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Why Trump’s Middle East Initiative Is Doomed To Fail No Matter What He Does


For once, the foreign policy establishment and the veterans of past U.S. administrations are at least partly right about President Donald Trump. His Middle East peace initiative, the first part of which is due to be unveiled next month at an “economic workshop” in Bahrain, won’t succeed. The “ultimate deal” that will end the conflict between Israel and Palestine certainly won’t be struck at that meeting.

The Palestinian Authority has already made it clear that it won’t attend the Bahrain event or negotiate on the basis of Trump’s plan. Longtime State Department peace processor Aaron David Miller wasn’t wrong when he told The New York Times that if the United States could have “bought peace in the Middle East through economic development,” it would have done so long ago.

That means that it is almost certain the president will be denied the satisfaction of brokering a deal that eluded his predecessors. Under the current circumstances, Palestinian leadership and the political culture that sustains them simply won’t allow it. But that is not the only way to look at the Trump/Kushner plan.

A Template for Peace

For all of the abuse the administration is taking from the establishment for attempting the impossible, by sticking to a plan that puts economics first and refusing to prioritize pandering to Palestinian intransigence, as all his successors have done, Trump is creating a template for peace that makes sense. Even more to the point, it is being welcomed by most of the Arab world.

That means that even after they torpedo progress toward peace next month, as they have done every other time an effort has been made to end the conflict, it will be the Palestinians who will be more isolated than ever, not the United States. To the contrary, by convening an economic summit in which Israelis and representatives from Arab states will openly work toward creating greater cooperation, Trump will have enhanced America’s standing in the region.

That is not the lofty and likely impossible goal the president set for himself when he entered office. Yet by shifting the discussion away from Palestinians’ inability to break free from their century-old war on Zionism toward achievable economic objectives, Trump will have still accomplished something important. It will also be more than Barack Obama did during the eight long years of bashing Israel and appeasing the Palestinians.

Trump’s foreign policy team already knows that neither their Bahrain gathering nor what will follow is likely to tempt the Palestinians to negotiate. The foreign policy establishment and their cheering section in Obama’s former media echo chamber will blame that on Trump and Kushner and the fact that the likely details of their peace plan will diverge even more from Palestinians’ claims than those of previous American schemes.

Although it will inevitably involve some territorial sacrifices on Israel’s part, it will fall well short of the Palestinians’ demands. While they say they will settle for nothing less than an Israeli withdrawal to the June 1967 lines, including a re-division of Jerusalem, it is by no means clear that, even if that were on the table, the Palestinians would then be prepared to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state even within those shrunken borders that most Israelis think would be indefensible.

The Palestinians have already repeatedly rejected peace deals that would have given them statehood in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem in 2000, 2001, and 2008. What’s more, they refused to negotiate seriously during Obama’s eight years in office despite his effort to create more “daylight” between the United States and Israel and nonstop efforts to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the Palestinians’ direction. The reason for this is partly due to the bifurcation of power between the West Bank and Gaza.

West Bank and Gaza

The corrupt Fatah Party led by Mahmoud Abbas runs the Palestinian Authority that autonomously governs part of the territory and almost all of the Arabs who live on the West Bank. The 83-year-old Abbas is serving the 14th year of the four-year term as president of the PA, to which he was elected.

New elections are nowhere in sight not merely because Fatah is allergic to democracy, but also because Abbas rightly fears losing out to its Hamas rivals. Hamas seized power in Gaza in 2007 bloody coup and has ruled the strip as an independent Palestinian state in all but name since then, where it imposes its Islamist beliefs on the population and uses the territory as a launching pad for attacks on Israel.

So long as power is split between the two factions, peace isn’t going to happen, because even if the supposedly more moderate Abbas were willing to sign an agreement, doing so would help Hamas undermine his rule. Most Palestinians, whose sense of national identity is still inextricably linked to the long war against the Jewish state, would see it as a betrayal.

That the Trump administration went ahead with an effort to create a peace plan despite the Palestinians’ complete lack of interest in progress was an indication of Trump’s stubbornness. That opens up the possibility that a failed process will, as it has in the past, encourage a new round of Palestinian violence aimed at getting the attention and the sympathy of international observers by forcing Israel into a confrontation in which it will be blamed for the inevitable loss of life.

As futile as their quest seems, Kushner’s plan is also a breath of fresh air after decades of American efforts to accommodate the Palestinians’ unwillingness to admit that they’ve lost their long war against Zionism.

Economic Development and Real Incentives

By focusing on economic development, the United States is offering tangible incentives not just for peaceful cooperation but also for breaking down a Palestinian political culture that has, until now, been solely focused on “resistance” rather than state-building or good governance. In its place, the Trump plan offers a template for economic improvement that will give the Palestinians a reason to believe that compromise is worth sacrificing their dreams of eliminating Israel and of a “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees who have been kept stateless so they can be used as props.

Even if the Palestinians are not yet ready to accept those hard truths, the economic incentives on the table may, especially if they are backed by the Arab states that are sick of Abbas’s slippery refusal to negotiate, have a long-term impact on the conflict. That doesn’t mean that Saudi Arabia or any other of those other nations that will go to Bahrain will endorse Trump’s plan. But it does mean they are on board with changing the way peace is discussed in a way that will further isolate Fatah and Hamas after they refuse to negotiate.

The Sunni Arab states look to both the United States and Israel as allies in their struggle against Iran’s quest for regional hegemony. The notion that they will blame Trump for trying to make a peace that Palestinians will only again reject is absurd. When the dust settles from the rollout of the American plan, the Arab states will be firmly in America’s corner no matter what the Palestinians do.

Trump won’t purchase peace with economic development, but neither will he set it back by reminding the Palestinians that their position is getting weaker the longer they refuse to deal, especially when the United States is prepared to help them. That may not assuage Trump’s wounded pride about failing to make the “ultimate deal.” But by proceeding in a fashion that makes it clear just how much the Palestinians are missing out on and how the Arab world looks to the United States as an ally, it could still turn out to be a small but significant diplomatic victory for the Americans.