Trump’s precarious hope for Middle East peace

President Trump, as he prepares to unveil his peace plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has all the instruments for a deal. But he lacks the materials to see it built.

While running for president, the businessman quickly came to see Middle East peace as a sort of geopolitical mega-prize, a job only the master of dealmakers could win.

But speaking with the Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom this month, after more than a year facing harsh geopolitical realities as president, Trump offered a warier appraisal of the prospects for progress. “Right now,” Trump said, “I would say the Palestinians are not looking to make peace, they are not looking to make peace. And I am not necessarily sure that Israel is looking to make peace. So we are just going to have to see what happens.”

Trump was also clear about his personal desire for an agreement. “I think it is very foolish for the Palestinians and I also think it would be very foolish for the Israelis if they don’t make a deal.”

When Trump returns to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference this week, he’ll probably lay out the successes his administration has notched over the past year, including creating a friendly atmosphere among neighbors in the Middle East by taking a hard line on Iran.

But after Trump changed the calculus in the region by declaring that the American embassy would move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he is expected to run into massive obstacles thrown in his way by both of the other parties at the negotiating table. There, he faces Israeli and Palestinian leaders who, despite generations of conflict, nevertheless have nothing to gain and much to lose by offering concessions.

[Trump to open Jerusalem embassy in May]

“This is not a question of putting a chicken in every pot and a computer in every home; it’s a terribly complicated conflict. It ain’t a commercial proposition,” said Aaron David Miller of the Wilson Center. “That’s not to say money couldn’t be used to help the two sides make difficult decisions, but money can’t be a substitute for the substance.”

Stalemates in the Middle East are nothing new. But Trump, ever the dealmaker, will expect something from Israel in return for his stunning announcement about moving the U.S. diplomatic mission to Jerusalem. If he doesn’t get what he wants, the question becomes, how will he react?

Reasons for optimism

The president’s drive to make a deal should surprise nobody. After all, his ambition for an agreement has burned steadily for nearly three years.

In a December 2015 Associated Press interview, Trump declared that a peace agreement “would be something I’d really like to do,” explaining that “as a single achievement, that would be a really great achievement.”

Then, in February 2016, Trump shook up the bipartisan pro-Israel consensus by declaring that he would “be sort of a neutral guy” in brokering between Israeli and Palestinian interests. Then-primary opponent Ted Cruz was quick to distance himself from the future president’s pledge. In those same February remarks, Trump also added insight as to why an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is so high on his agenda. “…. of all agreements,” he said, “I would say if you can do that deal, you can do any deal.”

After entering office, Trump ordered his senior adviser, son-in-law Jared Kushner, and his chief negotiator, Jason Greenblatt, to put together a peace plan.

It is now near completion. But Trump has not decided when to make it public, and it faces much skepticism from observers who have seen so many efforts by skilled diplomats fail in the past.

But it would be a mistake to treat the Trump-Kushner-Greenblatt effort with light derision. That’s because after many trips to the Middle East, including repeated visits to the key cities of Cairo and Riyadh and dozens of meetings with Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab officials, administration officials have secured at least the keys to door of the negotiating room.

It’s not simply Kushner’s and Greenblatt’s doing. In his first year in office, Trump met Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas three times. This month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, and Kuwait to try to smooth those governments’ anger at Trump’s decision about the embassy.

Tillerson’s trip, in the context of peace talks, was a success. Meeting with the Jordanian foreign minister in Amman, the secretary of state clarified that “when President Trump made his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, he first committed to respecting Jordan’s role as the custodian of the holy sites. And secondly, he made clear that the positions on the final boundaries or borders of Jerusalem is a matter that’s left for the parties to negotiate and discuss and would be dealt with in the final status of issues, all of which are subject to negotiation.”

Last Tuesday, Kushner and Greenblatt followed up Tillerson’s work by sitting behind Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, as Abbas addressed the Security Council in New York. The presence of the two top negotiators speaks of a quiet but constant administration effort to improve its relations with the Palestinian Authority.

Other areas working

While Abbas was clearly angered at the U.N., Washington’s effort to resuscitate relations with other Arab leaders is working.

It is clear, for example, that Trump has won the favor of the Sunni Arab monarchies. Part of that success comes from promises to send financial aid; in Amman two weeks ago, Tillerson pledged to increase the flow of American aid to Jordan by $275 million.

But it is Trump’s clear change of Washington policy toward Iran that has done most to win support for his peace plan from Sunni monarchies, led by Saudi Arabia. The president has ended former President Barack Obama’s deliberately warm relations with Tehran and has adopted a much tough stance toward Iran and its nuclear program. The the Sunni monarchies that are Iran’s neighbors like what they see, and have moved closer to Trump as a result.

The Sunni monarchies view regional politics almost entirely through the prism of the threat from Iran, and they are deeply grateful to Trump for what they see as the restoration of America’s guarantee of a balance of power in the Middle East. It is in this context that one must view the reforms of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. He is likely soon to replace his ailing father as king, and has shown more determination than any of his predecessors to undertake genuine changes in the oil-dependent kingdom. He is expanding women’s rights and pursuing an aggressive counterterrorism strategy.

Most importantly, bin Salman has little interest in the Palestinian resistance narrative that has long defined Saudi political populism. In consequence and in order to win Trump’s favor, bin Salman is pressuring Abbas to support the American peace drive. The crown prince’s influence is extended by the fact that Abbas desperately needs the hard cash that on bin Salman will offer in abundance.

No U.S. ally in the region is willing to support Abbas by offering serious resistance to Washington’s move toward negotiations. This leaves the Palestinian leader isolated and shoves him closer to the peace table.

“The Palestinians have lost their best allies, those who have always supported them, namely Saudi Arabia and Egypt,” Ahron Bregman of King’s College London said. “The Saudis and the Egyptians are by now, though not too openly, firm allies of Israel in the fight against Iran and terrorists in the Sinai and elsewhere.”

All of this means that Abbas is under a lot of pressure at least to sit down at a U.S.-brokered negotiation.

Netanyahu’s words vs. action

But Abbas is, of course, not the only man who needs to be persuaded that negotiation is a good idea. There is also Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, of Israel, a leader who has expressed repeated rhetorical sympathy for Trump’s ideal of peace.

This probably gives Trump what he needs to restart peace talks.

But starting talks is very different from reaching a deal, and both the Israelis and Palestinians have reasons to avoid giving up what is needed to bring negotiations to a successful conclusion.

Trump’s plan will in “no way, shape, or form … be able to address the competing interests of the Israelis and Palestinians … There is no conflict-ending agreement available now,” said Miller of the Wilson Center, a former State Department official who worked intimately on these issues for over a decade. Miller said the current situation lacks the three prerequisites for a deal: leaders who are masters of their political constituencies; leaders who care to make the necessary concessions for peace; and effective U.S. mediation.

Considering that Abbas doesn’t trust Trump and is far weaker domestically than Hamas in Gaza, he has an extremely limited ability to deliver material concessions necessary for any deal. Hamas is openly using the U.S. embassy relocation as a tool to whip up anti-Israel fervor. If Abbas were to offer meaningful concessions, his Fatah party would probably oust him and Hamas would almost certainly declare war on him.

Netanyahu also has his hands tied. The politics of Jerusalem undermine his ability to make concessions. No deal is remotely likely unless Israel stops building settlements in the West Bank.

Coalition partners view this as crucial, and Netanyahu can’t lose those partners. If allies such as Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party, or Education Minister Naftali Bennett and his Jewish Home party were to abandon him, Netanyahu would be out of the job.

These parties share Netanyahu’s pro-Trump views and his desire to improve U.S.-Israeli relations. But their own political support evaporate if they agreed to make big concessions. Perhaps reflecting this difficulty, spokesmen for the prime minister, for Yisrael Beiteinu, and for the Jewish Home, failed to give any comment when repeatedly asked by the Washington Examiner what Israel might feasibly concede to further peace negotiations. Israeli politicians don’t want to upset Trump, but also don’t want to give him anything of substance.

Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, summed up the consensus on the Israeli right. Barak Ravid of Israel’s Channel 10 reported on Feb. 18 that Friedman said an effort to force as mass evacuation of Israelis from West Bank settlements “could result in a civil war,” and the settlers “are not going anywhere.”

Bregman summed up Netanyahu’s situation in similar terms: “There’s no incentive [for him] to make any meaningful concessions to the Palestinians as he now, more than before, needs his coalition partners to stick with him. Any wrong move and he will lose such partners as Naftali Bennett.” Bennett is of particular concern to Netanyahu because the Jewish Home controls the Justice Ministry. That gives Bennett influence over whether Netanyahu is forced to step down if prosecutors decide to accept a police recommendation and charge him with corruption.

In this context, only the most coercive of U.S. tools, withholding American financial aid, might alter the Israeli cabinet’s calculation of interests. But that option is a non-starter. Even if Trump threatened it, lawmakers on Capitol Hill would overwhelmingly resist such a move. As Miller notes, “Nobody is willing to do that. Nobody has ever done that.”

The only other scenario in which Israel might offer major concessions is if a new election brought the Zionist Union coalition to power, with its greater willingness to make concessions to the Palestinians.

So, that leaves the world with a peace plan that will get in the door, lip service, and perhaps even a meeting between Netanyahu and Abbas. It might even get a few low-level commitments.

But it won’t get anywhere close to the near-success of the Camp David 2000 talks between President Bill Clinton, Ehud Barak, and Yasser Arafat.

Trump may have aligned the instruments for a deal, but the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority have no interest in giving the president what he needs.