Has Trump brought a peace deal any closer?
In tenuous Israeli-Palestinian relations, the only thing worse than not reaching a peace deal is prompting false expectations of bringing about a peaceful end to this never-ending conflict. Palestinians and Israelis are so accustomed to failures in peace efforts that they are almost immune to expectations.
At best they are ready to be nicely surprised, while resigning themselves to the fact that in the absence of courageous and capable leadership or genuine drive by the international community, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza will continue.
Enter US President Donald Trump, and the confusion is reaching epic proportions. Before he took office, it was anticipated that the Israeli-Palestinian issue would be low on his agenda. After all, what would convince him that he could succeed where so many before him failed miserably? But for whatever reason, in his unique and over-simplistic way, he convinces himself that his alleged business acumen of deal-making can do the trick on this occasion too.
As evidenced by his trip to the Middle East earlier this week and his meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, it would take an eternal optimist to think peace between these two protagonists is any closer.
On one level, Trump and his advisers are right in understanding that the Middle East’s political tectonic plates have shifted enough that many of the countries in the region would recognize and accept Israel if it resolves its differences with the Palestinians satisfactorily.
One should look no further than the 2002 Saudi peace initiative that led to the Beirut Declaration. It gave Israel the opportunity for regional recognition. The impetus for this initiative was based on commonality of interests vis-a-vis Iran and undercurrents of political, economic and social unrest, which were already threatening regional stability.
For both Israel and those who supported the Saudi initiative, the political, security and economic dividends would have been enormous. But this would have required Israel to conclude a just and comprehensive peace deal with the Palestinians, which it was not ready to accept.
If the Trump camp managed to grasp this conditionality, its overindulgence in heaping praise on Israel and its leaders during this week’s visit, while not showing any empathy for the suffering of the Palestinians, is bound to undermine any progress in bringing the protagonists any closer. It is not a way to build one’s reputation as an honest broker.
It is one thing to preach to Abbas for not combating incitement against Israel, but it is unforgivable to ignore the daily hardships of ordinary Palestinian citizens caused by Israel’s harsh occupation. With minor alterations, any right-wing politician in Israel could have delivered Trump’s speech as he did at the Israel Museum.
US commitment to Israel is self-evident in its massive military assistance and political and economic support, most of which dates back to the Obama administration and even long before, even if Trump tries to take credit for it.
He should have at least demanded that Israel freeze settlement expansion, ease restrictions of movement on Palestinians and allow Palestinian construction in Area C of the West Bank.
But he left the impression that regardless of the Netanyahu government’s approach to peace negotiations, the level of US support would remain the same. This is an obvious incentive to a right-wing coalition to not make even the most minimal of concessions to advance peace.
In his entire visit, Trump neglected to mention a Palestinian state once. If in nearly a quarter of a century of attempts to bring about peace this is not an obvious outcome for a US president, he should abandon his idea of a deal at once. This will not instil much trust in the hearts of Palestinians that this is someone who is able to push, or if needed drag, a peace agreement all the way to the finish line.
To make things worse, the threat of impeachment, not to mention other ignominies and misdemeanours that are hanging over Trump, are bound to hinder his political room for maneuver, including on this issue.
To gain any credibility among the Palestinians, the US administration should have at least demanded that Israel freeze settlement expansion, ease restrictions of movement on Palestinians and allow Palestinian construction in Area C of the West Bank. Without these measures, which would demonstrate to ordinary Palestinians some of the benefits of a peace process in their daily lives, a critical mass that trusts a peace process will not emerge.
As Air Force One took off from Israel, it left behind many Israelis satisfied that Trump did everything in his capacity to demonstrate his friendship to their country and to the Netanyahus. But he was considerably less convincing that he has a clue on any of the practical steps required to even start serious peace negotiations.
If he is serious about a deal, he will need to do more than just pray for peace. Divine intervention might be helpful, but coming up with concrete policies and clear deadlines for their implementation is imperative.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.