Scarce details are not precluding debate about the ‘deal of the century’

“The politics on both sides are completely inhospitable to any kind of engagement.” - Neri Zilber, an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Sunday 05/08/2018
Policy of dictation. US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (L) and Senior White House Adviser Jared Kushner greet each other on the stage during the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, last May. (AFP)
Policy of dictation. US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (L) and Senior White House Adviser Jared Kushner greet each other on the stage during the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, last May. (AFP)

LONDON - Early in his presidency, Donald Trump vowed to deliver what no US president had achieved: a lasting peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.

A task force including Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and aide, and Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s representative for international negotiations, has been working on a peace plan that Trump billed as the “deal of the century.”

Officials have been tight-lipped about plan details. Asked during an interview with Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds in June when the plan would be released, Kushner replied: “Soon. We are almost done.”

Despite efforts to prevent information from leaking, various reports have revealed what are said to be key details of the peace plan.

Based on statements by US officials, a regional economic plan lies at the heart of the peace initiative, which, Kushner said, would make the region more connected through “very significant investments in infrastructure from the public and private sectors.”

“Israel’s prosperity would spill over very quickly to the Palestinians if there is peace,” Kushner told Al-Quds, adding that Jordan and Egypt would also benefit. On core issues, such as borders and the right of return, he was vague, stating that the administration was working on “a package of solutions that both sides can live with.”

Part of this thinking, diplomats have said, is a plan to set up a special economic zone — funded by Gulf money — in the Sinai Peninsula with Cairo facilitating the movement of workers from Gaza into Egypt.

Gaza could come under the control of Egypt, finalising the separation of the coastal enclave from Palestinian territories in the occupied West Bank. Such a plan has reportedly been rejected by Cairo.

A key sticking point in previous negotiations has been the status of Jerusalem. Israel sees the city as its undivided and eternal capital while Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

The New York Times noted that the Palestinians could be offered Abu Dis, a village on the outskirts of Jerusalem, as the seat of a Palestinian government.

Diplomats said the peace plan does not include a right of return for Palestinian refugees displaced during the 1948 and 1967 wars or a settlement freeze on land claimed by Palestinians.

“What has appeared about the plan should not be taken at face value,” said Dennis Ross, a former US ambassador who was Washington’s point man for the peace process under presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. “Details have not been shared with the parties, I believe, because of the fear that what emerges piecemeal could create a backlash before the plan is ever presented,” Ross added.

Ever since Trump announced he was moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Palestinian officials have refused to meet with their American counterparts about the plan.

“We informed the world that we are against the deal of the century, we won’t accept it and we won’t let it pass,” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said in July.

The embassy move also affected US relations with traditional allies in the region. Reuters reported that Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud made it clear that Saudi Arabia would not support a plan that does not deal with Jerusalem and the right of return.

“The US mistake was [the Americans] thought one country could pressure the rest to give in but it’s not about pressure. No Arab leader can concede on Jerusalem or Palestine,” one diplomat in Riyadh told Reuters.

The timing of the plan’s release could prove crucial.

“The politics on both sides are completely inhospitable to any kind of engagement,” said Neri Zilber, an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

This is reflected in public opinion. A survey by the Arab World Centre for Research and Development in the West Bank and Gaza in July reported that 70% of respondents said the “deal of the century” would “end the dream of achieving the Palestinian state.”

“Economics can’t act as an alternative to real Palestinian national demands,” said Zilber, adding that a key question was whether the Trump administration would release a grand plan at all. Zilber said the administration might choose instead to focus on smaller steps, such as the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

US officials told Israeli daily Haaretz in June that the administration does not want to “impose an agreement” or present it as a “take-it-or-leave-it” proposal.

“Given the gaps between the parties and the mutual disbelief, the chances of reaching an agreement are not great,” said Ross, cautioning that “one should not dismiss the possibility that a credible plan will be presented.”

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