Dennis Ross, a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was a special assistant to President Obama from 2009 to 2011. He is the author of “Doomed To Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman To Obama.”
Like many of his predecessors, Donald Trump aspires to Middle East peacemaking: “I would love to be able to be the one that made peace with Israel and the Palestinians,” he said recently, adding, “I have reason to believe I can do it.” Bringing peace to the Holy Land has clearly had an allure for American presidents.
Even though his health was failing, Franklin D. Roosevelt chose to meet Saudi King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud in Egypt after the Yalta Conference because he believed he could persuade him to give “a portion of Palestine” to the Jews “without harming in any way the interests of the Arabs.” Dwight Eisenhower, under the code name Project GAMMA, employed Robert Anderson to work secretly with David Ben-Gurion and Gamal Abdel Nasser to forge peace — and was deeply disappointed when it failed. Richard Nixon, though suffering from phlebitis, traveled to Egypt, Israel and Syria in the waning days of his presidency, believing he could build real momentum for peace. For Jimmy Carter, Arab-Israeli peacemaking was the preoccupation of his presidency — and as he would later say, “the Middle East question preyed on [my] mind.” The only plan that would bear the name of our 40th president was the Reagan Plan for Middle East peace that Ronald Reagan presented on Sept. 1, 1982.
As Bill Clinton’s Middle East envoy, I saw firsthand how Arab-Israeli peace was his mission. It would lead him to host Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak at Camp David in the summer of 2000 and five months later to offer the Clinton Parameters for settling the conflict. George W. Bush might have come to it late but he would host a peace conference in Annapolis — and Barack Obama would make Israeli-Palestinian peace a priority at the outset of his presidency, later lamenting the failure of his secretary of state, John F. Kerry, to reach a peace deal after an intensive nine-month effort that ended in spring 2014.
Historically, presidents have been drawn to peacemaking for objective and subjective reasons. Objectively, most believed — incorrectly — that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the source of all regional conflict and that argued for resolving it. Subjectively, there was something deeper going on — there was a fascination with being the one to bring peace to the region that is the birthplace of civilization and three great religions. Holy Land conflict has always captured the attention of the world and drawn in American presidents. Its very intractability may also be a source of the attraction. Again, look at Trump’s description of it as “the ultimate deal.”
Can the Trump administration succeed where others have failed? Trump surprised the world by getting elected; if he is to surprise the world on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, he will need to keep the following guidelines in mind:
●Be prepared to stick with diplomacy even if it means making only incremental progress. In the absence of diplomacy, violence often fills the void and deepens the disbelief that the conflict will ever end. All-or-nothing approaches inevitably produce nothing.
●Probe what is possible privately, and aim to achieve something concrete. Most importantly, don’t launch big public initiatives before knowing they can succeed; given the current level of disbelief among Israelis and Palestinians, the most important objective may be to restore a sense of possibility.
●Initial efforts should thus be designed to get each side to address the doubts of the other and demonstrate that change is possible. For example, the Israelis could address Palestinian doubts by declaring there will be no Israeli sovereignty east of the security barrier and Israel will no longer build outside the settlement blocs. The Palestinian Authority could do the equivalent by acknowledging there are two national movements requiring two states for two peoples and by ending its efforts to delegitimize Israel in all international forums.
●Focus peacemaking not just on top-down but also on bottom-up efforts; improving the Palestinian economy, infrastructure and institution-building is in the interest of both sides and could alter the deep alienation of the Palestinian public. Far too little has been done on the state-building, bottom-up side of peace diplomacy.
●Reconsider a strictly bilateral approach to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Palestinians are too weak and too divided even to be able to come to the negotiating table; the Israeli government and public are so convinced that they get nothing of value in return for concessions to the Palestinians, they won’t make any. Test privately, therefore, whether Arab state cover is possible in the negotiations. Ironically, both sides need the Arabs — with the Palestinians needing a cover even to talk, much less concede anything, and the Israelis believing only the Arabs can compensate for concessions they make to the Palestinians.
●Recognize that Israeli, Palestinian and Arab risk-taking on peace may be influenced by how credible the United States seems to be in countering threats from Iran on the one hand and Sunni Islamists on the other. No one is going to expose themselves if they don’t feel secure and trust the United States.
Ultimately, reconciling Israeli security with Palestinian sovereignty needs is likely to require fresh approaches. An Arab state role in fulfilling Palestinian security responsibilities, performance-based criteria to determine the timetable for Israeli withdrawal, and lease arrangements to permit ongoing Israeli and Palestinian presence in each other’s states consistent with each other’s sovereign jurisdiction may be keys to success.
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