President Trump’s direct flight from Saudi Arabia to Tel Aviv on Monday is thought to be the first of its kind. The two countries have no diplomatic relations, and the flight was meant as a kind of symbolic gesture, bridging the gap between Israel and the Arab world on the U.S. president’s first overseas trip.
But Trump appears to be interested in more than mere symbolism. Upon landing in Israel, he waded into the thicket of Israeli-Palestinian relations, declaring: “We have before us a rare opportunity to bring security and stability and peace to this region and to its people.”
Trump thinks he can convince Sunni Arab countries to make common cause with Israel against Iran, and maybe he can. But as part of that larger regional realignment, he wants to settle the Palestinian question. Trump’s message to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to be that the price of unifying Israel and the Sunni Arabs against Shiite Iran will be striking the “ultimate deal” between the Israelis and Palestinians.
That’s a tall order, and one gets the sense Trump doesn’t quite realize what he’s getting into. In his meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in March, Trump said achieving peace is “maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years,” adding that, “We need two willing parties. We believe Israel is willing. We believe you’re willing. And if you both are willing, we’re going to make a deal.”
But therein lies the problem with the dormant Israeli-Palestinian peace process: the Palestinians are not really willing to make a deal. After President Bill Clinton’s unsuccessful efforts to negotiate a deal in the 1990s, it became clear that there is no willing and reliable negotiating partner on the Palestinian side with whom to conduct negotiations. That’s as true today as it was in 2000, and it’s why presidents Bush and Obama largely avoided the peace process.
The uncomfortable reality is that for Palestinian leaders, the incentives for concluding peace with Israel pale in comparison to the rewards for maintaining tension, allowing sporadic violence, and advancing the “Israeli occupation” narrative. After all, that’s how they retain their hold on power—and making concessions to Israel as part of a real peace process would be a sure-fire way to lose it.
The Lesson of the Oslo Accords
The story of how the 1993 Oslo Accords fell apart and led to the Second Intifada in 2000 is a perfect example of this dynamic. It’s hard to think of a less reliable negotiating partner than Yasser Arafat, yet President Clinton was eager to believe otherwise and invest considerable political capital in peace talks. He managed to get Arafat and the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to sign the Oslo Accords, which called for a series of steps over five years that were supposed to lead to a peaceful, comprehensive settlement that ensured self-government for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
Nothing of the sort ever happened, mostly because Arafat reneged on nearly all the promises he made at Oslo. In a nod to democratic reform and the rule of law, Arafat held elections exactly once, in 1996, and won in a landslide. The Palestinian Authority never held another election in his lifetime. Arafat also refused, despite his assurances to the contrary, to revise the Palestinian National Charter to remove passages calling for the destruction of Israel.
Meanwhile, Palestinian schools continued to instill hatred toward Jews, terrorist activity went on largely unabated, and Arafat spoke out of both sides of his mouth, placating credulous Western audiences while admitting to Muslim crowds, “We plan to eliminate the state of Israel and establish a purely Palestinian state,” as he proclaimed to an Arab audience in Stockholm in 1996.
In a last-ditch effort to save the Oslo Accords before the end of his presidency, Clinton met with Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David in July of 2000. Under immense U.S. pressure, Barak gave Arafat everything he could have hoped for: a Palestinian state that encompassed 90 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza, with its capital in East Jerusalem. Nothing even close to such an offer had ever been on the table before, and if Arafat had ever been serious about a peace settlement with Israel, or in a position to really conclude peace on any terms, he would have taken it.
Instead, he walked away from the deal and in September of that year launched the Second Intifada, a violent uprising against Israel that would claim hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian lives and dash all prospects for peace. The uprising ended only after Arafat’s death in late 2004.
Why did he do it? Simply put, Arafat knew that nothing short of dissolving Israel would be acceptable to the various factions of the PLO; his hold on power necessitated that he concede nothing and negotiate nothing. The great lesson of Oslo is that there was never really a peace process to begin with.
For The Palestinians, Nothing Has Really Changed
Perhaps Trump is aware of this fraught history and is simply undaunted by it. But he shouldn’t suppose that things have fundamentally changed for Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. Even now, there are signs of the old troubles. On Monday, hundreds of Palestinians clashed with Israeli troops across the West Bank following days of widespread demonstrations in solidarity with more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners who have been on a hunger strike for nearly a month.
The hunger strike is being led by Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian political figure and convicted terrorist serving five life sentences for orchestrating a series of bombings carried out by the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades during the Second Intifada. In 2014, he called for a third intifada and said the PA should end all security cooperation with Israel. A poll that same year found that Palestinians, if they were allowed to vote, would elect Barghouti president. Last month, he called for the hunger strike.
The major difference between now and the failure at Camp David in 2000 is that Hamas split from the PA after Arafat’s death and Abbas’ election in 2005, and the terrorist group now exercises control over the Gaza Strip. If Arafat purported to speak for all Palestinians in 2000, Abbas certainly can’t say the same today.
This is the environment in which Trump hopes to convince Israeli and Palestinian leaders to come to the table. Iran is no doubt a threat to the region, and Israel would no doubt welcome cooperation from Sunni Arab states in dealing with Tehran.
But Abbas and his lieutenants have no more incentive to negotiate with Israel than Arafat did in 2000. They know, as Arafat knew, that their hold on power means perpetuating the grievances that have kept the Israeli-Palestinian question an open wound for the last 70 years.