January 18, 2019

So what peace do you want, Mr. President?

As journalists, we trade in political gossip. As journalists, we trade in controversy. Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel next week will provide us with many opportunities to trade in both gossip and controversy. In fact, the visit hasn’t even started yet and we are already doing that – to the point of announcing the reemergence of daylight between Israel and the US. A 24-hour incident concerning the Western Wall is a text book case in how much we like gossip and controversy: an anonymous American official says something not quite wise, Israelis become agitated, responses pile up, the White House is under pressure to clarify (which it did – eventually).

But was this an important event? If it signals a change in American policy, it is hugely important. If it’s the result of chaos in the American government, it is also important, but in a subtler way. Managing a peace process is a difficult and sensitive task. Managing a peace process with a team of incompetent diplomats with a tendency to complicate matters rather than simplify them would be impossible.

Then again, it is important to separate the gossip from the essence, the accidental controversy from the actual policy. It is important to look at Trump’s visit coolly, and try to understand what challenges the president faces and what choices he must make. These choices, much more than this or that statement, or misunderstanding, will determine what US-Israel relations will look like, and what the peace process will look like, in the coming months.

What is Trump’s current goal? Sure, the president wants to broker a peace deal, but what does he mean by that? Will he go for a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians? Will he go for an interim agreement? Professionals in Israel (and many in the US) believe that the interim agreement is the better, wiser choice. It has a downside, though: an interim agreement does not have the flash and does not provide the broker with the glory that Donald Trump seems to seek. Still, this is a deliberate choice he will have to make. Getting to the ultimate deal is one type of effort, getting to an interim agreement is a different type of effort. As far as I know – and information is limited – the Trump team haven’t yet made such decisions. They can still afford not to decide, but they can’t afford it for very long, lest expectations rise and it becomes complicated to scale them back.

What is Trump’s detailed solution? The President has vowed time and again not to force an agreement on the parties. I believe this is a hollow promise for two reasons: One – he cannot force an agreement on the parties. Two – it is a promise that he will surely break in the sense that the US as mediator always ends up applying pressure on the parties.

But even assuming that Trump is ready to let Israel and the Palestinians come up with their desired solution – what he believes is the right solution for the conflict matters greatly. At some point, and it can come sooner or later, the parties are going to disagree. When they disagree, the US will be called for assistance. If the US has a clear view of a desired outcome, it is going to help the side closer to this view. If the US truly has no view of a desired outcome, it will not be able to decide which side to support.

So Trump, or the people he will trust to deal with the peace process, must have a vision beyond ‘let’s have peace.’ They must decide if, in their view, Israel’s demand to keep controlling the Jordan Valley for a prolonged period of time is reasonable. They must decide if putting parts of the Old City of Jerusalem under Palestinian control is reasonable. They must decide if the Palestinians can speak for a Gaza controlled by Hamas. In other words – they must develop a detailed concept of what an agreement looks like, and what outcome they attempt to push forward.

Of course, there are many other questions to be considered – some gossipy (what team is he going to assemble for running a complicated peace process), some unrelated to the peace process (what other issues he has to deal with and how he handles them), some concerning the parties themselves (how they respond to the initiative), some related to other parties in the region (the Saudis, the Egyptians, Hamas, Iran).

We must ask: will there be terror as negotiations advance? In the mid-90s and the early 2000’s, terror attacks lowered the chance of success. This can happen again, initiated by Hamas, or by Iran, or emerging spontaneously because of disappointment or fury. And yes, it can also be the result of actions by radical Israelis.

We must ask: will there be a political crisis in Israel? Netanyahu could lose his coalition if negotiations advance, and he doesn’t really trust the safety net that other political parties offer to provide him with.

We must ask: is Abbas strong enough to make bold decisions? Only an illusionary vision of the peace process assumes that Israel alone will have to make bold decisions. Sacrifices and compromises will be demanded of both sides, and it is not at all clear that the Palestinians are readier to make these compromises than Israel.

We must ask: will the moderate Arab countries really be there? Both President Clinton and President Bush had a vision of peace that involved the active participation of these countries in both providing Israel with a more tempting incentive to compromise and the Palestinians with the political cover they need to compromise. Trump seems to have the same vision – and he might be disappointed for the same reasons (the Arabs have their own interests and fears concerning involvement in this sensitive process).

To sum it up: there are many questions, some quite technical and boring, to ask about a peace process. While we focus on the president’s colorful statements and mishaps and blunders – while we focus on gossip and short-term controversies – while we focus on today’s headlines – we ought not forget these questions. They will be the ones that make or break yet another round of peace processing.