Israeli and US flags on the roof of an Israeli settlement building, with Jerusalem's Old City in the center, December 2017. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images)

The Trump Peace Plan: An Interview with Ambassador Minister Michael Oren

The Media Line posed the same questions about US President Donald Trump’s Mideast peace plan to former deputy minister, member of parliament (Knesset), and Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, and to adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah spokesperson Osama Qawasma. These are Ambassador Oren’s replies:

The Media Line: President Trump said the peace plan was intrinsically different from all the other, preceding plans. Is there a difference? Does it make it sellable? Does it make it good?

Amb. Oren: There are multiple differences from previous peace plans. I can start off by saying that I have been working on these peace plans since the beginning of the Oslo process from the early ‘90s so I have what to compare it to. One of the biggest differences is [that] President Trump lifted the formula of territories for peace on its head. If in the past Israel was expected to give territory first and then get peace, now Israel gets peace first and then gives up the territory. Here’s the difference: The burden of proof of peacefulness falls on the Palestinians. They have to stop educating their children to kill Israeli youth. They have to stop terrorists in jail. They have to accept Israel as a legitimate, permanent state. The burden is there and Palestinian statehood is predicated and conditioned on that.

TML: OK. Does the use of the word “vision” and the previous term, “deal of the century,” alter the concept of the plan? Does it make it more palatable?

Amb.Oren: Um, I don’t understand that question at all. I’m sorry. You got me on that.

TML: Well, Trump yesterday repeatedly referred to the plan as a “vision.” Much earlier, when they started talking about it, a year-and-a-half ago, he used the term “deal of the Century.”

Amb. Oren: Right.

TML: And it was often used as a derisive term that was thrown back in his face and others thought it was a good thing. But now he is starting to call it a vision. Does that make it any more palatable to anybody who may have used it derisively against him?

Amb. Oren: Well, I don’t think it is going to make it more palatable. It does seem to suggest that [parts of the deal] are more open to negotiation. All right?

TML: OK.

Amb. Oren: Trump’s point was always that you can take it or leave it. And they hadn’t been connected as the basis for negotiation, but vision is something that is rather amorphous as opposed to a plan, which is very specific.

TML: Or deal…

Amb. Oren: Or deal! Yes. OK?

TML: Yes. Even people who haven’t read the plan seem to have an opinion. I haven’t gotten halfway through it myself. Say you are Prime Minister Netanyahu or maybe [Blue and White party leader] Benny Gantz and you accept the agreement. Should we Israelis go to bed believing peace is at hand?

Amb. Oren: No. It depends on how you define peace. It depends on what the goal was. Peace with the Palestinians is something that can take a very long time. It can take generations. But peace between Israel and significant actors in the Arab world could be imminent.

TML: OK. The plan speaks about parts of east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state of Palestine with a US Embassy there as well. It basically doubles the existing land held by or run by the Palestinians for a Palestinian state. The vision allows for security and police forces, but not an army. Is this enough on the plate? Even if you take into consideration the $50 billion economic inducement announced in Bahrain.

Amb. Oren: Yeah, I think I should go back two steps and say why I think this agreement can work at all because I think that is sort of a sub-question that you are asking. Is it or not? I think this is the first agreement that we have seen now in almost 30 years of peacemaking that actually reflects realities on the ground and it is not an expression of a wish. It is an expression of a real situation. And what’s the real situation? In a real peace agreement, the Palestinian state could not have control over its security in the West Bank. Only the Israeli army and its security forces can do that. It can’t have control over the airspace. It can’t have control over electromagnetic space. It can’t have the ability to sign defense treaties with foreign powers. In a real world, Jerusalem is not going to be re-divided. In a real world, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of Israeli citizens are not going to be uprooted from their homes. Whereas previous peace agreements assumed the notion of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders – that would involve uprooting thousands and thousands of Israelis and would have given security control to the Palestinians. And that state would have fallen apart in days, if not hours. So the previous peace agreements were not rooted in a Middle East reality. This one is. Some of it is a very difficult reality. By the same token, any realistic peace agreement or plan had to give the Palestinians a path toward statehood. It had to give them what’s called a diplomatic horizon. And this gives them that horizon as well. So it is very significant. Is it without flaws? Yes, it has flaws, but it is the plan that most closely reflects the reality in which both Israelis and Palestinians live.

TML: You say get away from the conceptual and go more toward reality. Realistically speaking here, is this enough to bring to the Palestinians to the table?

Amb. Oren: Absolutely not! The Palestinians were going to find issues no matter what you give them. Most of them have never come to the table. The Palestinians spread their wings during the eight-year tenure of the pro-Palestinian [US President] Barack Obama. And even then they didn’t come to the table. They didn’t come to the table when [former Israeli Prime Minister] Ehud Barack offered them 95% of the West Bank, all of Gaza and half of Jerusalem. They didn’t come to the table when [former Israeli Prime Minister] Ehud Olmert offered them 97% of the West Bank, all of Gaza and half of Jerusalem. They didn’t come to the table when the UN offered them a state or when the British offered them a state in 1937. They’re not coming to the table and that had to be one of the underlying assumptions of this process, of which my committee would bring this business to the White House. That is, that any peace process that is predicated or advanced upon Palestinian approval is doomed to failure. In order to succeed, this process had to be aimed at two principal customers, if you will – the Israeli public, particularly the Israeli Center, and the Sunni Arab world. I think those are the customers of this deal. The Palestinians are invited to it, but their participation, certainly on the level of Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] and the Palestinian leadership, is not critical. Because if Israel, the Arab world and the United States get together and make this happen, it will benefit the Palestinians. I think that eventually they will accept it but their initial acceptance is not pertinent.

TML: Let’s turn this around then. How can President Trump expect the Palestinians to accept his proposals when there is no entity right now that speaks for all Palestinians? Shouldn’t he have waited for a reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas?

Amb. Oren: Yeah, you’re pointing out another problem and that is that the Palestinians don’t have proper representation. Abu Mazen is only representative of the Palestinians in the West Bank. He is in the 16th year of his six-year term.

TML: Four-year term…

Amb. Oren: Four-year term. Thanks for correcting me. So even if he were to come to the table, even if he signed the dotted lines, what would his signature actually mean? And the answer is, not very much.

TML: Within minutes of Trump’s presentation of the plan, The New York Times put up an article on its website headlined, “Trump Outlines Mideast Peace Plan that Strongly Favors Israel.” Palestinians say that other newspapers repeated this. Did the optics in the East Room present something of an Israeli rally?

Amb. Oren: Again, I don’t understand the question. Did the…

TML: Having watched the presentation of the plan on TV … the presentation in the East Room … do you think there was an atmosphere of an Israeli rally, a pro-Israel rally? Did it look like an AIPAC convention?

Amb. Oren: I am going to say it again: I think it is as close as possible to reality and if the realities are for Israel, then so be it, but there are a mixture of realities. You know, what has been underplayed by The New York Times and parts of the media is the concessions Israel made. So, for example, the odds of perceiving the notion of a Palestinian state being rejected by all Israeli parties outside the Left was the notion of territorial swaps or exchanges, which I will tell you personally Israel had never accepted, but they are in the map, including giving up territory along the Sinai border which is a big concession for the State of Israel.

TML: Do you agree with those, and there are many, who are questioning the timing the release of the vision as both President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu are embroiled in legal problems and elections?

Amb. Oren: The timing wasn’t perfect. It could have been better timing, but I also know that the great amount of frustration of this administration in having to wait two successive cycles of Israeli elections and not being able to publish the program. … And keep in mind that America has its own electoral schedule as well. … Speaking honestly, there probably is never an ideal time for publishing a plan like this. There are always going to be those who say it was bad timing. Again, not perfect, but I’m much happier that it came out now [rather] than six months from now.

TML: OK, we’ll take that as an answer. Michael, thanks.

Oren: OK, you’re welcome. Bye.

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