US diplomatic deficit hindering Mideast peace deal

Palestinian officials say the Trump administration has gone beyond diplomatic norms in its favouritism of Israel.
Sunday 29/07/2018
US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley (C) during a UN Security Council meeting in New York, on July 24. (AFP)
Clueless diplomacy. US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley (C) during a UN Security Council meeting in New York, on July 24. (AFP)

LONDON - US President Donald Trump is said to be preparing to announce a plan for peace between Israelis and Palestinians but the long-awaited initiative will likely be met with rejection by many even before its details are known.

Although the plan’s particulars may be objectionable to the Palestinian side, diplomatic fallout between US and Palestinian officials that began when the Trump administration recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last December has made matters worse.

The situation further deteriorated in May when the Trump administration moved the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The United States has also suspended financing the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

“We will not engage in something that was dead upon arrival before even we received it,” said Riyad Mansour, Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations. “[The United States] lost the qualification to be the only party to supervise the political process.”

Look to American public, not Trump 

As it no longer regards the United States as an honest broker, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has looked towards Europe for support and is directing public relations efforts at the American public instead of engaging with the Trump administration.

“We have been engaging America [using a] top-down [approach] but we must instead do so from the bottom up,” Husam Zomlot, the PA’s chief envoy to the United States, told the Media Line.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appears to have given up on the prospect that the Trump administration would exert diplomatic pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to accept a resolution to the conflict that is based on international law.

Although US administrations have been accommodating to Israel, Palestinian officials say the Trump administration has gone beyond diplomatic norms in its favouritism of Israel. They attribute this, in part, to Trump’s business background.

'Special feeling’ for Israel

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict “won’t be solved by the tools of real estate men,” said Saeb Erekat, a veteran Palestinian peace negotiator, referring to the US president.

Erekat’s reasoning was not unfounded.

“Trump did not exactly scour the US diplomatic corps to staff his foreign-policy team, and Netanyahu had every reason to believe that the central figures in the new administration had a ‘special feeling’ for Israel,” wrote Adam Entous in the New Yorker in June.

“Trump put Jared Kushner in putative charge of Middle East policy. The choice for ambassador to Israel was David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer from Long Island who held right-wing views on the Middle East and contributed money in support of the same West Bank settlement as the Kushners. The chief envoy to the region would be Jason Greenblatt, a graduate of Yeshiva University and an attorney who worked for the Trump organisation.”

Arab countries, wary of Iranian expansionism, have sought to win favour with Trump to counter Tehran but the US president’s blunt approach towards the sensitive issue of Jerusalem caused them to tread with caution.

'Popular opposition' to US decision on Jerusalem

“Before the Jerusalem decision, Arab leaders had told Kushner that they were prepared to pressure Abbas to accept whatever Trump offered the Palestinians, a senior Arab official said. After the decision, they told Kushner that they would no longer be able to pressure Abbas to accept the American plan because of popular opposition,” Entous wrote in the same essay.

Under Trump, US policies on Israel contrasted sharply against those of Washington’s European allies.

“In Europe, action is being taken to uphold international legality by making the half-century-old military occupation less profitable than it has been for Israel,” wrote human rights lawyer Zaha Hassan in Haaretz.

“Across the Atlantic, however, in the United States, members of Congress are promoting legislation that would normalise Israel’s annexation of the occupied West Bank and legitimate the economic activity of Israeli settlements.”

Faced with international criticism over its policies towards the Palestinians, the Trump administration lashed out at Arab countries.

Haley's outburst 

“It is time for the regional states in particular to step up and really help the Palestinian people, instead of just making speeches,” US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said during a UN Security Council meeting.

“Where are the Arab countries when it comes to encouraging reconciliation between Palestinian factions, which is essential to peace? Where are the Arab countries when it comes to denouncing Hamas terrorism? Where are the Arab countries when it comes to supporting compromises that are necessary for peace?”

Haley also took aim at China and Russia for talking “a big game about the Palestinian cause” but providing little aid.

Haley’s outburst, however, has not drawn attention away from the US peace plan, dubbed by Trump as “the deal of the century.”

“Everyone is waiting for a credible peace plan,” Swedish Ambassador to the United Nations Olof Skoog said at the Security Council meeting. “We haven’t seen that yet. It is now about a year since we were informed about a plan and we have not seen it yet. It is a problem that there is no credible plan on the table.”