The future of Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’
To paraphrase Charles de Gaulle’s infamous quip about Brazil, US President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century” to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a great future… and always will. Every few months rumours surface in Washington that the deal will be rolled out soon. A few months later, the same rumours are heard.
Apparently, we are perennially a few months from Middle East peace.
Even if the White House rolls out a peace proposal in the waning days of 2018 or early in 2019, it is widely assumed that the framework presented by Trump’s team, led by presidential son-in-law and fan-of-Israeli-settlements Jared Kushner, will be safely inside the comfort zone of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu — which means far outside the comfort zone of the Palestinians and most of the Arab world.
To be fair — and for the sake of argument — let’s assume that Kushner and his pals produce a viable plan that calls for significant Israeli concessions on territory, puts East Jerusalem back on the table as the Palestinian capital and at least addresses the plight of Palestinian refugees. I admit we are entering fantasyland here but bear with me.
The question then would be: Are the current leaderships in Israel, the Palestinian territories, the Arab world and the United States in a position to hammer out the torturous details, sell compromises to their constituencies and guarantee any deal’s sustainability?
Consider the cast of characters:
Trump will enter 2019 and possibly the rest of his presidency fighting for his political life after revelations by Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor investigating his campaign’s interactions with Russian agents in 2016. One of the figures at the centre of these interactions was Kushner. For Trump and Kushner avoiding impeachment and staying out of jail will be more important goals in 2019 than bringing about Middle East peace.
Netanyahu is in a similar scandal-driven pickle. He has only a one-seat majority in the Knesset where his greatest political threat comes from parties even farther to the right than his Likud.
The Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas is elderly, ailing, unpopular and in control of only parts of the West Bank. A reconciliation agreement with Hamas remains illusory. The jockeying to replace Abbas began several years ago and will only intensify.
The much-touted friendship between Kushner and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz was supposed to bring the Saudis and, thus, much of the Arab world to the table but the crown prince has image problems of his own and, in any event, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who is still the boss, was not happy with Trump’s unilateral moves on Jerusalem.
Clearly, none of these leaders is in a position to take bold and daring steps for a viable and just peace. Even if Trump had the attention span to devote to this issue, if he were to do something constructive, he would risk losing a key constituency — Christian Zionists — that he will need if he runs for re-election in 2020.
Netanyahu’s government would fall if he so much as hinted at compromise and new Israeli elections could put into power a prime minister even less amenable to peace.
Abbas is more focused on preventing a popular explosion and holding onto control in the small part of the Palestinian territories he controls.
After Oslo, this conflict was for a brief period one between two national movements, the state of Israel and the nascent state of Palestine in the form of the Palestinian Authority (PA), whose leaders conducted negotiations with the mediation of the world’s greatest power (but not an unbiased power). Today, the conflict can best be framed as between an Israeli state with unfettered power (thanks in large part to that biased mediator) and the Palestinian people (including those who hold Israeli citizenship), who, while not exactly leaderless, are leader deficient.
The United States is so unapologetically biased that it is effectively irrelevant to any peace process. Not irrelevant to the conflict — as we have seen with Trump’s decisions on Jerusalem, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East and economic aid to the PA — but irrelevant to peace. The former mediator now is the main disruptor.
Given Israel’s overwhelming military power and its financial and political largesse from the United States, the most relevant questions at this point are: Is there anything Israel will not do to maintain its absolute control over the land and the peoples between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River? Is any power other than the United States — the European Union or Russia, for example — capable of altering Israel’s behaviour? Will the growing global movement in support of Palestinian rights reach such a critical mass that it is able to bring about change?
Those are the questions to focus on in 2019.