Trump in Search of Middle East Peace, Not a Peace Agreement

As he flew off to Rome, the New York Times published a major report on President Trump’s Middle East trip that it titled “Trump Leaves Middle East With Hope for Peace, but No Plan for It.” The article didn’t reflect the title, for it went no farther than to say, “What Mr. Trump did not do was reveal the least hint of what, if anything, was behind it,” referring to his hope. The article later acknowledged that “strict secrecy” was a good thing.

Close scrutiny of the statements made in the last few days and the events leading up to this trip would strongly suggest that President Trump is right to be cautiously optimistic -- because he has a plan.

After relentless pressure from President Obama and Secretary Kerry, Prime Minister Netanyahu came close to accepting the Kerry framework based on the ’67 ceasefire lines (with swaps) as borders and a divided Jerusalem.  On Feb 24, 2017, the Times of Israel and the AP published a report on a secret regional conference that took place in Aqaba, a year earlier. In attendance were Netanyahu, King Abdullah, and Abdel Fattah al Sisi, among others.

“According to a US official and an Israeli source familiar with the plan cited by Haaretz, the prime minister detailed five steps Israel could take to promote a regional peace initiative aimed at reviving peace talks with the Palestinians, and also asked for US assurances on a number of issues.”

The plan, according to the two sources, included:

“1. The approval of large-scale Palestinian construction and advancement of economic initiatives in Area C in the West Bank, where Israel maintains security control, the approval of infrastructure projects in the Gaza Strip, closer coordination with the Palestinian Authority, including allowing entry of weapons needed by its security forces.

“2. Positive public references by the Israeli government to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, also known as the Saudi initiative, including a willingness to negotiate the components with Arab states.

“3. The support and active participation of Arab states in a regional peace summit, including dispatching senior officials from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Sunni states to a public gathering attended by Netanyahu.

“4. Practical American recognition of construction in the settlements blocs, in exchange for a freeze outside those areas.

“5. A guarantee by the then-Obama administration to bloc any moves against Israel at the United Nations, including the use of its veto power at the Security Council.

“According to Haaretz, Kerry initiated the summit after complex bargaining with both Israel’s regional neighbors and its internal political players. Details of the proposal, ultimately rejected by Netanyahu, and the secret meeting came from former senior officials in the Obama administration.”

At that time, Netanyahu invited the Labour Zionists, headed by Isaac Herzog, to join his government, in order to overcome the resistance to the proposed deal by his own coalition. In the end, Israel Beteinu, headed by Avigdor Liberman, joined the coalition and that ended the initiative.

Netanyahu brought his plan to the attention of President Trump when he met with him in the White House on Feb 14th. In the press conference after the meeting, Trump proposed a regional solution and said that the U.S. would no longer insist on a Palestinian state.  He ended by saying “I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit,” This according to the NYT.

Trump then dispatched his Mideast envoy, Jason Greenblatt, to Israel in the second week of March, where he spent four days in discussions with all the players. The message he carried was that his boss was serious about peace and so should the parties be.

This was followed by four days of intense talks in the White House between an Israeli delegation and the Trump people ostensibly on the question of settlements, but probably on the whole question of reaching a deal. Nothing conclusive was announced.

Four weeks later, Trump made his historic visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The logjam in negotiations that had existed for 50 years broke just prior to the trip.

"Gulf States Offer Normalizing Israel Ties in Exchange for Partial Freeze on Settlements." This is the first time the Gulf states showed flexibility.

Then in King Salman’s remarks at end of Trump’s visit he said,

“We stress that achieving peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis is a just and necessary quest that requires joint sacrifices and sincere determination for the interest of all.” [emphasis added]

Another first.

Ahead of Trump’s arrival in Israel, the Israeli Cabinet approved a series of gestures at the request of Trump:

The measures approved earlier on Sunday include extended opening hours at the Allenby Crossing, new industrial zones for the PA, and increased Palestinian Arab construction in Area C. Israel will determine the nature of the construction, be it agricultural, industrial or residential.”

Another first.

Perhaps the biggest first of all is that Mahmoud Abbas is now proposing to accept Israel keeping 6.5% of the territories rather than only 1.9% originally on offer. This means that Israel gets to keep Ariel, Maaleh Adumin, and Gush Etzion.

Arutz Sheva reported a few days ago:

“… Olmert had offered to compensate the Arabs with Israeli land equivalent to 5.8 percent of Judea and Samaria, along with a link to the Gaza Strip. The rejected offer also included placing Jerusalem’s Old City under international control.

“This time however, Jerusalem, the most controversial aspect of previous discussions, is not mentioned in the proposal that Abbas is allegedly meant to discuss with Trump during his visit.”

That’s a good thing.

These firsts didn’t just happen. According to Secretary Rex Tillerson, Trump put Abbas and Netanyahu under great pressure to get them to move. He probably did the same to King Salman. At the same time, he made nice to all of them.

Thus the gap between the parties that was formerly considered huge now appears negotiable.

Mind you, Trump avoided any mention of Palestine, settlements or occupation -- all issues which have dominated discourse heretofore. Trump isn’t working to reach a final peace agreement. Instead, he is looking to achieve peace so that the coalition of Israel and the moderate Arab states together with the U.S. can focus on terrorism and Iran.

Kushner, who along with international negotiations envoy Greenblatt has been tasked by Trump with relaunching the peace process, reportedly told Isaac Herzog, the leader of the Opposition, “We are planning to move fast in starting a diplomatic process in order to reach a deal.”  To this end, Greenblatt will be returning to Israel in a few days for follow up discussions with all sides.

I envisage an agreement in which:

-       Israel gets to build in eastern Jerusalem and in all settlement blocks and the Arabs get to build in parts of Area C.

-       Jerusalem will remain under Israel’s jurisdiction.

-       The PA and Israel will have the same rights in A, B, C as they now have due to the Oslo Accords.

-       Security will continue to be a joint enterprise. Thus, the IDF will remain in the territories. This is good for Israel and good for the Palestinians.

-       Saudi Arabia will normalize relations with Israel will continue to improve the Palestinian economy with the help of the US.

Netanyahu’s five point plan tabled in February 2016, is being implemented.

But Trump is not satisfied.

Israel National news reported on Friday, May 26, 2017,

According to Channel 10 News, in meetings held this week, Americans discussed with Israel elements of a potential final agreement with the PA. The Israelis made it clear to the Americans that Israel cannot compromise when it comes to security arrangements in the final agreement.

“The Americans are reportedly not satisfied with the measures towards the PA that were approved by the Cabinet this week, and want to see more confidence-building measures. The administration gave Israel a list of proposals for such additional measures, including what was reported on Channel 10 News earlier this week: A move which would redefine sections of Area C in northern Samaria as Area B.”

Pro-Israel supports of Trump who believed him when he said he would not pressure Israel, are very disappointed. They are also disappointed with Netanyahu for stressing security rather than Israel’s right to the land and to Jerusalem.

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