February 18, 2020

Lessons learned from Temple Mount crisis on ‘ultimate deal’

As President Donald Trump continues his quest to reach the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians, Washington-based foreign policy experts say the administration should see the recent Temple Mount crisis as a cautionary tale before forging ahead.

[This article originally appeared on jewishinsider.com]

“The administration invited [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas to the White House to meet the president in exchange for nothing. His [Abbas’] conduct since then suggested that they made a bad bet,” said Elliott Abrams, a former top official in the George W. Bush administration. “He incited violence in the crisis over the Temple Mount. He did not try to cool things down and not say there are metal detectors in Mecca, so there can be metal detectors here, too.”

Abrams, who currently works as a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, added, “I would hope that the administration would let [Abbas] know that all of this has been seen and understood, and that it has gone a long way to destroy confidence as a reliable interlocutor, and that the next time an administration representative meets with him, they let him know there will be no meetings at the top levels like the president or secretary of state.”

For Dan Arbell, a former senior Israeli diplomat, the lesson is for more U.S. active involvement. The Trump administration should adopt a “much more hands-on approach — starting to make the phone calls to the leadership and relevant players early on and not wait until things get out of hand before intervening,” he said.

While senior administration officials Jason Greenblatt and Jared Kushner were involved, Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did not place any calls to Israeli or Palestinian leaders during the two-week crisis, according to media reports.

“We are now 6 1/2 months into the administration and they are still in this fact-finding learning curve and trying to put together some sort of formula,” Arbell said. “We are reaching a certain point where the Palestinians are losing their patience and are beginning to wonder whether this administration is going to back up these words with actions. The idea is to keep the ball moving forward, because if you don’t, then you end up in crisis situations that only bring setbacks. People are waiting to see whether this talk of an ultimate deal is actually something real or just a campaign promise that is not being delivered.”

With the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting scheduled for September, Arbell called for intensifying U.S. diplomatic efforts to avoid alienating the Palestinians, which could lead to Ramallah restarting its drive to internationalize the conflict and join U.N. agencies, and prompting a backlash from the Israeli government.

While Trump has repeatedly touted his negotiating skills, Frank Lowenstein, the top Middle East envoy during the end of the Barack Obama administration, emphasized the similarities in the issues facing current U.S. officials with those dealt with in previous years.

“If there is anything that the Trump administration may have seen in the months that they have been working on it, it is they have been running into the roadblocks that we ran into from both sides,” Lowenstein said.

This difficulty in bringing about tangible results should cause the White House to reassess its policy, Lowenstein said. “They are going to have to make a decision [about] how they want to proceed,” he  said. “Is it really worth investing time, energy and political capital on something that the parties themselves don’t appear to be genuinely committed to moving forward?”