‘Deal of the Century’ Will Set New Baseline for Mideast Diplomacy

By Herb Keinon

Jerusalem Post

April 25, 2019

 

In a twist to the “after-the-hagim [holidays]” line ubiquitous here around Passover and Rosh Hashanah, Jared Kushner – US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser – said Tuesday that the long-awaited Trump peace blueprint will be rolled out “after Ramadan.”

“We were getting ready [to roll out the plan] at the end of last year, and then they called for Israeli elections,” Kushner said at the 2019 TIME 100 Summit trumpeting the magazine’s selection last week of the 100 most influential people in the world. “Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu had a great victory, and he’s in the middle of forming his coalition. Once that’s done, we’ll probably be in the middle of Ramadan. So we’ll wait until after Ramadan and then we’ll put our plan out.”

Or not.

This is not the first time the “after Ramadan” timetable has been used by this administration in reference to when it will present its “deal of the century.”

In the beginning of 2018, reports emerged that the plan would be released in the spring; in the spring the reports were that it would be released after Ramadan in June; after Ramadan the speculation was that it would be released in early fall. By then, however, people speculated – correctly, as it turned out – that it would not be released before the US midterm elections on November 6, so as not to do anything to alienate Trump’s strongly pro-Israel Evangelical base.

In September, Trump said that he would be releasing the plan in two to four months. But then the new Israeli elections were called in December, and it became clear that the plan would not be issued during the campaign, so as not to complicate matters for Netanyahu.

If Netanyahu now needs all 42 days at his disposal to form a government, that period will end on May 29. Ramadan is expected to begin this year on May 7, and end on June 4. Which means that on June 5 the moon and stars will be aligned just right for the rollout of the plan.

Realistically, there will then be about a three-month window for the plan to be presented, until America’s Labor Day, September 2, when the US presidential election campaign will shift into high gear before the primaries in the first six months of 2020. And during that campaign, Trump will again be averse to doing anything that might alienate his strongly pro-Israel Evangelical base.

Kushner sounded resolute Tuesday about presenting the plan, but so did Trump himself last September, only to be overtaken by events. New reasons may be found after Ramadan to postpone its presentation as well.

For instance, perhaps Netanyahu, saddled with a hard-right government that he knows will not support some of the concessions that Israel will inevitably be asked to make under the plan, may ask Trump not to unveil it, so as not to endanger his government.

Or perhaps Trump will listen to some voices being raised in Washington entreating him not to present a plan that has no chance of succeeding – primarily because the Palestinians have already rejected it, sight unseen – since to do so would only make a bad situation worse.

One of the more prominent voices in this school of thought is that of Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Two weeks ago, he wrote a piece on the Foreign Policy magazine’s website calling on Trump not to present his plan, saying it faced sure rejection and as a result would set back US interests in three critical areas: “It might lead to annexation of the West Bank; it could give the Saudi government leverage over the United States that it doesn’t currently have; and it would distract from Trump’s signature achievement of putting real pressure on Iran’s government.”

According to Satloff’s logic, the current Israeli-Palestinian status quo is far from perfect, but it has led to a “reasonably well-functioning governing entity” in the West Bank, keeping it from becoming a “platform for rocket and terrorist attacks against Israel.”

This status quo would come tumbling down, he warned, if Abbas rejects the plan – as he has said he would. “In turn, Israeli rightists will seize on Abbas’s ‘no’ to argue that Israel has no negotiating partner, gutting a key rationale for keeping the status quo alive.”

In addition, he argued, the plan will need major Saudi backing to succeed, giving the Saudis dangerous leverage over US policy, and it would also “distract from the president’s signature achievement in the Middle East: the unexpectedly effective impact of the so-called maximum pressure campaign on Iran.”

ON TUESDAY, however, Kushner did not sound like someone who was going to jettison a plan he has been working on for two years. While revealing nothing of the blueprint’s details – including whether it would advocate a two-state solution – he did say that the Trump peace team is trying a different approach.

“We’ve tried to do it a little bit differently,” Kushner said. “Normally, they [Mideast mediators] start with a process and then hope that the process leads to a resolution for something to happen. What we’ve done is the opposite. We’ve done very extensive research and a lot of talking to a lot of people. We’re not trying to impose our will. I think the document that you will see, which is a very detailed proposal, is something we created by engaging a lot of people in the region, and people who have worked on this in the past.

“I hope it is a very comprehensive vision for what can be, if people are willing to make some hard decisions. So what we’ve done is we started with a proposed solution, and then we will work on a process to try to get there.”

In other words, instead of getting a negotiating process rolling that the organizers hope will then lead the sides to come to some kind of an agreement, the Trump administration is working backward: present a comprehensive solution first, and then figure out how to get there.

There are various reasons, diplomatic officials have explained, for this approach, one of which is the realization that the Trump administration – which Netanyahu has said is the most supportive administration Israel has ever worked with – will not be there forever, and that it could indeed be turned out of office in November 2020.

That being the case, the administration has some 20 months in which it can put down new markers on Middle East issues and set new parameters.

There is a sense that the political pendulum in the US swings drastically from one extreme to the next – from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, and then from Obama to Trump – and that it could next swing to Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders or Beto O’Rourke.

As such, one of the aims of the plan – which even the most optimistic in the Trump peace team must realize has a slim chance of success, considering the numerous forces already lining up against it, including the PA, some European countries and the EU foreign policy bureaucracy in Brussels – is perhaps less about reaching a final settlement now, and more about setting down a new set of facts: new parameters.

This administration, which in addition to Trump includes strong pro-Israel voices such as those of Vice President Mike Pence, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, does not want to leave Washington with the last American statement on the Middle East being Obama’s decision in the waning days of his term in 2016 not to veto an anti-settlement resolution in the UN Security Council, thereby placing the bulk of the onus for the stalemated peace process on Israel.

The administration also does not want the final word on the matter to be the Clinton Parameters of 2000 – guidelines for a permanent-status agreement based on a Palestinian state on 94%-96% of the territories and with Jerusalem as the capital of two states.

Much has changed since then – the Second Intifada and the Gaza withdrawal have changed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the “Arab Spring” has fundamentally changed the Middle East – and it is expected that the Trump plan will reflect those changes, something that could set the narrative for the next decade, just as the Clinton Parameters have dominated the conversation on peacemaking since 2000.

The plan, whose details have remained a closely guarded secret, is expected to be based around a set of principles: significantly improving Palestinian lives; safeguarding Israeli security; Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, though the borders there may be negotiable; not uprooting anyone from anywhere, including Jews in the settlements; a new definition of refugees; and some kind of Palestinian state, though likely to be along the lines of Netanyahu’s idea of a state-minus.

Animating the discussion on Israel inside the administration since Trump took power in 2017 is the sense that Israel is America’s most important ally in the Middle East, and that – as such – Washington does not want to weaken it in any way. A call to uproot settlements, which would lead to significant domestic strife, is seen by some in the administration as a move that could significantly weaken Israel, and as such something that should be avoided.

Likewise, the US does not want to weaken Jordan – another key Mideast ally – and as such does not want to set up a possible failed state in the West Bank that could threaten the Hashemite Kingdom. With enough problems already on its northern border with Syria and on its eastern border with Iraq, the last thing Jordan needs is a failed state on its western frontier.

The administration, which has devoted a lot of time and man hours to the plan, obviously hopes that it will be accepted – when it is eventually presented.

Kushner, during his comments on Tuesday, said that when the sides look at the proposal, “I am hopeful that what they’ll do is to say, ‘Look, there are some compromises here, but at the end of the day this is really a framework that can allow us to make our lives all materially better.’ And we’ll see if the leadership on both sides has the courage to take the lead to try to go forward.”

And, if not, at least a new marker will have been set.

Even some sharp critics of Trump’s foreign policy, such as Richard Haas, a former US diplomat who is now the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, acknowledge that the time has come to look at the Middle East differently.

In a piece this week in Project Syndicate where he said that there is little chance that the Trump plan would succeed, he nevertheless concluded that: “It is time for a paradigm shift in how we think about the Middle East, not because a better diplomatic model has presented itself (it has not), but because the current paradigm is increasingly at odds with reality.”