What with North Korea, Iran and Syria on his plate President Trump seems to have valuable time to waste on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas today. I was toying with the idea of rearranging my sock drawer rather than spending good time watching Abbas go through the charade championing himself as a man of peace. That he isn’t!
Yet, I don’t begrudge President Trump meeting with Abbas to get a cut of his tattered jib. It may just yield a meeting full of platitudes about the need to reach a peace settlement ― a pro-forma ticket that Mr. Trump has to punch as he and his intrepid Senior Adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, get their Middle East peace ducks lined up. Perhaps, (and fingers crossed) something good may come out of their meeting that the President can bring to Israel later this month. That’s the plan. But Abbas has proven to be a serial disappointer of American presidents and their Middle East envoys.
During his campaign Donald Trump often waxed about achieving piece - declaring his desire to forge a comprehensive solution not just between Israel and the Palestinians, but between Israel and its remaining protagonists in the Sunni Arab world. So it looks like the pursuit of Middle East peace is a Trump family affair and the desert stars are aligned again to test the waters for some “outside the box” American attempt.
Some of the essential ingredients are “sur le table.”
Iran’s growing regional designs have lured Israel and its Sunni Arab neighbors into a “frenemies” framework. The Israelis now have an American president who has evidenced an intent to have Israel’s back. For good measure, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has enticingly dangled regional frameworks as a basis for a potential solution, and the Palestinians – habitually divided — no longer have the “guilt gravitas” to torpedo a durable regional peace. Yes, the odds are formidable, as they always have been.
After all, the Arab-Israeli conflict and its resolution is catnip to presidents. Every previous president since the 1967 Six Day War has tried his hand at forging a durable peace between Israel and the Palestinians — from the Reagan Plan and the Bush Plan to the Clinton Parameters — culminating in John Kerry’s clumsy and doomed fantasia. The “Rest in Peace” process hasn’t earned that epitaph for nothing. The pursuit of Middle East peace has buried the best of intentions by successive American honest brokers. The reasons are as complex as they are simple — the parties to the conflict are unwilling or unable to make the necessary concessions to bring about “two states for two peoples.”
So now comes Donald Trump to try his hand at bat.
President Trump stated last week there is “no reason” Israelis and Palestinians cannot end their longstanding animosity. “I want to see peace with Israel and the Palestinians,” Trump told Reuters Thursday. “There is no reason there’s not peace between Israel and the Palestinians — none whatsoever.” Let’s see if he feels the same way after meeting Abbas. Trump has even tossed out the idea of working for a “one state” solution – backing away from the historical “two-state” solution long embraced by the United States.
When he tells that to Mr. Abbas, the titular Palestinian leader will blame Israel for the impasse. And when he tells that to Netanyahu later this month when the President visits Israel, Bibi will blame the Palestinians. The never-ending game of finger-pointing now collides with a new president who is unwilling to accept the old excuses and shop-worn alibis. Mr. Trump has big things in mind and wants to start from scratch. The problem is that the obstacles have not changed; they have only grown more formidable – starting with Palestinian recalcitrance and terror incitement and ending with Israeli settlement construction.
While Barak Obama long considered Israel the “problem” standing in the way of peace, Mr. Trump sees things differently. Mr. Kushner and Mr. Trump’s interim envoy, Jason Greenblatt, are well aware of Abbas’ deteriorating domestic standing and his penchant for breaking commitments given to successive presidents and secretaries of state
So what does President Trump’s meeting with President Abbas augur for a way forward?
Abbas has a steep incline to overcome with the pro-Israel president. Those of us who know Abbas have heard his script before and Mr. Trump has been adequately forewarned what to expect. Abbas will lecture the President on the historical plight of the Palestinians, their desire for peace, and the obstacles which the Israeli settlement enterprise poses for President Trump’s hopes for peace and Palestinian aspirations. Abbas will recite all the old storylines that he is prepared to meet Prime Minister Netanyahu without conditions and “forge a peace of the brave.”
Ultimately, Abbas will do everything to convince the President that all roads to a Middle East peace run through Ramallah and not through a multilateral comprehensive all-encompassing Middle East peace that is on the President Trump’s mind. Abbas is desperate not to be cornered into concessions compelled by other Arab states since the Palestinians have never been conditioned to accept less than an entire loaf. He will pay lip service to any American proposal for a Middle East “peace conference” but do everything to sabotage it behind the scenes.
Abbas, for his part, simply cannot afford to have a perfunctory, “let’s get to know each other” White House meeting that leads nowhere (and, for that matter, neither can the President). Mr. Trump needs tangible commitments and resulting actions from Abbas to take back to his meeting later this month with Mr. Netanyahu if there is any hope for laying the groundwork for a regional approach: including having Abbas cease Palestinian Authority payments to families of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, and ending stipends to the families of Palestinian terrorists – now a potential Congressional condition for American assistance to the Palestinian Authority.
So, Mr. President, Caveat Emptor!
If President Trump is to stand a prayer at peacemaking he must cast aside the failed playbook of Abbas and of those of previous presidents who focused on bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as the pathway to peace – the so-called “inward out” approach.
That is a fool’s errand so long as Abbas is around (frankly, it is likely to fail no matter who may emerge after Abbas as the new Palestinian Authority leader). The risk-averse Abbas is simply incapable leading his beleaguered people forward.
Abbas is long past his “sell by date.” He has no power to make compromises or to even fulfill old ones – he even refuses to limit incitement against Jews. The Palestinians remain hopelessly divided. Between Hamas and radical Islamists habituating the West Bank refugee camps every effort to forge a Palestinian consensus under Abbas has been doomed to failure. The Israelis have every good reason to wonder why they should negotiate with Abbas since he does not represent the Palestinian people except fleetingly.
Abbas is into the twelfth year of a long ago-expired four year term. His popularity is at an all-time low in the West Bank and he is no longer viewed as a legitimate leader among Palestinians. Moreover, Abbas has consistently rejected virtually every American entreaty to shape up and get with the peace program. Instead, he has isolated and enriched himself and his family. Any Palestinian capable of good governance has been tossed overboard. Abbas has fired capable ministers as soon as they earned international respect. At age 82 Abbas has become a brooding Nixon-like figure isolated in his Muqata redoubt in Ramallah with an enemies list longer than Nixon’s.
Instead of really availing himself of the international headwinds unfairly facing Israel in recent years Abbas decided to borrow a page from his predecessor’s (Arafat’s) playbook, winking and nodding at incitement and terrorism against Israelis ― all the while pleading with UN allies of Palestine to take on Israel so he can avoid having to make the necessary compromises for peace himself. Consequently, Palestinians are searching and longing for an alternative while Abbas spends every waking moment trying to prevent a successor from emerging. Why? Only one reason: Abbas places himself above the needs of his people — a selfish man no different than many other Middle East leaders who could not condone the idea of an anointed successor. But Abbas will abide by Mr. Trump’s regional peace designs – for the moment. Will he attempt to throw a monkey wrench later into the works if he fears Palestinians will be compelled to accept a regional solution? Yes. But by then (and assuming there is something of a framework forward) Abbas will hopefully be gone and perhaps a new dynamic will play out inside Palestine incubated by the prospect of a potential region-wide solution which yields a viable Palestinian state.
Following his important and productive meeting with Egypt’s President el-Sisi two weeks ago (coming on the heel of positive meetings with the leaders of Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia) the President informed his advisers he would like the United States to host a Middle East summit to jump-start peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians as soon as this summer. If these reports are accurate that’s good news. He is heading in the right direction if he is pondering a “bigleague” approach that “goes multilateral.” But there has to be a strategy, and, well, that is a work in progress, to put it charitably.
The last time a comprehensive Middle East peace conference convened was right after the liberation of Kuwait. President H.W. Bush ― flush with the coalition victory ― determined there was a window of opportunity to bring all of the parties together to forge a regional peace. The ensuing “Madrid Conference” convened in 1991, brought all of the parties together face to face for the first time. It inaugurated both bilateral and multilateral tracks. The Conference had all of the accoutrements of a major American enterprise and made eminent sense at the time until the “spirit of Madrid” devolved into one agonizing road block after another – with fault falling on both sides.
Since “Madrid” is the only multilateral American-led template from which to draw upon, President Trump and his team can derive many lessons – good and bad – from Madrid’s promises and its failures. So is there a path forward to resuscitate prospects for peace?
First, the two sides have to barter several modest confidence-building measures: The Palestinians are receiving from Mr. Trump a White House meeting which is an important signal. In return, Abbas could afford to be the gracious guest, cease making those “martyr” payments (or forfeit U.S. assistance) and acknowledge the historical tie of Jews to Jerusalem as a future prelude to recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. These steps would be adequate justification for Mr. Netanyahu to honor President Trump’s request to slow if not cease the pace of settlement construction outside the so-called “settlement blocs.”
Second, any Middle East conference will require the United States to lay out a constructive American-led regional containment policy against Iranian expansionism. This would evidence a 180 degree turn away from President Obama’s license enabling Iranian designs in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. A containment policy against Iran will require active inter-Arab and American political and military planning – a major attraction for a successful regional conference.
Third, a comprehensive planning initiative to cement an inter-Arab political and military coalition to combat ISIS.
Fourth, President Trump has a Middle East peace process blueprint already tabled and embraced by the very Arab partners essential to any peace deal – the Arab Peace Initiative (API) tabled by Saudi Arabia.
The API was unveiled at an Arab League meeting in 2002; re-endorsed at the 2007 Arab League Summit and at the 2017 Arab League Summit. The initiative calls for normalizing relations between the Arab region and Israel, in exchange for a full withdrawal by Israel from the “occupied territories) (including East Jerusalem) and a “just settlement” of the Palestinian refugees based on UN resolutions. Prime Minister Netanyahu recently expressed tentative support for the initiative, saying he accepts the “general idea” with significant caveats. Specifically, the API calls for Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights and accept the relocation of millions of Palestinian refugees into Israel.
The fact that all parties necessary to a multilateral conference have a basic architecture (the API) to draw upon as a template provides potential oxygen to support the President’s broad strategic objectives.
Getting to “go” will require both President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu to get to “stop.” Stop payments and incitement in exchange for Israel stopping settlement construction and perhaps going one more mile by granting a much needed green light to Palestinian economic development in Area C of the West Bank.
If these and other important interim confidence-building compromises are made by Israel and the Palestinians could it mark a new turning point (again) in the prospects for peace? Possibly. After all, it lies in the art of the deal.
But Mr. Trump and his envoys will have to master the nuts and bolts…from the basement up — if they are going to lay a solid foundation to achieve anything lasting to build on. And, Mr. President, it is going to take time away from Mar a Lago if you want your name on it.