By withdrawing American troops from northern Syria, US President Donald Trump has once again signaled that his administration recognizes only two national interests in the Middle East: containment of Iran and Israel’s security.
Regarding the former, the United States recently sent more troops to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main regional adversary. As for the latter, Trump has repeatedly said that he will present a plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Because such an initiative could become a factor in the 2020 US presidential election campaign, Trump will have to decide soon whether to fulfill this commitment once a new Israeli government takes office after the country’s parliamentary election last month.
Trump has tasked his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, with developing a detailed peace plan. While that represents a departure from previous US diplomatic efforts, which had always aimed to lead Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate a peace treaty between themselves under American auspices, this new approach is not necessarily a bad idea, because both sides seem incapable of moving forward on their own. The Palestinian Authority – disavowed at the ballot box in Gaza in 2006, run by aging leaders, and undermined by corruption – has lost the legitimacy that it would need to make concessions. Israel, meanwhile, has drifted so far to the right that no government could propose to the Knesset a peace plan acceptable to both sides.
An arbitrator could, in theory, overcome these obstacles. Moreover, Kushner’s close ties to Israel may paradoxically be a further asset.
History shows that winners of geopolitical confrontations almost never voluntarily give up the fruits of their victory. Israel, a regional superpower with a post-industrial economy, nuclear weapons, and an unwavering alliance with the US, clearly has the means to impose its will on a weak Palestinian adversary.
No Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement could fail to reflect this power imbalance. Moreover, no external party, whether the major European powers or even Arab governments, will affect that balance: The Europeans are divided on the subject, and the Arab Gulf states have largely become de facto allies of Israel against Iran.
Israel therefore holds the key to resolving the conflict. But that means persuading the Israeli public to accept the establishment of a foreign country, possibly an enemy, just 15 kilometers from Tel Aviv.
Although the plan’s contents are a well-kept secret, they are likely to be close to Israel’s position. The US proposal might therefore offer the Palestinians a large degree of autonomy rather than a full-fledged state, and maintain most of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank
These considerations help to explain the Trump administration’s numerous recent favors to Israel, including the transfer of the US Embassy in the country from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and US recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. Kushner’s goal is to show the Israelis that they can trust Trump when he puts peace proposals on the table. To the extent that Trump is now more popular in Israel than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the US approach has clearly worked.
Kushner’s plan is now ready. It is 50 pages long, he told me a few months ago. Although the plan’s contents are a well-kept secret, they are likely to be close to Israel’s position. The US proposal might therefore offer the Palestinians a large degree of autonomy rather than a full-fledged state, and maintain most of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Is the Kushner plan therefore doomed to fail? That is arguably the safest bet, given the inability of previous US presidents to bring peace to the region over the last 20 years.
But we must not rule anything out. In June, the Trump administration put forward a separate proposal for massive economic aid to the West Bank and Gaza, including some US$50 billion in investments over 10 years. Such a package may well appeal to people in dire economic need. Moreover, it is “five minutes to midnight” in the West Bank: The continued expansion of Israeli settlements will soon render impossible the territorial compromise necessary to establish a viable Palestinian state.
The Palestinians therefore face a choice between an unsatisfactory compromise and a continuous (and soon irreversible) deterioration of their situation. Perhaps they will conclude that taking a deal will be a good first step. That, at least, is the calculation of Kushner, who repeatedly says that his plan will be “better for the Palestinians than they think.”
At the same time, both sides would be relieved not to have to answer to US pressure. The Palestinians fear having a quasi-Israeli diktat imposed on them. And Israel knows that Trump, who has a purely transactional view of diplomacy, expects it to repay his generosity by making concessions toward a peace deal.
Above all, the status quo favors Israel, which can keep the West Bank without having to decide whether to make Palestinians Israeli citizens or foreigners on their own land. Moreover, Israel may conclude that its overwhelming regional military superiority ensures its security at least as well as any peace agreement would – if not better.
Everything now depends on Trump, who has publicly promised to transmit his son-in-law’s peace plan to both parties. But whatever Trump decides, and whoever wins the 2020 US presidential election, one thing is clear: Israel and the Palestinians are unable to reach a peace agreement by themselves, as even Israel’s most ardent US supporters now acknowledge. Any subsequent attempt to mediate the conflict will have to be based on recognition of that reality.
Like US presidents before him, Trump may well fail to secure an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. But by proposing an agreement instead of merely trying to broker one between the two sides, he could yet establish a model for his successors to follow.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.