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Act III: Trump Administration Returns To The Peace Process Drawing Board
US negotiating team with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) prior to their meeting on August 24, 2017. From Left: Jason Greenblatt; Jared Kushner; Netanyahu; Dina Powell; Amb. David Friedman (Photo by Israeli Prime Ministry / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Act III: Trump Administration Returns To The Peace Process Drawing Board

After Palestinian Authority rebuffs overture, President Trump may be punishing Ramallah even as the White House rethinks its peace initiative

While much of the Israeli public expressed shock after U.S. President Donald Trump last week declared that the Jewish state would pay a high price in any future peace negotiations due to his decision to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem, government officials were, given the situation, surprisingly reserved. Some suggested the president had earned sufficient respect and confidence during his 500 days in office to exude trust; while others opined that some leaders were privy to undisclosed information.

After his top political allies downplayed the comments, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu over the weekend entered the fray, stating that, “I don’t see any urgency” regarding Washington’s roll-out of a long-anticipated peace proposal. When asked about the Palestinian Authority’s repeated outright rejection of the yet-unveiled plan—this, coupled with its negation as “hollow promises” President Trump’s assertion that Ramallah is owed “something very good…because it’s their turn”—the Israeli premier retorted that “the Americans are thinking about [launching a peace initiative], but they’re not blind.”

Indeed, just days after PA President Mahmoud Abbas rebuffed the apparent olive branch, reports surfaced that Washington was cutting-off $200 million in financial aid earmarked for projects in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The State Department cited as a reason the need “to ensure these funds are spent in accordance with U.S. national interests and provide value to the [American] taxpayer.”

In response, Ramallah resumed its verbal assault on the U.S. administration, which the PA has been boycotting since President Trump’s recognition in December of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Top Palestine Liberation Organization official and former lead negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned the move as “disgraceful” and claimed the White House was “meddling in the internal affairs of other people in an attempt to impact their national options.”

The overall message, as conveyed by Husam Zomlot, head of the Palestinian delegation in Washington until his recall in May, was that the PA would not submit to “political blackmail.” Zomlot accused President Trump of “weaponizing” humanitarian relief and, in the process, “dismantling decades of U.S. vision and engagement in Palestine. After recognizing Jerusalem and UNRWA [the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees], this is another confirmation of abandoning the two-state solution.”

Zomlot was referring to the Trump administration decision to withhold some $300 million from the UN refugee agency, his words appearing to evidence insider knowledge, as just hours later Israel’s Channel 2 reported that the White House is planning to take the Palestinian “right of return” off the table.

Dr. Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel and Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center, views President Trump’s statements and actions as disjointed and therefore likely disconnected from any over-riding policy. “Recognizing Jerusalem [as Israel’s capital] was the right thing to do at the wrong time, and if the president comes out and tells the Palestinians that they will not have a right of return, this is very important because the PA has not expressed publicly any need to compromise on this point.

“But it is unclear,” he elaborated to The Media Line, “what is in the other half of the cup. The idea that a deal can be achieved only through Palestinian concessions is [naive]. All of the president’s moves may have a positive [dimension], however, they seem to be advanced in isolation and not as part of a coordinated strategy. They are thrown out there without context and without any indication of what the quid pro quo might be.”

Brig. Gen. (ret.) Shlomo Brom, Senior Research Fellow and head of the Program on Israeli-Palestinian Relations at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, attributes President Trump’s inconsistency to the collapse of the so-called “deal of the century.”

“The Trump administration assembled a team that worked very hard, but the problem is that the ideologues in the White House torpedoed an original plan that took into account the interests of both sides. Instead,” he expounded to The Media Line, “[senior advisor Jared] Kushner and [chief negotiator Jason] Greenblatt were pushed to devise a new proposal that blindly adopted the positions of Netanyahu. So when [the envoys] recently toured the Middle East, regional leaders told them [point blank] to forget about it.”

As a result, Brom maintains that the White House currently is recruiting new staff not, as proffered by the media, in anticipation of presenting a comprehensive plan but, rather, for the purposes of devising a third, more balanced scheme. In the interim, he stressed, “President Trump is frustrated and attempting to punish Abbas, blaming the [PA boss] for the position of Arab governments even though they could never have accepted his offer.”

Notoriously unpredictable, President Trump is making it difficult to accurately conceptualize the 180-degree U-turn over the course of a few days. It could be that the announcements regarding the aid cut-off and UNRWA were a reaction to the PA’s popping of his trial balloon intended to court Ramallah. It is equally possible that the U.S. leader simply popped-off after the PA rebuffed with a torrent of criticism last week’s overture. Still others believe that this weekend’s moves were coordinated with Israel and that President Trump’s comments about prospective Israeli concessions were geared towards minimizing any fall-out.

What most agree on is that the latest developments further reduce in the short-term the likelihood of jump-starting any meaningful American-led peace talks, a reality seemingly foreshadowed by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s professed lack of urgency. The Israeli premier is almost certainly operating in tandem with the U.S. administration and is likely mindful of two other possibilities: namely, that White House’s immediate goal may be to unilaterally and fundamentally upend a process that many argue desperately needs a reboot; or, that more time is, in fact, needed because Kushner, Greenblatt et al. have been forced back to the drawing board.

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