Trump team’s peace process efforts fitting a pattern
An unannounced trip by US President Donald Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and other White House officials to Saudi Arabia in late October to explore ways to rejuvenate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has apparently come up short. Nonetheless, the trip revealed a discernible pattern.
The White House strategy is to encourage Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab countries to support a regional approach to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict that would entail Arab countries establishing relations with Israel while the peace process gets under way and pressuring the Palestinians to accept positions that would be palatable to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his right-wing cabinet.
This strategy is sometimes called the “outside-in” approach. It is designed to ease Israeli right-wing concerns about making peace with the Palestinians. The idea has been around for some time but this is the first time a US administration has actively pursued it.
The US approach reflects Netanyahu’s longstanding views of the Arab peace initiative of 2002 that was articulated by then Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and adopted by the Arab League. Netanyahu likes the part in which Arab countries recognise and establish relations with Israel but strongly opposes the other parts, namely that Israel withdraw to the 1967 borders and that East Jerusalem become the capital of the Palestinian state.
Kushner has been accompanied by Jason Greenblatt, a long-time Trump attorney, on his trips to the region. The two most recent trips have also included Dina Powell, the deputy national security adviser. Powell, who is of Egyptian Coptic Christian background, knows the region well, speaks Arabic and was probably added by Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, to give balance to the team. Both Kushner and Greenblatt have been supportive in the past of the Israeli settler movement.
Although the Saudis and other Gulf Arab leaders politely received the Trump team — in large part because they want Trump’s support on broader strategic issues, such as Iran — they are not buying what the team is selling on the Israeli- Palestinian front.
The Saudis and others will not buck the Arab consensus on the Palestinian issue just to please Trump, knowing that public opinion in the Arab world will not countenance a policy that indulges Netanyahu with little in return for the Palestinians. Whenever violence has erupted in Jerusalem, anti-Israel sentiment in the Arab world has intensified.
Indicative of this sentiment, UAE officials, who hosted the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam in October, which included an international judo match, refused to allow the playing of his country’s national anthem when Israeli Tal Flicker won the gold medal. Instead, organisers played the official music of the International Judo Federation.
So much for the outside-in approach. The Trump team belatedly discovered that shared Israel’s and most Gulf Arab countries’ antipathy towards Iran does not translate into cooperation on other issues, especially the Israeli- Palestinian one.
Nonetheless, the Trump team has shown it can apply pressure on Netanyahu regarding smaller issues to give the appearance of even-handedness that gives Palestinian officials some hope.
Over the summer, the Trump team intervened to get Netanyahu to back down from his highly controversial decision to place security cameras and metal detectors at entrances to the Haram al- Sharif holy site in Jerusalem. The decision by Netanyahu sparked widespread Palestinian protests. Although the United States was not alone in applying pressure, Netanyahu was especially sensitive to its objections.
More recently, after Palestinian officials strongly objected, Netanyahu suspended attempts to pass a law, which he supported, that would annex some settlements in the West Bank to Jerusalem.
Reportedly, Greenblatt advised the Palestinians that his quiet diplomacy with Netanyahu would be more effective than a loud Palestinian denunciation and that apparently proved to be the case. Later, a US spokesman in Washington did not criticise the proposed law directly but indicated that it did not appear to have much chance of passing.
This type of behind-the-scenes pressure owes much to Greenblatt’s skill as a negotiator and the fact that Netanyahu wants to remain in Trump’s good graces. It has its limitations, however, given Netanyahu’s entrenched positions and the fact that Trump does not want a major confrontation with Israel. On the big issues of borders, settlement building and the ultimate disposition of Jerusalem, Netanyahu is unlikely to exhibit any real flexibility.
Perhaps coming to the realisation that the Arabs and Israelis are far apart on the major issues, the White House put out a more sober assessment in the wake of Kushner’s latest trip, stating: “While these regional talks will play an important role, the president reaffirms that peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians can only be negotiated directly between the two parties.”