The annual U.N. General Assembly is underway this week in New York, so we can expect to hear, again, its most hackneyed rhetorical theme — the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.” Speaker after speaker will declaim the urgency of settling the conflict once and for all; many will assert that the time for doing so has all but expired. Since he will be meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, President Trump may join in the chorus himself.
It consequently seems worthwhile to offer a couple of reality checks: No, this is not the time to fashion a Mideast peace deal; and, no, the time for one has not run out.
Much as it would be desirable to have a peaceful Palestinian state established alongside Israel — and even though many Western leaders regard the terms for it as all but settled — it can’t happen now, for the simple reason that neither Netanyahu nor Abbas is willing or able to agree to it. President Barack Obama, who spent eight years trying to bulldoze or work around them, only ended up proving their resilience and intransigence. When he presented them with a painstakingly fashioned peace framework in 2014, Netanyahu buried it in caveats and conditions, while Abbas simply refused to respond.
In three years since, both have grown weaker and less able to act. Netanyahu is hemmed in by far-right coalition partners and dogged by corruption investigations. Abbas, at 82, remains in office eight years after his elected term expired, refusing to hold elections and thereby preventing the emergence of a successor. Since January, the two have been toying with the envoys Trump has dispatched to their capitals while ignoring their requests for confidence-building concessions. Abbas has not stopped paying subsidies to the families of militants imprisoned in Israel for acts of violence; Netanyahu has not stopped expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Trump’s notion of how to break this impasse involves using friendly Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to help bring the parties to the table and induce them to settle. The theory is that Israel’s shared interests with those regimes, above all in opposing Iran, make such collaboration newly possible. But Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, absorbed in trying to consolidate power, will not stick out his neck for the Palestinians. Neither will an Egyptian regime already under assault by Islamist militants.
In short, whatever Trump might do, a breakthrough in the Middle East is probably years away. Yet the relative good news is that a smarter U.S. strategy could allow Palestinian statehood to survive that delay.
Obama and his secretary of state, John F. Kerry, were fond of proclaiming that Netanyahu was creating “an irreversible one-state reality” by continuing to build settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem. The truth, as a former Kerry aide has demonstrated, is considerably more complicated. David Makovsky, now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has overseen a project to document every Israeli settlement with satellite photography, count the people in them and determine how many of them actually stand in the way of an Israeli-Palestinian deal.
The results, soon to be publicly available on a website, are revelatory. Of the some 600,000 settlers who live outside Israel’s internationally recognized borders, just 94,000 are outside the border-like barrier that Israel built through the West Bank a decade ago. Just 20,000 of those moved in since 2009, when Netanyahu returned to office; in a sea of 2.9 million Palestinians, they are hardly overwhelming. Last year, 43 percent of the settler population growth was in just two towns that sit astride the Israeli border — and that Abbas himself has proposed for Israeli annexation.
If the Palestinians were today to accept the deal they were offered nine years ago by then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a state on 94.2 percent of the West Bank, only 20 percent of current settlers would find themselves on the wrong side of the border, Makovsky calculates. “You can have a tipping point on sheer numbers, where there are simply too many people on the wrong side of the line,” he told me. For now, though, what the satellite data shows is that it’s not too late for two states.
It follows that a wise U.S. policy would aim at preserving that option until Israeli and Palestinian leaders emerge who can act on it. Makovsky proposes a simple trade-off: Netanyahu stops building in areas beyond the West Bank fence, and Abbas stops paying off militants and their families. Yes, Trump’s envoys already pitched that and so far got nowhere. “But the good news,” Makovsky says, “is that neither leader wants to say ‘no’ to Trump.” If the president aims in his New York meetings at pragmatic results, rather than “the ultimate deal,” he might do some real good.
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