Date Published:April 5, 2019

President Trump’s Middle East Peace Plan – The “Deal of the Century” or the “Deal of the Week”?

By Joel Singer

If I had a dollar for every time I have heard someone – be it a new Israeli foreign minister, a new American Secretary of State, or any other type of interested observer – declare that they’ve developed a new plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I would be a rich man by now. They always come bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, frantically waving a piece of paper that could (or so they always think) finally resolve the conflict. They always believe that their idea is the one that has never been thought of before – a solution that stands to finally resolve this decades-old conflict.  Israelis and Palestinians have been at odds for decades over the details of a final status agreement, but at last, this idea may be the one that works.

Of course, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not so simple.  Novel ideas are always needed, but successful peacemaking in the conflict requires other prerequisites – particularly, the right leaders with the right attitude to peacemaking at the right time. I am skeptical that these factors are now aligned in a way that holds promise for President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century” anytime soon. But – given the dynamic moment in Israeli politics – particularly the upcoming elections scheduled for April 9th – the US effort may inadvertently lead to a new Israeli government that stands to preserve options for future negotiations at a more opportune time. In short, while it may not go anywhere, the drumbeat of the forthcoming Trump Peace Plan may, for now, hold-off trends undermining possibilities for a two-state outcome.

 The Prerequisite Need for Two Brave Partners

As I read the increasing number of leaks about President Trump’s soon-to-be-released, secret Middle East Peace Plan, I recall how the late Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres once said wearily, referring to the negotiations with the Palestinians: “I don’t need a plan, I need a partner.”

Peres meant that, even in the absence of a specific plan at hand to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with a partner on the other side with whom he could work, Peres and that Palestinian partner could, together, develop the right plan. But Peres also meant that, if there were no partner on the Palestinian side, even the best plan in the world would lead nowhere. Peres’s reference to a “partner” was a shorthand for a strong leader who is willing to engage in substantive negotiations and make the necessary sacrifices for peace.

Yasser Arafat, likewise, when negotiating with Yitzhak Rabin and Peres, repeatedly invoked the need to work together towards the “Peace of the Brave” – which he always couched in the plural (“Peace of the Braves”), while, to my amusement, pronouncing the last word as “Brave-ass.”

It was clear then that Arafat expected the courage to be shown by Israel, while not paying attention to the bravery he should show. And I suspected that Peres, too, was more focused on whether there was a Palestinian partner, than he was focused on considering whether Israel was fully prepared to be the partner that was also necessary for the deal to be made, especially in the painful period following Rabin’s assassination.

Ultimately, the same logic of partnership and courage is equally applicable to both sides.  Stated more generally: for a negotiated agreement to be reached – especially between Israelis and Palestinians – a prerequisite must be two leaders on both sides who are both willing and capable. That is, they must both be willing to make far-reaching concessions that are necessary to accomplish peace. They must both also be capable: that is, charismatic enough to garner the wide-scale support of their respective peoples for the deal they have negotiated, and strong enough to enforce the deal, particularly the concessions, in the face of their respective opposition forces.

It’s not enough that one of the leaders will be willing but not capable, or capable but not willing. A willing but incapable leader is as bad for reaching a peace treaty as a capable but unwilling leader. And clearly, it’s not enough for one of the leaders to meet this requirement while the other does not. It takes two to tango, as the saying goes.

For many years now, the conventional wisdom has been that a Palestinian-Israeli peace treaty has not yet materialized due to a lack of strong leadership on both sides willing to make peace. Let’s start with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, perhaps one of the strongest Israeli leaders in recent memory. His nickname, “King Bibi,” reflects the broad and deep support he receives from his base – a large and deeply loyal group Israeli right-wing voters, skeptical of the peace process and the Palestinians, who will vote for Bibi no matter what. Netanyahu has been elected Israel’s Prime Minister four times, with an excellent chance of being re-elected in the April 9th elections, an unprecedented accomplishment. With his strong popular support, Netanyahu is clearly capable of making peace with the Palestinians, and most of his right-wing base will support any decision he makes in this regard. Indeed, Netanyahu was the first Israeli Prime Minister to adopt publicly the two-state solution, which he did in his Bar Ilan speech in June 2009, without any meaningful backlash from his right-wing voters. But it is also clear that, for ideological reasons, Netanyahu is unwilling to make the necessary concessions to make peace with the Palestinians, nor is he now prepared to take any further concrete steps to pursue the two-state solution.

On the other side of the equation stands Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, nicknamed Abu Mazen, who many Israelis believe is as unwilling to make peace with Israel, as Netanyahu is unwilling to make peace with the Palestinians. His 1984 book (The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism), published just nine years before the conclusion of the Oslo Agreement that he helped to shepherd, is cited by many Israelis as evidence of his real intentions. In this book, Abu Mazen argued, among other things, that the Holocaust was a Zionist-Nazi plot, and that the Zionists exaggerated the number of Jews exterminated during the Holocaust. As my own family was murdered during the Holocaust, I don’t find the views expressed by Abu Mazen’s book particularly appealing. Yet, for present purposes, I am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, given that the book was written before Israelis and Palestinians commenced the process of reconciliation, that is, while they were still enemies. He himself said as much in 2003, when apologizing for what he’d written.

But even if we accept, for the sake of argument, that Abu Mazen now is willing to make peace with Israel, it is clear that this old, ailing, and uncharismatic Palestinian leader is absolutely incapable of making peace. Any concessions he would have to make to attain peace with Israel would almost surely be rejected by Hamas, and it is highly unlikely that Abu Mazen would be able to effectively fight against Hamas to enforce an agreement. In fact, it’s almost certain that in trying to do so, he would risk losing the West Bank to Hamas, in the same way Fatah lost the Gaza Strip in 2007, in the wake of Hamas’s victory in the Palestinian Authority’s last elections more than a decade ago.

In these circumstances, Abu Mazen’s survivalist policy has long been – and in the event of a Trump Peace Plan, is likely to continue to be – not to make waves. To fully understand Abu Mazen’s difficult situation, one must first attempt to grasp the meaning of the expression “Don’t make waves,” which is best illustrated in the following joke:

 A guy dies and goes to Hell. Once there, a demon shows him in, and tells him he can choose one of three doors, but he can’t see what’s inside, only listen.

First door opens, and the guy hears screams of agony and whips being used.

“No, thanks, next door.”

Next door has sounds of joints popping and bones cracking.

“Oh, that sounds horrible, no thanks.”

Last door, silence, dead silence, until he hears: “Please don’t make waves……please don’t make waves.”

Well, that doesn’t sound so bad, I’m in!

The demon opens the door and the guy falls into a pool of shit up to his chin.

From Abu Mazen’s office in the Muqata’a, the operating principle is to avoid shaking things up in any way which could lead to a worse outcome.

So, before you even read the first word of the Middle East Peace Initiative produced by the President’s trusted advisors Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt – and which according to media leaks holds somewhere between 50 and 200 pages – one must ask the preliminary question: Have the prerequisite requirements been met? Have the Israeli and Palestinian leaders dramatically changed, so that they are now both willing and capable of making peace?  I wouldn’t bet the farm that I don’t have on that proposition.

But even if Netanyahu and Abu Mazen have each miraculously transformed into each other’s courageous partner, could Trump’s Peace Initiative really live up to the mantle of “the Deal of the Century”?  That is, can it lead to a final agreement to end all Palestinian-Israeli wars?  This brings in the second important question with which every peace plan must comply in order to succeed, which is:

Does Trump’s “Deal of the Century” Meet the Minimum Requirements of Both Parties?

It’s a well- known negotiation principle that, in order to have a deal, a proposed agreement must meet the minimum requirements of both parties – “minimum requirements” meaning the elements for each party that, if not included in the deal, would lead it to walk away. Certainly, no proposed agreement can meet the optimum requirements of both parties in this conflict, as those requirements are mostly diametrically opposed (they both want all of Jerusalem, etc.). So, any deal offered to Israelis and Palestinians, in order for it to be successful, must fall somewhere in the range between their optimum requirements and their minimum requirements.

Drawing on lessons from 25 years of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations since the signing of the Oslo Agreement, experienced negotiators and other experts in Israeli-Palestinian affairs have developed a very good understanding of the contours of a possible Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. They know very well where the border should be located, more or less; how the refugee problem must be resolved; and what the parameters for the resolution of the status of Jerusalem are; to name a few of the final status issues that must be resolved. Indeed, there is not much room to maneuver in the range of possibilities before one side or the other walks out.

So, will Trump’s plan hit the mark?  Of course, this question cannot be answered before the release of Trump’s Middle East Peace Plan. For now, we can only guess. But observing how Trump actively campaigns for Bibi Netanyahu ahead of the upcoming Israeli elections – including his gift of American recognition of Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights, just two weeks before the elections – my bet is that Trump’s plan will meet Netanyahu’s minimum requirements.

But will it also meet Abu Mazen’s minimum requirements?

Considering that Trump has taken the following steps, each of which was denounced by the Palestinians –

(1) Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital;

(2) Moving the U.S. Embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem;

(3) Closing the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem (that long-served as the informal “embassy” to West Bank Palestinians, reporting directly to Washington) and merging it with the U.S. Embassy to Israel;

(4) Shutting down the PLO representative office in Washington; and

(5) Ending American financial aid to the Palestinians

– I wouldn’t hold my breath.

But if the Palestinians reject Trump’s deal, will all of the American effort that went into the plan be wasted?  Not necessarily.  The law of the unintended consequences may once again triumph. 

If Nothing Else, Trump’s “Deal of the Century” May Facilitate the Creation of a More Moderate Coalition Government in Israel

Unlike US presidential elections, Israeli elections are held among parties for seats in the Israeli parliament – the Knesset – which is comprised of 120 seats. While often there are two large parties competing, there are also numerous other, small parties that also participate in the elections. In the current elections, there are 41 parties participating, the two largest being Netanyahu’s Likud Party, and the newly-formed Blue and White Party – led by former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Ganz. Based on experience, no one party can obtain enough seats in the Knesset, that is, 61 of the 120 Knesset members, to allow it to form a government on its own. So, there is a need for the creation of a block of parties, holding together at least 61 Knesset seats, which will support the formation of a coalition government, headed by the leader of one of these parties who will be selected as prime minister. In the most recent polls, Netanyahu’s party and Ganz’s party are predicted to receive a similar number of seats in the Knesset (28 each).

Yet, these very same polls also predict that, of all the parties to be voted into the Knesset, Netanyahu’s Likud will likely receive the support of more Knesset members than Ganz – piecing together a coalition of 66 members to Ganz’s 54 – certainly enough for Bibi to be reelected prime minister. To do so, however, Netanyahu will have to rely on the support of several other small parties. And while Netanyahu’s Likud Party is considered rightist, those other, smaller parties stand mostly to the ideological right of the rightist Likud.  Some of these hard-right parties are so extremist, that they would likely veto any possibility that Bibi accept Trump’s “Deal of the Century,” even if that deal would otherwise be acceptable to a Prime Minister Netanyahu. In any event, the resulting political platform of such a coalition government, formed between the right and the ultra-right, may unfortunately push the new Israeli government’s policies away from the zone of “sometimes undesirable” to that of the “insane.”

Alternatively, if after the elections, Netanyahu can reach a deal with Ganz – whose party can be classified as belonging in the center-left of the Israeli political spectrum – Netanyahu and Ganz would be able to form a stable Likud-Blue and White coalition government. This coalition’s policies will no doubt be on the left of Likud’s, rather than the alternative of the right-of-Likud coalition outlined in the first scenario. In other words, such a government would gravitate toward centrist policies. And while the creation of such an Israeli government does not of course guarantee that an Israeli-Palestinian agreement will follow, it will, at a minimum, open the door to new possibilities for which the door has been closed in the past, and which will, undoubtedly, be blocked in the future, should a rightist-ultra rightist government be formed in Israel.

For this scenario to materialize, both Netanyahu and Ganz will need an excuse, assuming they are both interested – which I suspect they are. Netanyahu will need to give his base, including many members of his own party, and explanation for why he prefers to form a coalition with what he has termed “an extreme leftist party,” instead of forming a coalition government with his more “natural partners” on the extreme right. Ganz also will need to convince his colleagues in the Blue and White Party, some of whom have vowed publicly they will not serve in a Netanyahu government, to change course dramatically.

Enters Trump with his “Deal of the Century.” I expect this deal to be the most pro-Israeli deal that has ever been proposed, or will ever be proposed, by any U.S. president. I am confident that Netanyahu also recognizes that reality. Netanyahu, therefore, will be able to use Trump’s Peace Initiative as the excuse for forgoing a coalition government with the ultra-rightist parties, who will no doubt prevent him from accepting Trump’s deal – thus providing a reason to form a coalition government with Ganz’s Blue and White Party. Similarly, Ganz could use the same logic to convince his colleagues to break their pledge.

The Trump Administration has indicated its intention to publish the Middle East Peace Plan shortly after Israel’s April 9th elections, without waiting I am truly hoping that the Trump Administration will not wait for the formation of a new coalition government in Israel, which may take some time, before releasing its Peace Initiative. If so, this plan may facilitate the creation of a Likud-Blue and White coalition.

A few days after the Israeli elections, Jews in Israel, the United States and elsewhere will celebrate the Passover Holiday by reading ceremonially the Haggadah. Towards the end of this ancient text, there is a 15-verse song called “Dayenu” – a Hebrew word that can be loosely translated as “It would have been sufficient.” This song commemorates 15 gifts that God bestowed upon the people of Israel in connection with their salvation from slavery in Egypt and thereafter. Each verse praises God for bestowing one gift, even if the next gift, covered by the next verse, were not bestowed, and so forth.

The first verse reads:

If He [that is, God] had brought us out from Egypt and had not carried out judgments against them [that is, the Egyptian enslavers] – Dayenu! [It would have been sufficient!].

Thereafter, the next 14 verses continue to praise God for all the other gifts he gave the people of Israel (such as splitting the sea, leading them in the desert for 40 years, giving them the Torah at Mount Sinai, etc.), each of which ends with the statement “Dayenu!”

So, if Trump does publish his Middle East Peace Initiative after the Israeli elections, and it does lead to the creation of a Likud-Blue and White coalition government, I would like to ask all of the Jewish readers of this blog to add the following verse to the Dayenu song that they will soon sing during this year’s Passover Holiday:

If, through his “Deal of the Century,” He [Trump] had facilitated the creation of a Likud-Blue and White coalition government in Israel, and had not immediately brought about a Palestinian-Israeli peace treaty – Dayenu!

I am hoping that some Palestinians also will be willing to sing along this verse.

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