The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received two pieces of bad news within hours on Aug. 22.
First, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, considered a Netanyahu champion and a hard-line standard-bearer in the administration, told Reuters that the United States had not changed its position on Israel’s unilateral annexation of the Golan Heights in 1980. That was all it took to sink the latest initiative by Israelis hoping to take advantage of Trump’s move into the White House and his (alleged) basic ignorance of Middle Eastern affairs in order to obtain US recognition of the annexation.
Next, Trump himself appeared at a West Virginia political rally, boasting of his presidential achievements, among them his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The move, he said, had taken the issue of Jerusalem “off the negotiating table” with the Palestinians. How that was achieved is unclear, and it is not known whether Trump truly thinks that with the relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, the Palestinians will drop their demand that East Jerusalem serve as their capital. Trump then dropped the other shoe, or the “bomb” as it were, announcing that going forward, the Palestinians would get “something very good,” whereas the Israelis will have to pay a high price in negotiations in return for the recognition of Jerusalem as their capital.
Trump’s roller coaster has kept us dumfounded and guessing ever since he announced his bid for the presidency. Time after time, we have tried to understand what the man wants, what his plans are, only to realize, repeatedly, the limits of our understanding. He has taken almost every position imaginable on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Trump has promised to remain neutral so that both sides can accept him as an honest broker. He has said he supports Israel’s stand regarding a permanent arrangement with the Palestinians, and that as far as he’s concerned, the solution could be either one state or two states, so long as both sides agree. He has also said that if they decide on one state for both Palestinians and Israelis, the prime minister would probably be someone named Mohammed, because Palestinians would be in the majority.
As a candidate, Trump pledged to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem if he won the election. As president, he explained that he had no choice but to ask Congress, twice, to postpone the move (like presidents before him who signed waivers blocking the move), because it would have repercussions for future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. He then recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and said he would move the embassy there, although it would take a few years, because a new embassy would have to be built. Soon after that, he announced that he was moving the embassy almost immediately by upgrading the US Consulate in West Jerusalem.
He said the shift on Jerusalem would clearly exact a price from the Israelis vis-à-vis the Palestinians, only to then have his associates clarify that the recognition of Jerusalem had been an American gesture of friendship toward Israel with no quid pro quo expected. In West Virginia, it seems, his salesman’s instincts got the better of him, and he reverted to his demand that Israel pay for the US gesture.
Did Trump's voters in West Virginia indeed hear the final version? Does that mean that when he addresses the UN General Assembly next month, he will unveil his administration’s much-touted blueprint for peace in the Middle East, the “ultimate deal” as he dubbed it? There is no telling, but Trump has realized that peace is not usually delivered by a stork.
Trump also understands that eventually he will have to come up with something resembling the parameters for Israeli-Palestinian peace laid out by President Bill Clinton in 2000 or by the Arab Peace Initiative two years later or by the 2003 Geneva Initiative (which this writer had a hand in crafting). Thus, he will find himself facing a “coalition” of regional players with only one goal in mind: deferring the unveiling of the US peace plan for the longest time possible.
Netanyahu was expecting an American plan consisting of a so-called economic peace with the Palestinians that does not rule out any future options and does not demand any historic decisions for now. His vision is to perpetuate the 1993 Oslo Accords as a permanent, undeclared solution to the conflict so Israel can continue relying on security coordination with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and funding the ongoing Israeli occupation of the West Bank with the contributions of the PA’s donor states. The Palestinians would obviously reject any such plan out of hand, at which point Netanyahu will easily paint Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as a serial refusenik when it comes to peace. Now that it turns out an economic peace will not be the American plan, Netanyahu would rather the proposal never see the light of day.
Abbas understands that he cannot hope for a feasible peace plan engineered by the current presidential advisers, some of whom, such as US Ambassador David Friedman, hold views to the right of Netanyahu. He will return to the negotiating table only if the American plan, even a delayed one, includes US recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state based on Israel’s 1967 borders. He, however, has no delusions on this score. To avoid playing into Netanyahu’s hands as the recalcitrant party, he too is better off if the American plan is stillborn.
Meanwhile, the so-called Arab Quartet — Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — fears finding itself pushed into an uncomfortable position squeezed between the United States, whose firm stand on Iran it backs, and the Palestinians, who have the backing of Arab public opinion. Many of them are cynical about the Palestinian leadership, failing to understand its stubbornness, but they only let loose on the subject behind closed doors. The heads of the quartet nations cannot back any US plan that excludes two states and Jerusalem as the site of two capitals. If this is not the plan, they too will ask for a postponement. According to leaked reports, Jordan’s King Abdullah has already asked Trump to postpone presenting the plan.
Trump could insist that Israeli-Palestinian peace would contribute greatly to the geostrategic interests of the United States, save Israel from losing its Jewish majority, grant independence to the Palestinian people and enable open and effective cooperation among the pragmatic states in the region against Islamic radicalism. At this point, he appears willing to deal with the coalition of procrastinators.
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