Last week I happened to be in Israel for a visit during President Trump’s trip and met with senior policymakers, politicians, journalists, and policy analysts. I came away convinced that in the weeks ahead Israelis and Palestinians will plunge again into a round of final status negotiations – the fourth such effort and first since Secretary Kerry’s process in 2013-14. However, I also came away worried that ultimately this would be a mistake and that President Trump risks squandering a unique opportunity that he and his administration have managed to create on another failed process when political conditions are not ripe. Instead, he should use this moment of significant leverage for his administration to make meaningful changes on the ground that could set a better atmosphere for negotiations in the future.
First, the good news. The president’s visit was well orchestrated and the Israeli public embraced him. His speech at the Israel Museum and his visit to the Western Wall both hit the right notes. In public, Prime Minister Netanyahu warmly welcomed Trump. The president has significant leverage over both parties right now. Prime Minister Netanyahu is eager to maintain a better relationship with Trump than he did with Obama and does not want to clash with him on Israeli-Palestinian peace. Meanwhile, when President Trump first entered, Abbas was terrified that the new administration would completely ignore the Palestinians, open the door to expanded settlement activity, and move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. He has been relieved and pleased by Trump’s approach, but the Palestinians still remain concerned that if talks go badly they will be blamed and feel the wrath of the new president. As such, they have dropped all preconditions for resuming direct negotiations. They are no longer demanding a settlement freeze or release of prisoners just to come back to the table – an important shift from the Obama years.
The bad news is that despite this leverage, the president’s trip did not yield any major game changing concessions. The president had hoped to get Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States to commit to meaningful normalization steps with Israel. But while they are open to closer cooperation, the Gulf States insist that Israel take a major step first with the Palestinians in exchange for more public cooperation. Gulf leaders are skeptical about whether Netanyahu and his inflexible coalition could deliver such steps.
Meanwhile, the politics in Israel remain challenging. Despite the warm welcome, below the surface there is an undercurrent of anxiety in Israel about the Trump presidency. The president has clearly signaled an interest in moving forward on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, which could put Netanyahu in a tough position of not wanting to disappoint Trump but also managing his hard right coalition. Meanwhile, the right wing of Netanyahu’s coalition led by Naftali Bennett is more suspicious of Trump’s interest in negotiating peace and has already begun to snipe at him publicly. The Israeli center-left is also skeptical of the new president because of starker ideological differences, though they appreciate his interest in negotiating peace with the Palestinians. And the security establishment is wary of Trump in the wake of the disclosure of classified Israeli intelligence to the Russians and the announcement of a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia with little consultation with Israel.
This wariness has already resulted in some small initial setbacks in the Trump administration’s effort. The president has emphasized getting the Israelis to take significant economic steps towards the Palestinians. The Israeli cabinet approved a series of half measures in advance of the president’s visit, but those steps are quite similar to previous measures that Israel agreed to in the last round of negotiations in 2013-14. They will not be major difference makers. The United States has pushed for more transformative measures, especially with regards to giving Palestinians more flexibility to build in Area C – the 60% of the West Bank currently controlled by Israel. But Netanyahu has said that such a move would trigger a coalition crisis and that if Trump wants to pursue a final status agreement, it is premature to force a crisis. Still the United States is pushing for Israel to at least allow more Palestinian construction in Area C in the northern West Bank.
The other factor in this dynamic is the president himself, who is eager to restart negotiations and reach the “ultimate deal” and unlikely to display the kind of patience that may make more sense in the current situation. Thus the current dynamic is set: (1) a Palestinian president ready to return to negotiations; (2) an Israeli prime minister unwilling or unable to make major economic concessions; (3) Gulf States unwilling to take major normalization steps without meaningful Israeli gestures towards the Palestinians; and (4) an American president who wants to move now. The likely outcome of this situation appears to be the resumption of final status talks between Israelis and Palestinians, but with no other major concurrent moves to improve the overall environment.
This would be a mistake. The parties’ desire to not anger a new president will give him leverage to get them back to the table, but it will not get them to make the big concessions on Jerusalem, borders, refugees, or security. Meanwhile, Netanyahu still has a far right wing governing coalition that will not support major concessions to the Palestinians, and a major breakthrough would require him to juggle his coalition and bring in Herzog and Livni while losing Bennett. Given his track record, he is unlikely to go in this direction. Abbas remains weak and also unlikely to make major concessions. If President Trump restarts negotiations now, the most likely outcome is that they will collapse and he will have squandered his unique moment of leverage on another failed round of negotiations.
A better approach would be for the president to push the parties to make significant moves that would improve the situation on the ground. This means pushing the Israelis to allow the Palestinians to develop more of Area C with important economic effects. At the same time, he should use his leverage with the Gulf States, who are also very pleased with his visit to Saudi Arabia, to get them to take a normalization step such as allowing overflight of Israeli planes over Arab countries in exchange for this Israeli move in Area C. And he should continue to push hard with the Palestinians to take substantive actions to curb incitement. This approach would improve the environment on all sides and set the conditions for more fruitful negotiations later. It would also allow President Trump to demonstrate some early wins, thus increasing his credibility with both sides before diving into deeper final status issues. And it would buy time to let politics play out in Israel, which could bring a new government to power in the next year that may be more flexible and open to reaching an agreement with the Palestinians.
Ultimately, if the president and his team choose to move ahead now with final status negotiations, I wish them the best of luck and would love to see nothing more than to be proven wrong. But I fear that President Trump is on the cusp of repeating the mistakes of his predecessors and moving prematurely to achieve the “ultimate deal” at a time when it is simply not in the cards.