Team Begins Drafting Middle East Peace Plan
By Peter Baker
New York Times
November 11, 2017
WASHINGTON — President
Trump and his advisers have begun developing their own concrete
blueprint to end the decades-old conflict between Israel and
a plan intended to go beyond previous frameworks offered by the American
government in pursuit of what the president calls “the ultimate deal.”
After 10 months of educating themselves on the complexities
of the world’s most intractable dispute, White House officials said, Mr.
Trump’s team of relative newcomers to Middle East peacemaking has moved into a
new phase of its venture in hopes of transforming what it has learned into
tangible steps to end a stalemate that has frustrated even presidents with more
experience in the region.
The prospects for peace are caught up in a web of other
issues consuming the region, as demonstrated in recent days by Saudi
Arabia’s growing confrontationwith
Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Israel is likewise worried about Hezbollah as well as efforts by Iran to
establish a land corridor across southern Syria.
If a war with Hezbollah broke out, it could scuttle any initiative with the
Nonetheless, Mr. Trump’s team has collected
“non-papers” exploring various issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict, and officials said they expected to address such perennial dividing
points as the status of Jerusalem and settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Although Mr. Trump has not committed to a Palestinian state, analysts said they
anticipated that the plan will have to be built around the so-called two-state
solution that has been the core of peacemaking efforts for years.
spent a lot of time listening to and engaging with the Israelis, Palestinians
and key regional leaders over the past few months to help reach an enduring
peace deal,” said Jason D. Greenblatt, the president’s chief negotiator.
“We are not going to put an artificial timeline on the development or
presentation of any specific ideas and will also never impose a deal. Our goal
is to facilitate, not dictate, a lasting peace agreement to improve the lives of
Israelis and Palestinians and security across the region.”
Mr. Trump, who considers himself a dealmaker, decided to
adopt the challenge when he took office in January, intrigued at the idea of
succeeding where other presidents failed, and he assigned the effort to Jared
Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser. Neither had any background with the
issue and the effort was greeted with scorn, but the fact that the president
entrusted it to a close relative was taken as a sign of seriousness in the
Mr. Trump’s team sees the convergence of factors that
make the moment ripe, including an increased willingness by Arab states to
finally solve the issue to refocus attention on Iran,
which they consider the bigger threat. With that in mind, Egypt is
brokering a reconciliation between Mahmoud Abbas, who presides in the West
Bank, and Hamas,
which controls Gaza,
a deal that would cement the Palestinian Authority as the representative of the
Palestinian people. Saudi Arabia has summoned Mr. Abbas to Riyadh to reinforce
the importance of a deal.
“The stars begin to align in a way that creates a
moment,” said Nimrod Novik, a fellow at the Israel Policy Forum who served as
foreign policy adviser to former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who negotiated the
Oslo Accords in the 1990s. “But obviously the two key questions are will Prime
Minister Netanyahu decide to go for it” and “will President Trump, once
he’s presented a plan by his team, decide it’s worth the political capital
Still, neither Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu of Israel nor President Abbasof
Authority is in a strong position to negotiate. Mr. Netanyahu faces
corruption investigations and pressure from the right in his narrow coalition
not to make concessions, while Mr. Abbas is aging and endures strong opposition
among his own constituents.
Skepticism abounds, especially among those who spent years
struggling to overcome the same challenges with the same set of tools. President Barack
Obama and his advisers debated for months putting forth their
own parametersfor a deal, ultimately outlining a general set of principles
at the end of last year in a speech by Secretary of State John Kerry as time ran
out on the administration.
“There’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to
Middle East peace,” said Philip Gordon, a White House Middle East coordinator
under Mr. Obama. “When you get into these details, that’s when you come up
against the strong objections of the two sides. If they don’t want it to be
dead on arrival, they may wind up with vague principles, but as we’ve seen,
even vague principles are beyond what the parties are willing to embrace.”
Tamara Cofman Wittes, a State Department official under Mr.
Obama, said both Israeli and Palestinian leaders “are heavily constrained”
not only by their own governing coalitions but by suspicious and risk-averse
publics. “It’s hard even for willing political leaders to make major
concessions under those circumstances,” she said.
The core four-member team drafting the plan includes Mr.
Kushner, Mr. Greenblatt, Dina H. Powell, a deputy national security adviser, and
David M. Friedman, the ambassador to Israel. They are consulting with Donald
Blome, the consul general in Jerusalem, and others from the State Department and
National Security Council. Officials said the effort may take until early next
Mr. Trump and his team make no bones about being
pro-Israel. The president has boasted of being Israel’s “biggest
friend” and Mr. Kushner, Mr. Greenblatt and Mr. Friedman are all
Orthodox Jews with ties to Israel. But Ms. Powell is an Egyptian-born Coptic
Christian and Mr. Kushner has developed strong ties with the Saudis and other
Arabs and recently returned from a visit to Riyadh. Mr. Trump has met with Mr.
Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas three times each.
The team has drawn praise from across the spectrum. “We
do believe this is a historic opportunity, and we will spare no effort to
support President Trump’s investment in a better future,” Husam Zomlot, the
Palestinian Authority’s envoy to Washington, said in an interview. During a trip
to London this month, Mr. Netanyahu said, “They are trying to think
out of the box.”
Barak Ravid, an Israeli journalist who has broken stories
on the American effort, wrote in the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper last spring
that Mr. Trump had “succeeded
in bringing peace, which in recent years had become a dirty word, back to
the center of Israeli public and political discourse.”
But privately, officials from both sides express concern
that Mr. Trump and his team are still naďve about the Middle East and
ineffective in accomplishing their objectives.
Dennis Ross, the veteran Middle East peace negotiator, said
Mr. Trump’s team has “done a very good job of presenting themselves as
having listened” and is now “taken seriously” in the region.
The decision to present a concrete plan makes sense if
ground is prepared in advance. “If you simply resume negotiations and nothing
accompanies it, nobody will take it seriously,” Mr. Ross said. “People will
say we’ve seen this movie before. You have to show people — no, something is
different this time.”
Some analysts said they believed Mr. Trump’s plan may
come with confidence-building provisions that each side will already have agreed
to. For Israel, it could include limiting settlement construction to current
blocs without taking new land, recommitting to a two-state solution and
redesignating a small part of the West Bank to give Palestinians more control.
For the Palestinians, it could include resuming full
security cooperation with Israel, holding off seeking further international
recognition and ending payments to families of Palestinians imprisoned for
terrorist attacks. Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United
Arab Emirates and Jordan,
could add their own commitments, like overflights by Israeli passenger planes,
visas for business people and telecommunications links.
A White House official dismissed that as mere speculation.
But the challenges of getting even to that stage are formidable, much less
tackling harder questions.
Mr. Zomlot, the Palestinian envoy, said any plan must
establish a sovereign Palestinian state along the borders from before the 1967
Arab-Israeli war with East Jerusalem as its capital. “This is not our maximum.
This is our minimum,” he said. “What everybody needs to understand is the
historic compromise has already been made.”
Israel’s allies in Washington are pressing from the other
side. The House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday will consider a
bill to cut aid to the Palestinian Authority unless it ends payments to
families of Palestinian attackers.
“If the Palestinians are going to be trustworthy partners
in any kind of peace discussion, they have to show that they’re not inciting
terrorism,” said Representative Doug Lamborn, a Republican from Colorado
sponsoring the legislation. “And when you pay people — and, in fact, if you
pay them more, the more Jews they kill — that’s pure incitement to
Palestinian leaders say the payments are meant to help
destitute families, not promote terrorism, and they accuse Israel of subsidizing
violence by encouraging settlers in the West Bank. One compromise floated
recently would have the Palestinian Authority help those families through a
general welfare program that does not prioritize relatives of prisoners.
Still, some analysts think Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas are
simply playing along with the goal of ensuring the other is blamed when the
“The biggest impediment to the peace process is the two
leaders,” said Grant Rumley, a scholar at the Foundation for Defense of
Democracies. “Ultimately, both Netanyahu and Abbas just have this long, long
history and they’ve played this game really well. And they don’t trust each
other and I don’t think they will ever get to the point where they will trust
Correction: November 12, 2017
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said former
President Barack Obama opted against releasing his own parameters for a Middle
East peace deal. Secretary of State John Kerry outlined a general set of
principles in a speech at the end of last year.