The peace process merry-go-round

August 14, 2017
White House senior advisor Jared Kushner listens as President Donald Trump speaks to reporters. August 11, 2017. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS.

U.S. President Trump to send top envoys to region in bid to re-launch Israel-Palestinian negotiations

“Fool me once, shame on you; fool me for twenty-five years, I’ll try the same thing over again…”

This play on words of an age-old adage may aptly describe the U.S. approach to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, defined by a quarter century of perpetual failure to implement the “two-state solution,” which envisions the creation of an independent Palestinian country in exchange for an end-of-all-claims agreement with Israel.

Most observers concede that the sides today remain as far apart as ever on the so-called “core issues,” including the delineation of borders, dividing Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees, etc.; in addition to which, they contend that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is too weak to deliver an accord to a population that has not been conditioned to accept the permanency of a Jewish state. Where Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is concerned, the consensus is that he either opposes the formation of any Palestinian entity outright or could likewise never push an agreement through his right-wing coalition.

There is also the Gaza conundrum and what to do about Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement which rules the Strip and which despises Abbas only slightly less than it longs for Israel’s destruction. Catch-word elements such as “settlements,” “territorial contiguity,” “bi-national,” among many others, serve to entrench the notion that there is no rational justification for the belief that any peace, let alone an enduring one, may be in the offing.

In the result, why, then, is U.S. President Donald Trump dispatching three top envoys to the region later this month, with the aim of jump-starting renewed peace talks? Without the White House having signaled any fresh approach or original ideas, and without any indication that the conditions on the ground are ripe for a breakthrough (rather, the recent crisis over the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa Mosque suggests quite the opposite), what purpose can possibly be served by the upcoming visit of Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt—Trump’s point men on the conflict—as well as Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell?

One theory is that Trump is trying to “internationalize” a potential solution, evidenced by the fact that his diplomats are slated to meet with, in addition to the Israelis and Palestinians, leaders of Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. But this approach is not new; rather, the Arab Peace Initiative has been on the table since 2002 and was just re-endorsed earlier this year at the Arab League summit. And while there has indeed been a quiet rapprochement between Sunni regional countries and Israel, it is based foremost on the converging interest of countering Shiite Iran’s expansionist ambitions.

A peace deal with the Palestinians would no doubt enhance these bourgeoning relations, but it seems unrealistic to expect Netanyahu to make the far-reaching concessions stipulated by the Arab proposal, even as an initial framework for future talks. From his point of view, Riyadh, for example, currently needs Israel more than it needs the Palestinians. Conversely, to expect the Saudis to modify their longstanding positions in order to bring relations with a Netanyahu government “above the table,” so to speak, likewise defies strategic sense.

Meanwhile, a White House official last week reiterated that, “peace between Israelis and Palestinians can only be negotiated directly between the two parties;” thereby throwing cold water on the so-called “outside-in” tactic of devising the parameters to be dictated to the parties.

These issues are compounded by the problems Trump has directly encountered during his peacemaking efforts, which reportedly included a March blow-up with Abbas in Bethlehem over the Palestinians’ refusal to stop paying stipends to prisoners convicted of security offenses in Israel. Both Kushner and Greenblatt have purportedly similarly sparred with Palestinian officials, with allegations of bias having recently been levelled against the former after he was caught on an open mic ostensibly siding with Israel’s decision to install security measures at the Temple Mount following last month’s deadly attack there.

Coupled with the fact that Trump’s Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has essentially been declared persona non grata in Ramallah due to his past support for the settlement enterprise, along with increasing criticism directed by Palestinian leaders at Trump’s actions thus far, major doubts arise regarding the practicality of renewing any process, never mind forging a broad accord. Accordingly, many have started promoting a method that relies on intermediary deals to sufficiently narrow the gaps between the two sides to enable an eventual final agreement.

Gilead Sher, a Senior Fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, believes that a “more moderate setting of the bar is required that encourages a process towards a two-state reality, which, in turn, would lead to a two-state solution.” To this end, the former chief of staff to Ehud Barak and lead Israeli peace negotiator laid out for The Media Line a multi-dimensional approach in which bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are revisited “in order to replace the formula of ‘nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to’ with ‘whatever is agreed to should be implemented.'”

This, Sher contended, “would entail a mutual understanding of the necessity for a gradual and transitional process rather than a one-off, stand-alone comprehensive deal.” Moreover, he elaborated, “independent, constructive steps could also be taken by either party in order to reverse the trend towards the materialization of one state, which would be a disaster for Israel and the Palestinians.”

To this end, Sher does not rule out the possibility of “Israel unilaterally delineating a border—even a provisional one—as such will ultimately ensure the country remains both Jewish and democratic.”

While acknowledging that the Palestinians might not approve of such measures, Sher stressed that “their all-or-nothing approach, combined with an international campaign [to delegitimize] Israel has not yielded any results.” As such, in his view, “the international community should encourage this type of gradual process,” which can prevent “extremists on both sides from forging a reality that is unsustainable.”

In fact, this was the initial approach taken in 1993 with the signing of the Oslo Accords, which did not call for the immediate creation of a Palestinian state. Rather, the deal was officially named the Declaration of Principles on Interim (emphasis added) Self-Government Arrangements, clearly indicating that an all-encompassing pact was to be achieved over time.

Oslo II, as it is known, was signed two years later, dividing the West Bank into areas A and B, over which the Palestinians were granted a measure of autonomy, as well as area C, which remains under total Israeli control and which is home to the vast majority of Jewish communities across the 1967 borders. Thereafter, the Hebron and Wye Agreements, formalized during Netanyahu’s first premiership (1996-1999), stipulated further Israeli military redeployments from the West Bank, thereby increasing Palestinian self-rule. Overall, then, the first seven years of the peace process, leading up to then-U.S. president Bill Clinton’s Camp David summit in 2000, were based on the premise of “interim” agreements.

The problem, however, is that Yasser Arafat ended up rejecting then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak’s proposal for full-blown statehood and instead launched the Second Intifada. Given this catastrophe, as well as the futility of subsequent intermediary proposals—notably George W. Bush’s “Roadmap For Peace” in 2003 and, most recently, Barack Obama’s 2014 “Document Of Principles—questions arise as to the validity of repeating these, or any analogous, approaches while both sides remain so deeply at odds.

According to Dr. Gershon Baskin, Co-chairman and Founder of Israel-Palestine: Creative Regional Initiatives, “if Trump’s people are listening carefully to what both sides are saying, they are probably hearing that it is impossible at this point with Netanyahu and Abbas to reach a permanent status agreement.” Furthermore, he explained to The Media Line, “while the majority of both the Palestinian and Israeli publics want peace, most do not believe it is presently possible because neither side thinks they have a legitimate partner in the other.”

In Dr. Baskin’s estimation, “the only possibility for a breakthrough is for a change of leadership, either on one side or both. This way, some new kind of dynamic could open up a possibility for a real negotiation, which would most likely take the form of a direct back-channel and not a very public process.” Nevertheless, he concluded, it is “potentially dangerous” to forgo a process altogether and to say “there is nothing left on the table.” On the flip side, past failed attempts at peacemaking served only to sow additional frustrations, which then boiled over into violence.

As if to tackle history head-on, Trump remains “personally committed” to renewing some form of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as an end in and of itself. For now, then, “around and around the peace process will go, where she’ll stop no one knows.”

One thing, however, seems eminently clear—the unlikelihood that the final station on this circular diplomatic track will be named “Palestine.” Therefore, it may be high time to drop all pretense and simply resort to baby steps, with the modest aim of improving the lives of both peoples even while they remain at conflict with each other; in essence, replacing “peace” with “honest” in a process that fewer and fewer people believe in.

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