The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The fatal flaw in Trump’s plan for Middle East peace

Like past administrations, he's leaving a key player out of the talks.

President Trump meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Trump claims he can strike the “ultimate deal” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He contends that old methods have not worked, that only new approaches can provide a breakthrough. But while his use of business executives and lawyers rather than seasoned diplomats with regional know-how is novel, his plan is not. In fact, it perpetuates the very problem that has long undermined U.S. pursuit of peace in the Middle East: not involving Palestinians in the discussion.

Over the past half-century, negotiations between Israel and the Arabs have been doomed because they have continued to exclude Palestinian leaders from the conversation. By seeing the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as a terrorist organization rather than as a legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, the United States has been unable to solve the core issues in the conflict — Jerusalem, the refugee question, the West Bank and Gaza.

This dilemma dates back to when the United Nations grappled with the “Palestine problem” in 1947. Palestine had been a British Mandate for almost three decades when, following World War II, the Palestinians pushed for independence from the British Empire. At the same time, however, the Zionist movement forged ahead with its claim to create a Jewish state in Palestine. After decades of Jewish immigration, the population in Palestine was approximately 30 percent Jewish, and the Zionist movement had become a proto-state.

When the United Nations met to resolve the dispute, Palestinians boycotted the process because they rejected the very premise that the Zionist movement had an equal right to Palestine. In their absence, however, the cause of Palestine was hijacked by Arab states in the region who saw an opportunity to enhance their own regional influence. Famously, King Abdullah of Jordan colluded with the Zionist movement to partition the land between Israel and Jordan. This created the pattern that came to dominate the conflict.

Ultimately, the United Nations proposed exactly what the Palestinians feared: namely, a division of the land, with the Jewish state covering 56 percent of the territory and the Palestinian state covering 43 percent. With no mechanism in place to implement this partition plan, however, war broke out with Israel on one side and the surrounding Arab states and Palestinian guerrillas on the other.

The outcome of the 1947-49 war further undermined the cause of Palestinian independence. When the armistices ending the war were negotiated, Israel and the Arab states sat at the table determining the division of Palestinian territory, excluding the Palestinians.

The United States paid attention to the 750,000 Palestinians who fled the territory that became Israel, but saw their plight primarily as a humanitarian issue, not a political one. And so the United States handled the issue through the U.N. agency created specifically for providing aid to the Palestinian refugees, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). While this approach offered hope for alleviating the refugees’ suffering, it could not solve the fundamental political conflict between Israel and the Palestinians: the refugees’ quest for self-determination in Palestine.

The PLO was established in 1964 to change this dynamic. It was a national political movement with the aim of creating a Palestinian state. But, shunned by Israel and the United States, the PLO resorted to armed struggle, including terrorist attacks. Violence only reinforced Washington’s view of the PLO as a Soviet puppet and a terrorist threat, not a political organization representing a people with a legitimate claim to self-determination.

This perception ultimately undermined U.S. peacemaking efforts. President Jimmy Carter, the first president who understood the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, supported the need for a Palestinian “homeland.” However, due to the entrenched U.S. policy regarding the PLO, even he refused to talk to the organization. During the Camp David peace process involving Israel and Egypt, therefore, Carter insisted on talking about Palestinian issues, but without the Palestinians at the table. They were considered part of the problem, but not accepted as a legitimate party in solving it.

The result was that Israel was able to undermine all parts of the Camp David Accords that dealt with Palestinian issues. Of the three involved parties, Israel would give nothing that could benefit the Palestinians, Egypt wanted its own territory back and would not risk its own gains on behalf of the Palestinians, and the United States could not be more pro-Palestinian than Egypt. The scales were simply tipped against the Palestinians, and thus against what Carter called the “comprehensive peace.”

President George H.W. Bush’s administration went in a different direction. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker gathered all the parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict at the 1991 Madrid conference. However, Palestinians were only allowed to be part of the Jordanian delegation, and the Palestinian representatives could not be PLO members. While this meant that Palestinian issues — such as the West Bank and Gaza — were raised, they were essentially discussed with PLO leader Yasser Arafat via fax machine. There could clearly be no movement on those questions unless the PLO participated directly.

The first major breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy came in 1993 after secret negotiations conducted in Norway without U.S. involvement. For the first time, Palestinians sat at the negotiating table, not as a refugee problem to be solved by others, but as representatives of a people seeking an independent state. While the Oslo process had its faults, it showed the necessity of including the Palestinians to obtain any solution on the core issues: the West Bank and Gaza, Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugee issue.

The first years following the Oslo treaty contained the most important near-breakthroughs in negotiations, all of which included the PLO as one of the parties. Wrecked by bouts of violence and massive and continuous Israeli settlement expansions, the optimism of the 1990s was replaced by warnings that the two-state solution was dead.

Bringing peace back to the table is no easy task, but the lesson of the past is clearly that the only way to do so is to include both the central parties — Israel and the Palestinians.

But now, Trump is repeating the same mistake of the pre-Oslo era. By recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he has tossed aside any potential olive branches to lure Palestinians into negotiations. By so firmly siding with Israel on one of the core issues of the conflict, Trump forced the Palestinians out of the negotiations. Even though the Palestinians have withdrawn from talks with the United States, Jared Kushner insists that the Trump peace plan is still being developed. This, however, is not diplomacy. It is an attempt to dictate peace — something unlikely to work.

Trump seems to have missed this point. His reversion to the pre-Oslo era where the Palestinians were, at best, talked about, but not with, is a poor choice of diplomatic method. While it is difficult to make peace with one’s enemy, it is impossible to make peace without it. The unilateralist peace process has not worked in the past, nor will it work now.

Much like Israel would not accept any solution decreed by an outside power, the Palestinians will not, either. For an “ultimate deal” to bear fruit, it must have legitimacy with both parties. That legitimacy can be gained only if the Palestinians are included. Taking the Israeli side on the Jerusalem question has the exact opposite effect — it destroys the chances for peace, it excludes the Palestinians, and it delegitimizes Trump’s peace plan.