In the coming weeks or months, President Trump is going to unveil his own peace initiative in an attempt to reach the “ultimate deal” and solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nobody is certain what the Trump initiative will look like, but frankly, the details are irrelevant. As things currently stand, it is fated to fail; neither Israel nor the Palestinians want to play ball with the U.S. Yet there are ways in which Washington can create some badly needed leverage with the parties involved and put them in a position where they feel a need to cooperate on a smaller scale.
Starting with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, trust in the U.S. is already at indescribably low levels. The blame for this lies partly with the Palestinians and partly with the Trump administration. For a brief fleeting moment last spring when President Abbas was granted an audience with Trump in Washington (the two have already met four times), the Palestinians seemed upbeat. Their thinking was that they had a chance to shape Trump’s relatively unformed views. Jason Greenblatt’s repeated visits to the region and his efforts to listen to and understand a wide range of perspectives only encouraged such sentiment among the Palestinians. That the administration was unable to come to an agreement with the Israeli government on the parameters of acceptable settlement activity generated hopes that Israel’s expansion throughout Area C might be to some extent reined in.
Yet, not only did the Palestinians misread the lengths to which the Trump administration was willing to push the Israelis, they also did themselves no favors with their own political tin ear. Everyone who has been through Ramallah in the past year has repeatedly warned PA officials about the consequences of continuing the practice of making payments to families of terrorists and prisoners convicted of violent crimes against Israelis, but Palestinian leaders blew off such warnings completely. Instead, the response was a bevy of justifications for the payments and an uncompromising position on ending them, buoyed by a stubborn belief no real repercussions would follow despite the issue being a hot-button political topic in the U.S. Now that the Senate passed the Taylor Force Act, Palestinian officials protest that they were blindsided and not given a chance by the U.S. to remedy the problem. In reality, officials in Ramallah chose to close their eyes to a potential pitfall visible from a mile away.
Distrust of the U.S. is compounded by Palestinian conspiracy theories that the U.S. maneuvered Abbas into a reconciliation agreement with Hamas that Fatah does not actually want. From Fatah’s perspective, the sanctions that the PA placed on Hamas were working precisely as designed, and now Hamas has been thrown a life preserver for no reason. Some Palestinians see the hidden hand of the Trump administration seeking to smooth the way for a peace initiative that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians particularly want at the moment. The upshot of all this is that the PA is not in the frame of mind to give Trump the benefit of the doubt on anything.
Israel’s attitude is 180 degrees from the Palestinians’, but in a way that incentivizes Prime Minister Netanyahu to drag his heels rather than eagerly rush headlong into meaningful talks. Despite Trump spending more time with Abbas than Netanyahu would like and signs that some in the administration take the worldview of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan seriously when it comes to their urging the White House to force Israel to the table, the Trump team has barely pushed Israel on anything. Whether it is requests to loosen restrictions for the Palestinians in Area C, or appeals to limit settlement construction to already built-up areas in the blocs, the Israeli government politely brushes these concerns aside with no resulting consequences. Israel’s perception is that the U.S. does not want to force a confrontation in which Netanyahu must choose between keeping his coalition happy and keeping the U.S. happy, and thus there is no cost to running roughshod over nearly anything that the administration would like to see happen. Netanyahu has plenty of reason to believe that he only need wait things out.
The irony in all of this is that the Palestinians are at their lowest point, and would probably accept less than they have ever been willing to before in a deal tilted toward Israel’s terms, but the Israeli government is too myopic to recognize this. Furthermore, Israel finally has two game changing variables in Gaza staring it in the face, but risks Gaza returning to the status quo ante if it just sits on its hands. The first is the newfound Egyptian willingness to assert itself in Gaza and take responsibility for what goes on there. Contrary to any Palestinian conspiracy theories, it was not the U.S. that forced Fatah-Hamas reconciliation and the attendant change in Gaza’s governance structure, but Egypt. The Israeli dream dating back to Menachem Begin’s efforts on this front with Anwar Sadat has consistently been for Egypt to take Gaza off its hands, and Cairo is finally willing to shoulder at least some of the burden. The second variable is Hamas giving up its monopoly on armed force in Gaza, and opening the door not only for the return of PA-controlled police patrolling Gaza but to placing its arms under the umbrella of the PLO, an organization that does not currently include Hamas. Without having any illusions about what Hamas is and whether it is actually moderating – it is a terrorist organization, and it has not moderated – this creates the conditions for a more reliable and longer term quiet between Israel and Gaza. But if Israel tries to blow up the reconciliation agreement, or does nothing to make Egypt’s efforts to assert control over and rehabilitate Gaza easier, this will all be put at risk.
Given this environment, the Trump administration should not be rolling out any “ultimate deal” initiatives, but using its power to get Israel and the PA to agree to smaller steps that will create a stable equilibrium. On the Israeli front, the U.S. can use Iran decertification and even a more united front on Israeli priorities in Syria to get Netanyahu to agree to measures that will prop up Abbas, like revisiting the Qalqilya expansion plan. In turn, the U.S. should pressure Abbas to resume security coordination with Israel on the brigade and area commander level, which is an immediate Israeli priority. Finally, the U.S. should coordinate with Egypt to allow the PA to assume security control in Gaza without worrying at the outset whether Hamas will completely disarm, focusing instead on Hamas keeping things quiet not only in Gaza but in the West Bank as well.
This is not the time for a comprehensive peace push that will fall apart and inevitably be followed by violence. All of the pieces are in place for some tangible and productive changes on the ground, but only the U.S. can complete the puzzle. It will be truly tragic if this opportunity is sacrificed on the altar of a larger and futile vanity project spurred on by mirages of ultimate deals and fantasies of Nobel Peace Prizes.