Trump’s bet on Palestinian-Israeli deal likely to be mugged by reality

Sunday 16/04/2017

After several presi­dents before him tried and failed to achieve Israeli-Pal­estinian peace, US President Donald Trump seems to believe he and his team can do it.

This confidence is due to several factors. First is his outsized ego. Trump seems to believe that he is such a great negotiator that he can bring the parties to the table and hammer out a deal. Never mind that his predecessors all came up short. In his mind, they did not have the requisite negotiating skills to achieve the “art of the deal” — the phrase that became his self-pro­motional brand.

So far, however, his professed negotiating talent has not been evident: On domestic issues, his efforts to persuade Republicans in the US House of Representa­tives to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a Republican health care bill failed miserably as he and House Speaker Paul Ryan encountered stiff resistance from both moderate and far-right members of their own party.

Second, Trump is dismissive of the bureaucracy and the experts within it. He does not want to rely on talent within the US State Department that has worked on these issues for years. Probably in his mind, they are all losers. Instead, he is relying on a few close advisers, such as his real estate attorney Jason Greenblatt and his son-in-law Jared Kush­ner, for advice and guidance.

To Trump’s credit, his initial moves to get the peace track restarted have not been as one-sided as some observers had feared. He did not retreat from his choice of ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, a per­sonal friend and bankruptcy lawyer who has a long record of supporting settlements in the West Bank but Trump has put off his pledge to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusa­lem after meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II and getting advice from US military officials who know the region well.

At a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in February, Trump surprised many when he called on the Israeli leader publicly to stop settlement building for “a bit.”

Although Trump wavered on whether he supported a two-state or a one-state solution, he sent Greenblatt in March to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in what was billed as a “listening tour”. This deferential approach to the Palestinians was aimed in part at smoothing the way for Abbas’s visit to Washington.

However, unless Trump and his team have some magic trick up their sleeves, it is hard to envi­sion how he will bring the two sides together. His UN ambassa­dor, Nikki Haley, said her strong defence of Israel at the United Nations did not undermine US leverage to broker an Israeli-Pal­estinian peace deal. Trump’s strategy seems to be to hug Israel closely to make Netanyahu so grateful that he will follow Trump’s advice on a peace deal.

Whether this is the view of Kushner and Greenblatt is not known but, if it is, it rests on the assumption that Netanyahu and his right-wing government are ready to make peace, which implies concessions. A big assumption indeed.

Without a firm commitment to a two-state solution and some flexibility on East Jerusalem, at least on the Muslim holy sites, it is hard to fathom how Abbas can negotiate a deal with Netanyahu.

Netanyahu is not even backing down on settlements. In late March, Israel’s security cabinet approved a major new settlement north of Ramallah to compensate settlers who were evacuated from the West Bank settlement of Amona after an Israeli court ruling. Although Netanyahu reportedly told his cabinet that there would be no more new settlements for a while in defer­ence to Trump, he might approve building new homes inside existing settlements. So much for the strategy of the big hug.

Kushner, who has been given several portfolios in the White House in addition to the Israeli- Palestinian one, certainly has his work cut out for him.

The third source of Trump’s confidence is his belief that he can convince friendly Sunni regimes in the region, such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to persuade the Palestinians to make concessions in exchange for his backing them on Iran and other issues. However, as the recent Arab League summit in Jordan underscored, Arab states will only accept a two-state solution.

Trump’s idea that he will be the one finally to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians is likely to be mugged by reality soon.