The Trump administration has once again delayed its long-awaited peace plan aimed at solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – a quest that has eluded a succession of American administrations before it.
On Sunday, United States Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said the peace plan’s release would need several more months to give the plan “the best chance of getting a good reception.” He insisted that the blueprint was largely done and that only“wordsmithing and smoothing” was left.
White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, Ambassador Friedman and chief adviser to the administration on Israel Jason Greenblatt have been designing its contours for months. Thrown off track by Congressional fury against their key regional enforcer Saudi Arabia, the latest postponement suggests lost momentum.
But it does not mean that the plan, or at least a display of engagement, is not of importance to Israel. President Donald Trump fully supports the initiative and has referred to it as the “deal of the century.”
Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked in late November stated that the plan was a “waste of time.” There were also reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had sought to push back the release of the plan until after the Israeli elections, leading to speculation that Israel was disinterested in its contents.
And yet, these comments and rumors are misleading – likely intended for internal consumption. Ultimately the plan serves Israeli interests well.
The Trump administration has proven remarkably biased towards the Israeli position on all matters. It has taken harsh steps countering Palestinian interests.
These steps include the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the defunding of the UNRWA agency and the closing of the PLO office in Washington. Indeed, Trump and Netanyahu’s opinions on most issues relating to the Middle East are indistinguishable.
Israeli columnist Zvi Barel of Ha’aretz refers to this phenomenon as the “Trump-Netanyahu symbiosis.”
While Abbas has refused to meet with Kushner and his team, Israel has met Trump’s representatives repeatedly. In the absence of serious Palestinian feedback on the plan, Israel can and will push its interlocutors towards a formulation better reflecting its interests. This will only add to the likelihood of the plan tilting towards Israel.
It is not surprising that Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas was wary of a peace plan designed by this administration.
Abbas compared the plan to the 1917 Balfour Declaration – a traumatic event in Palestinian history which saw the British government commit to the creation of a state for Jews in Palestine
Abbas compared the plan to the 1917 Balfour Declaration – a traumatic event in Palestinian history which saw the British government commit to the creation of a state for Jews in Palestine. “If the Balfour Declaration passed, this deal will not pass,” he vowed.
Nabil Shaath, an adviser to Abbas, said emphatically that “we have rejected [the proposed plan] and we said that we will not accept either President Trump’s suggestion nor the role of the United States as the only participant to the peace process.”
As a response to the anti-Palestinian tilt of Trump’s policy, the PA announced it would not cooperate with the White House on this plan or anything else.
Another unstated reason the PA is hesitant to talk to the Trump administration is the waning power of Ramallah in comparison to the rising influence of Hamas. The militant organization recently waged a conflict against Israel which was seen by many Palestinians as successful.
Abbas cannot afford to be seen as caving in to Israel and a hated American president, while Hamas is seen as leading the resistance against Israeli occupation.
If so, the plan is likely to lean heavily towards the Israeli position. It will also almost certainly be rejected by the Palestinian Authority. This places Israel in the comfortable position of being able to accept the plan without having to make any actual concessions.
Made in the USA
The Netanyahu government has another reason to encourage the release of the “deal of the century.”
If the Trump administration does not take the lead in the peace process, both the Russian and French governments have promised to take a larger role in negotiations. Indeed, French President Emmanuel Macron has told Israeli officials he plans to issue a proposal of his own if the status quo is maintained. As Russia and France are not noted for their pro-Israeli attitudes, it is in Netanyahu’s interest that the United States retain its role as the main mediator.
The plan is likely to contain elements which Israel will find unpalatable regarding settlements and refugees. This could raise concerns that by accepting the deal it would set a precedent which would tie its hands in future negotiations. However, this problem is surmountable.
Israel faced a similar situation during the Second Intifada. The friendly Bush administration outlined a plan heavy on pro-Israeli elements in 2002 known as the “Roadmap for Peace.” Although not displeased with the overall plan, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had reservations over some of the concessions expected from Israel.
Therefore, the Likud-led cabinet accepted the plan with a list of 14 reservations. Some of the reservations were so extreme as to render the plan inoperable. For example, Hamas was to be dismantled and then PA President Yasser Arafat was to be replaced. However, by accepting the plan, Israel managed to maintain the goodwill of the Bush administration.
The classic Israeli posture is to present itself as a tough negotiator with a fundamental willingness to reach an accord. Even one of its most hardline prime ministers, Menachem Begin, told Israel’s enemies: “Do not reject the hand which is outstretched to you in peace.”
The Netanyahu government is today in an even better position than Sharon was. In 2002, Abbas accepted the roadmap. This time, it is almost certain that the Palestinian Authority will reject the plan and it will remain only on paper.
It is highly likely the plan will lean further towards the Israeli position than the roadmap did. If Israel accepted that earlier deal with reservations, it could certainly do the same for the “deal of the century.” Netanyahu would thus present himself as working with – and not against – Trump on his peace plan while ceding nothing.