The Americans are coming back once again to make Israeli-Arab peace possible. It is highly unlikely that Jared Kushner et al. will find Israeli or Arab leaders willing and able to make significant concessions at this time. US President Donald Trump could surely use a distraction from the mess that he has created for himself in Washington and he would love to divert the media and public attention away from all the scandals that he continues to bring on himself and boast about in his daily Twitter feed.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also needs a distraction, but he will not alienate his base and those to the Right of his base by making concessions of any kind to the Palestinians. Netanyahu will continue to castigate those willing to make concessions and enter into a genuine peace process with the Palestinians as “those Leftist enemies of Israel.” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also has his hands full with local dissatisfaction and anger, even within the ranks of Fatah activists in the West Bank and in Gaza. Peacemaking is simply not politically viable for the current leaders.
Perhaps Trump and his advisers think they can extract concessions on normalization with Israel from Arab states surrounding Israel – pushing the notion of a regional deal – as Netanyahu likes to speak about so often. The Arab states have made it crystal clear to Trump and to Netanyahu that there will be no normalization steps without genuine Israeli concessions on the Palestinian issue. Even the two Arab states that have peace agreements with Israel have pushed open relations with Israel into the dark side and even the Israeli embassies in Amman and Cairo are not open for business.
The Palestinians have not yet returned to full security coordination following the Aksa Mosque magnetometer crisis, and President Abbas has reset the starting point for reopening a peace process that will serve as a benchmark for other Arab states in their open relations with Israel: Israeli declaration of support of the two-state solution based on the June 4, 1967 lines and a freeze on settlement building while negotiations are taking place. It is next to impossible to imagine that Netanyahu would accept those demands.
The Americans will be frustrated with the locals and will probably try to push for some small steps to improve the situation on the ground instead of the “ultimate deal” that the boss has been speaking about.
No one will oppose improving the situation on the ground, as long as it is not called something like “economic peace.” Palestinians and other Arabs will reject the idea of another interim agreement or incremental steps. For them there is no replacing a political peace accord that ends Israeli occupation and enables Palestine to become a sovereign state.
Israel has already agreed to some small steps and politically Netanyahu can enable them to happen as long as he allows settlement building to continue and Palestinians are not allowed to move into Area C of the West Bank – comprising 62% of the area. Netanyahu us focused on political survival and that means appeasing the right wing of his own party. Small economic improvements in the West Bank may keep the lid on a violent outburst for a while, as long as there are no new provocative steps by either side for the time being. But Gaza could explode at any time because of the humanitarian crisis brewing and the continued closure of two million people in the one of the world’s largest human cages.
Ultimately, the Americans will come to the conclusion that in order for a genuine peace process to take place there needs to be a change of leadership – probably on both sides. Even then, they will come back to the basics. Peace will require reaching a clear end-game agreement, even if the implementation of that agreement is stretched out over a long period. The Americans would be wise to develop their own proposal – at least of core principles and bridging proposals that could enable agreement in the future. That agreement must include a package deal on all of the issues – not a partial deal leaving core issues unresolved.
The package must include: mutual recognition of national rights; Palestinian statehood and the nature of its sovereignty; clearly delineated borders with a mutually acceptable border management regime; security mechanisms based on significant and genuine Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation – not on foreign troops; land swaps to enable most of the settlers to remain under Israeli sovereignty; Jerusalem – including status quo agreements on the holy places; refugees; Gaza’s role in the agreement; economic relations and water.
The Americans will also learn and hopefully apply pressure on the parties to begin to adopt policies as soon as possible that will begin immediately to foster and advance a culture of peace. This must include work on education – textbooks and the role of public figures to advance the idea of peace – even if it remains abstract. The existing culture of animosity, fear and hatred must be changed and the Americans can play a positive role in advancing that. Lastly, in order to confront positively the bad implementation performance on previous agreements, there will be an urgent and pressing need for a third-party observer and verification of implementation mechanism built into the process from the very beginning.
It won’t take long before Kushner and his team understand that serious negotiations can only take place in secret. Having a public process and public diplomacy is a good smoke screen and will keep the political attention of both sides focused on something that is not the real arena where decisions will be made, but at this time it is very unlikely that the current leaders would agree to conduct any meaningful process – even if it is secret. Both Israeli and Palestinian publics, the majority of them at least, would be prepared to support a real agreement – if they believed that the other side was serious.
It will take a lot more time and a lot of effort by the leaders to undo the “no partner” myth that the politicians have worked so hard to create and sustain.Today there are no real partners for peace – on both sides. That could change. Could Trump pull it off? It is hard to imagine. Could Trump do something really dramatic to change the image and reality of political stagnation and digression and transform Netanyahu and Abbas into peace partners? That is what Kushner and his team need to think about. Maybe Trump needs to personally work his charm on Netanyahu and Abbas – perhaps all three of them can spend some time together on one of Trump’s golf courses – does he own one in Guam?
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.