Could Trump steer Israel and the Palestinians onto the road to peace?

Could Trump steer Israel and the Palestinians onto the road to peace?

President Donald Trump’s first international trip, which focused heavily on Middle East issues, is now in the rearview mirror. A central question: Where do we go from here in terms of Israel’s ongoing search for peace and security in the world’s most volatile region?

Against history and conventional wisdom, Trump seems to believe that reaching a comprehensive, conflict-ending peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians shouldn’t be so tough. And he wants his surrogates, Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, to lead the charge. 

An interesting debate has sprung up on the American-Jewish left around the question of whether Trump’s efforts toward peacemaking should be supported. Author and activist Letty Cottin Pogrebin recently wrote in Haaretz, “Some center-left American Jewish leaders are giving Trump the benefit of the doubt — no doubt a wishful fantasy fueled by years of frustrated longing for peace. For me, it all boils down to trust. No deal brokered by Trump can be trusted because the man himself can’t be trusted and neither can his word.” 

Responding to Pogrebin, also in Haaretz, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, wrote, “Better Trump, now obsessed with his Mideast deal, than a president who doesn’t care or doesn’t think it’s worth the bother. Better an erratic and undisciplined Trump, offering a slender reed of hope for Israel/Palestine than the descent of the Middle East into chaos and despair. That is why Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog support Trump’s efforts and Naftali Bennett does not. That is why if there is the slightest chance for a deal to be made and peace to emerge, peace activists must support it — even if Donald Trump is its advocate and champion.”

Siding with Yoffie, J Street’s president Jeremy Ben-Ami wrote in a communication to his members, “For many in J Street, the possibility of not opposing, let alone supporting, an initiative of this administration induces cognitive dissonance…However, let there be no doubt: If a serious effort does begin, marked by real actions, clear principles and meaningful determination, J Street will support it.” 

I’m on the side of the pragmatists, Yoffie and Ben-Ami. There appears to be no discernible debate on the subject taking place on the American-Jewish right, presumably because those in that political camp are confident in the inability or unwillingness of the parties to seriously move toward a final peace deal. They are probably reassured by the axiom that nobody ever lost money betting against Middle East peace. 

It is not at all surprising that President Trump wants to try his hand at brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty, the “ultimate deal.” That’s what American presidents do. It’s a legacy. It’s White House lawn signing and Nobel Peace Prize-worthy. President Jimmy Carter has come under withering criticism from Israel’s supporters in recent years because of positions he has articulated, yet I predict that 100 years from now he will be positively remembered for his dogged determination at Camp David to help Israel and Egypt reach their peace agreement. Hungry to make his mark on this issue, President Barack Obama appointed former Senator George Mitchell as special envoy for Middle East peace just two days after the 2009 inauguration. 

A conflict-ending agreement between Israel and the Palestinians requires reaching a compromise on permanent borders, security arrangements, refugees, settlements, and Jerusalem. In my judgment, putting the bulk of the administration’s energy and resources toward trying to achieve such an agreement, and once again failing, will only set back long-term prospects for peace even further. 

Discrete, below-the-radar probes with the parties are preferable — not just with the Israelis and Palestinians, but with Arab states as well. If the conventional wisdom proves to be wrong and the parties appear to be moving closer to compromise, then direct and more sustained presidential engagement may be in order.

I would prefer that the administration place greater emphasis on helping the parties make incremental progress, especially to preserve conditions that would allow for separation into two independent states whenever that outcome becomes politically feasible. There is no dearth of good ideas in this regard. 

Dennis Ross and David Makovsky from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy have argued that the United States has an important role to play in preserving the potential for a two-state solution. We could seek an understanding with Israel that it would be allowed to continue building inside the existing large settlement blocs, but cease building outside of them, and Israel would be encouraged to renounce any interest in retaining sovereignty east of the security barrier. Parts of Area C — which is under Israeli civil and security control and constitutes 60 percent of the West Bank — would be opened to Palestinian economic activity. The United States could press the Palestinians to end their efforts to internationalize the conflict by constantly appealing to the UN and its affiliated institutions to advance their agenda, including the ongoing destructive attempt to delegitimize Israel and deny the Jewish people’s attachment to its historic homeland.  

A report prepared by the Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS) — a network of 270 retired Israeli generals who have served at the highest echelons of the Israeli military, police, and intelligence forces — spells out steps that can be taken in the short term to enhance Israeli security and build Palestinian statehood capacity in the absence of active political negotiations. This includes expanding coverage of the largely effective Palestinian Authority police force over Palestinians now outside its jurisdiction. 

Also, believing a conflict-ending agreement is not within reach, the Israel Policy Forum has been touting the CIS report, along with “A Security System for the Two State Solution,” a paper published by the Center for American Security (CNAS), which lays out a comprehensive vision for how a two-state solution is consistent with Israel’s long-term security requirements. 

Much has been made of the emerging alliance of interest between Israel and the Sunni Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, in confronting the shared threat posed by Iran. This alliance is a reminder of the 1991 Madrid Conference and the multilateral track that spun off from it. There’s precedent for multilateral cooperation. 

Israelis, Palestinians, and most Arab states convened in five international working groups sponsored by the United States and Russia to “redress such common problems as water scarcity, environmental degradation, refugees, economic development, and regional security,” according to a 2009 article in The World Post titled “Building Momentum for Mid-East Peace: Bring Back the Multilaterals.”

Japan, Canada, the European Union, Turkey, China, India, and other states from outside the region also played important roles. These working groups produced some impressive achievements, including establishment of a regional desalinization research center. They slowly fizzled, however, after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, when attention shifted almost exclusively to the bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Israel and Syria. 

I reached out to one of the article’s authors, Steven L. Spiegel, director of the Center for Middle East Development at UCLA. He agreed that the current regional environment may be conducive to reviving the multilateral track, and suggested that anti-terrorism or agriculture might also be included in the list of working topics. In addition, Spiegel said, because they were made public, the multilaterals “scared a lot of people. Holding them quietly behind the scenes,” he observed, “might make them more effective, more long-lasting.”

Gidon Bromberg, director of Israel’s office of EcoPeace Middle East, told me he believes a multilateral approach could productively focus on the critical situation of cross-border water scarcity and contamination, something he described as “low hanging fruit.” 

My friend Makovsky likes to use a baseball metaphor with regard to the peace process: It’s better to hit singles than to swing for the fences and strike out. For now, at least, Trump appears willing to step up to the plate.

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