Palestinian children in the West Bank village of Yatta demonstrate last June against word of a coming US peace plan. (Hazem Bader/AFP via Getty Images)

A Peace Plan’s Disappearing Act: ‘Deal of the Century’ Could be Shelved

Experts cite confluence of factors as forcing US President Donald Trump to hold off on long-awaited proposal for Israelis and Palestinians – perhaps even for good

The Trump Administration’s much-hyped and long-anticipated Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, often touted as the “Deal of the Century,” has seemingly fallen off the grid, discussions thereof registering barely a blip on the radar when compared to the past two-plus years.

Political dysfunction in both Washington and Israel; Iran’s intensifying regional adventurism; and the outbreak of violent protests in Iraq and Lebanon, among other factors, have prompted many analysts to slam the door shut on the possibility of the White House rolling out its proposal, as intended, by the end of the year.

The Middle East is, by any standard, on fire. Syria is in shambles and now further destabilized by Turkey’s cross-border military intervention. Mass civil unrest is engulfing Baghdad and Beirut, a development that has drawn parallels to the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. In addition, Gulf nations, led by Saudi Arabia, are enmeshed in what might be described as a war of attrition with Shi’ite Iran.

Add to all this Ramallah’s ongoing boycott of the US administration as well as recurring cross-border violence between Israel and the Gaza-Strip, and for many, the prospect of jump-starting any Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process is little more than a pipe dream.

The prevailing mood is the antithesis of the enthusiasm that permeated Washington following the inauguration of President Donald Trump, who burst on the scene promising a new approach to tackling the conflict. His initiative would be a regional one, he said, one that would not only upend the longstanding status quo regarding the peace process, but also serve to financially prop up Sunni countries while bridging the divide between them and the Jewish state.

Fast-forward 36 months, and senior US officials have effectively gone mute on a subject that was supposed to be one of President Trump’s signature foreign policy objectives.

In this respect, there has been little, if any, follow up to June’s conference in Bahrain, where the economic components of the peace plan were unveiled and during which countries were wooed to the tune of tens of billions of dollars to get on board the Trump peace train.

Chief US negotiator Jason Greenblatt has since left his post, while the jet-setting Jared Kushner, said to be the primary architect of the peace push, has for the most part put the brakes on his shuttle diplomacy between Mideast capitals. Kushner’s late October trip to Israel – his first in three months – was meant only to “gauge the temperature” in Jerusalem for peace talks.

That President Trump is exactly one year away from facing the US electorate at the ballot box reinforces the perception that the White House will not at this juncture countenance a potential diplomatic failure of major proportions.

“What the [Trump Administration] is trying to do is unprecedented, and I have expressed this in meetings with Kushner,” Dr. Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow focusing on US foreign policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a veteran of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, told The Media Line.

“The [peace envoys] are attempting to put together a 60- to 80-page document that addresses all matters, even before sitting down together with both sides to discuss what is possible and what is not,” he said.

“What they have decided is largely based on their own conceptions,” he emphasized, and as such, “the plan is still a thought experiment – a vision, not yet an operational blueprint.”

Based on Miller’s experience, he sees this as a precarious point of departure because it ignores a common understanding that Israelis and Palestinians remain far apart on the “core” issues of their dispute: namely, borders, security, Jerusalem and refugees.

“My judgment has not changed since Camp David,” Miller said, referring to the 2000 summit convened there under the auspices of former president Bill Clinton.

“The gaps are too big on the main issues, and the sense of trust and confidence is not there,” he explained. “Aside from several Gulf states now maintaining functional relationships with Israel – a development that has nothing to do with the Palestinians and everything to do with Iran – nothing really has changed.”

While the cards are stacked against the US president, his impulsivity and unpredictability, along with a penchant for keeping the world off-balance, suggests he could still pull the rabbit out of the hat.

“With any other administration I would say the peace plan [is dead], but with this one, anything is possible,” Dr. Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel who now teaches at New York City’s Columbia University, told The Media Line.

“For example, if it is a one-sided proposal in favor of Israel, then maybe it plays into Trump’s re-election chances,” he said, clearly referring to his large evangelical base, which considers support for the Jewish state a paramount issue.

Freilich also touched on the fact that the formation of a new government in Israel following September’s do-over election remains key if there is to be progress on any peace plan. So far, though, there’s no sign of anyone being able to establish a coalition, and the clock is ticking.

“The country is about five months away from another election, which means a government could only be formed next summer – when the US election campaign is in full swing. At that point, Trump’s ability, and desire, to pay more than the little attention he is now giving the Mideast will be reduced, especially given the growing regional unrest,” he said.

“On top of that,” he cautioned, “Israel could at any time find itself at war with Hamas, Hizbullah or Iran – or all three together.”

Overall, few are surprised that the “Deal of the Century” has to date garnered minimal traction. For his entire tenure, the US leader has been heavily criticized within establishment circles for implementing non-traditional, if not altogether controversial, policies construed as indicating a bias toward Israel.

These policies include cutting off hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to the Palestinian Authority and, probably most critical, recognizing Jerusalem as the Jewish state’s capital. Although President Trump stated that this action would not prejudge future borders and, thus, the status of the holy city, the decision in retrospect may be the self-inflicted bell tolling for his broader ambitions in the Middle East.

In fact, along with changing regional dynamics – including a growing perception that Washington will not confront Iran militarily in the wake of numerous Tehran-attributed attacks in the Gulf – President Trump’s moves on the Israeli-Palestinian front have made it difficult for regional leaders to go out on a limb by backing a peace plan that by all accounts envisions Israel maintaining large swaths of territory in the West Bank. Doing so would risk incurring additional wrath from their already restive publics, which view as sacrosanct the eventual creation of a Palestinian state along the pre-1967 borders, with the eastern part of Jerusalem as its capital.

“I have no doubt that at this moment, Israel is not considered by the [Sunni] states as the main enemy, but, rather, Iran, which is threatening them and remains dangerous,” Dr. Alireza Nourizadeh, director of the London-based Center for Iranian and Arab Studies, told The Media Line.

Nevertheless, he went on, “Arab countries do, of course, continue to criticize Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians, and there are red lines that cannot be crossed. For instance, on the issue of Jerusalem there can be no concessions. As much as many [Mideast nations] would like the Iranian regime overthrown, they could not accept [an] American plan [that does not include the partition of the holy city].”

Though the situation thus appears dire, Nourizadeh nevertheless believes that if a “strong Israeli government emerges, this is the best time for a breakthrough on the Palestinian front.”

Indeed, historical precedent almost guarantees that what is already a decades-long peace process will invariably be revisited, with sequential US presidents, beginning with Jimmy Carter, having invested huge amounts of political capital into pursuing a solution, albeit to no avail.

Former president Barack Obama, who was perceived as extremely sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, pressed hard to forge an agreement during his first term, when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state. But he was able to muster only a few weeks of futile negotiations before Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas threw a wrench into the process by demanding that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu extend an unprecedented freeze on construction in Jewish communities across the Green Line.

Unperturbed, though, Obama doubled down on efforts after winning reelection, dispatching his second secretary of state, John Kerry, on a seemingly unending trip to the Middle East – which similarly ended in Never Land.

In this vein, Carnegie’s Miller believes that “while there is a reasonable chance the US proposal will be released, maybe even some time next year, it will not be implementable unless there is a change in leadership, especially in Israel.” If this happens,” he notes, “the Trump peace plan may become irrelevant. Unless the contents are tethered to Israeli and Palestinian realities, the document will sit there.”

Columbia’s Freilich feels that the peace process will be revived intermittently, and in perpetuity, until a solution is reached, and that the US political landscape is liable to continue shaping its form.

“For Trump, it will be easier to pursue Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation if he [is reelected], as there would be fewer political considerations and he could apply pressure more easily on both sides,” he postulated. “Moreover, if a Democrat ends up in the Oval Office, it is almost unimaginable” that he or she won’t try to launch talks.

“And for the first time,” Freilich underlined, “there are presidential candidates not ruling out the possibility of tying US military aid – the holy and untouchable grail of the bilateral relationship with Israel – to progress on the Palestinian issue. This is something that people in Israel should be losing sleep over.”

To paraphrase another well-known axiom, one generally applied to the Palestinians, unless something gives, future eventualities could cause the Jewish state to miss out on an opportunity it will ultimately regret missing.

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