It’s an undeniably bold idea. And given the multiple diplomatic failures of the past quarter-century, its logic is clear. Yet so is the risk that it, too, will fail, adding fuel to one of the most combustible regions on earth and ending the prospect of negotiated peace altogether.
Full details of the Trump administration’s Middle East peace policy have yet to be announced, but its driving principle is not in doubt: that because past administrations haven’t delivered Israeli-Palestinian peace, it’s time to rewrite the diplomatic rulebook.
Leading the effort, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has targeted the main obstacles as Palestinian demands for sovereignty over the eastern half of Jerusalem, including the Old City, and a “right of return” for the roughly 5 million descendants of refugees from the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948. The solution, in the president’s words: Take those issues “off the table.”
First, Jerusalem: site of the ancient Jewish temple, but also sacred to Muslims and Christians. Past administrations believed its status should be resolved in a final land-for-peace agreement. Since Israel holds the land on which a Palestinian state would be established, recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was seen as an important carrot in a negotiating process sure to require compromise on both sides. Yet Mr Trump has preemptively recognized it as Israel’s capital.
As for the right of return, Washington is ending its financial support for UNRWA, the UN agency overseeing education, health, and other services for the descendants of the 1948 refugees. Leaked Kushner emails, revealed by Foreign Policy last month, suggest that’s part of a plan to reject the Palestinians’ continued status as refugees, except for the some 50,000 original exiles still alive.
Mr. Kushner shares Israel’s view that for decades the refugee issue has been perpetuated for political reasons, with the “right of return” intended to challenge Israel’s existence as a majority-Jewish country.
By jettisoning past US policy – moving from superpower mediator to dictating negotiating terms – the administration hopes to remove the Palestinians’ effective veto power on a peace deal. It drove home that point with this week’s announcement by the State Department that it would be closing the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Washington, citing the Palestinians’ failure to move toward resuming “direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel.”
It is seeking support for this tougher tack from Arab oil states like Saudi Arabia, both in order to ramp up political pressure on the Palestinians and help fill the funding void left by its abandonment of UNRWA.
Since the Gulf Arab states’ main preoccupation now is Iran – on which they see eye-to-eye with President Trump, and Israel as well – the timing would seem propitious. The Palestinian leadership has rarely been weaker. Yasser Arafat’s successor as Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, faces an increasingly right-wing Israeli government with no evident interest in reaching a two-state deal. His writ has ceased to run in Gaza, where the Islamist group Hamas holds power.
Still, that doesn’t mean the new US approach will necessarily bring peace closer.
However weak Mr. Abbas’s position, the power of the narrative of exile-and-return from 1948 remains strong in the Arab world. That’s one reason for the failure of the last serious drive for peace: President Bill Clinton’s Camp David summit 18 years ago, with then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Arafat. Despite US efforts to enlist Arab pressure on Arafat, he felt able to reject proposals that would have given the Palestinians sovereignty over all East Jerusalem except for the site of the Jewish temple, and a refugee arrangement allowing the return of a small number alongside a compensation-and-aid package for others.
One sign the new US bid for Arab support could prove equally tough is that the Saudis joined other Arab states in publicly rejecting Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. And challenging the status of the 1948 refugees’ descendants is likely to embolden radical Islamists in Gaza and on the West Bank, especially as prospects dim for Palestinian leaders to resume peace talks after their core demands have been rejected by Washington.
It’s not yet clear how Kushner will address other unresolved issues from past peace efforts: demarcation of a final border between Israel and the West Bank, the future of Jewish settlements, and the question of Palestinian statehood. Yet Israel’s current government appears to be hopeful that, as on Jerusalem and refugees, it can count on US support in setting aside talk of two states in favor of Palestinian self-rule under continued overall Israeli control of the West Bank.
That would further reduce any incentive for the Palestinians to enter negotiations. It would also alter the demographics of Israel, with the risk of further instability in the longer run. There are already about as many Arabs as Jews in the area comprising Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, with population trends pointing toward an eventual Arab majority. As one of Barak’s negotiators remarked during the 2000 Camp David summit, making Israeli control permanent in majority-Palestinian areas could amount to “accepting the right of return through the back door.”