with North Korea’s dictator isn’t his only bid for a historic diplomatic breakthrough. His administration has also been signaling recently that it’s about to unveil a plan to revive peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
It’s certainly a worthy goal. But don’t get your hopes up. The barriers to success are so high, and the chance that Trump would be willing to surmount them so low, that it’s probably better not to even try. Decades of bitter history have demonstrated that a failed Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative is almost always worse than nothing at all.
Start with the easiest problem to solve: Jared Kushner. The president’s son-in-law and designated Middle East peacemaker just lost the top-secret security clearance he’d need for access to key intelligence. So he now lacks the tools needed to do the job, though that shouldn’t be too big a deal — there are obviously lots of better qualified negotiators who could lead a peace effort. For that to happen, though, Trump would have to acknowledge that putting Kushner in charge was a mistake.
Beyond that, even the shrewdest negotiator would need the chaotic Trump administration to settle on a single point of view about what sort of “peace” the two sides should be aiming for.
Is it the establishment of two states, the U.S. position since the end of the Cold War that was explicitly endorsed by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama? Maybe not, apparently. The Trump administration says it will support a two-state outcome only “if the parties want it.” Palestinian leaders largely still do, but many Israeli cabinet members are moving towards annexation, and even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is talking about a Palestinian “state-minus,” whatever that means.
If the parties don’t share the same definition of peace, what exactly will they be negotiating toward? What’s the alternative? The Trump administration hasn’t said.
Moreover, all Israeli-Palestinian negotiations since 1993 have been brokered by Washington and predicated on the idea that five sensitive issues should be resolved by the two sides in a “final status” agreement. But now, astonishingly, Washington has unilaterally changed the rules regarding the most sensitive of all the final status issues by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Jerusalem, in Trump’s phrase, has been “taken off the table.”
Without a two-state outcome as the goal and the final status issues defining the talks, the diplomatic scaffolding and logic of the peace process is shattered. Without them the Palestinians can’t and won’t return to the table.
If the administration really wants to restart talks, it would have to clarify that Washington still endorses a two-state outcome.
It should further clarify that Trump was referring to West Jerusalem, where the Israeli government has been located for decades, and not occupied East Jerusalem, the status of which will still have to be determined by negotiations. The administration can point to the line in Trump’s Jerusalem announcement that states, “We are not taking a position on any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders,” to explain that, since the American declaration applies to West Jerusalem, and not areas occupied in 1967, East Jerusalem is not, in fact, “off the table.”
That would go a long way to repairing the damage the Jerusalem announcement caused to prospects for the positive engagement of Arab countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The administration also needs to deal with more on-the-ground political realities.
Rhetorically, the Israeli-Palestinian relationship is at its lowest ebb in ages. But administratively, especially on security cooperation, it continues to function. That’s essential, since security is indispensable to both peace and effective Palestinian governance.
Washington should increase financing, training and political support for the Palestinian Authority Security Forces and pressure Israel to limit incursions into Palestinian-ruled areas of the West Bank, which exacerbate tensions. It should also tell Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to cease disingenuously threatening to end security cooperation with Israel or risk such increased support. And it should tell Israeli politicians that U.S. support for their own pet projects will cease until they stop blocking measures approved by their own military that would empower the Palestinian Authority and provide Palestinians expanded opportunities.
Serious work to stabilize the dire humanitarian and political situation in Gaza is also required. And the Palestinian Authority should be pressured to drop implausible demands for Hamas to disarm as a condition of working together on aid and reconstruction.
The Trump administration should follow a Bush, and not Obama, approach to the key issue of Israeli settlements. Obama damaged the peace process by demanding a total Israeli settlement freeze while doing nothing to enforce it. A preferable stratagem would begin by reviving President George W. Bush’s effort to secure informal understandings with Israel that it can only build in areas that aren’t controversial or strategically sensitive. But that needs to be augmented by George H.W. Bush’s willingness to withhold financial support from Israel if it is uncooperative.
Palestinian elections, and a renewal of the administrative reform pioneered under former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, are a must. Washington can reward and reinforce them with a range of financial and diplomatic inducements without which they probably won’t happen.
Finally, the Trump administration would have to secure greater international buy-in. The Middle East Quartet (the U.S., the European Union, Russia and the United Nations) once gave peace efforts an international imprimatur but essentially became dysfunctional during the Obama era. The Trump team doesn’t seem to get it, but Washington definitely needs such support again now.
And, crucially, Egypt, Jordan and Norway should join the group. Norway would represent the countries financially underwriting the Palestinian Authority, Egypt the Arab world, and Jordan can leverage its Israeli-acknowledged role as custodian of Muslim holy places in Jerusalem.
That’s all a tall order, and the Trump White House has offered little reason to think that it’s willing to undertake this kind of repair work, let alone correct its mistake on Jerusalem. The alternative, though, is a Trump peace effort that’s dead on arrival