Donald Trump has surveyed the wreckage of decades of failed Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, considered the world full of challenges his administration faces, and somehow concluded that . . . he’s going to be the president who brokers a comprehensive Mideast deal. “It might be a bigger and better deal than people in this room even understand,” he proclaimed last week at a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
What is it about the Holy Land that inspires such messianism? Perhaps the question answers itself. In any case, Trump’s outsize diplomatic ambition is hardly unique. In fact, it bears a striking resemblance to that of John Kerry and Barack Obama. For American leaders, the shining allure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace prize appears to induce blindness to the conditions on the ground; deafness to expert advisers who point out that a grand initiative will be doomed to failure; and an irrational conviction that a new American strategy for peace can suddenly make success possible.
By the time Obama took office in 2009, the prospects for a deal on a Palestinian state were already moribund, thanks in large part to the leaders of the two sides: Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who in addition to despising each other were unwilling and politically unable to make the necessary concessions. Eight years later, both are still in place, only weaker and even more intransigent than before.
Not to worry, concluded Obama: He could succeed where others had failed by exercising a bit of U.S. tough love with Israel, starting with a demand for a total freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank. That, combined with his outreach to the Muslim world, would allow a peace deal to be struck within two years.
Obama’s plan soon flopped, for the very reason his expert advisers warned him it would: U.S. pressure would never induce Israel to entirely freeze settlement construction. That gave Abbas the excuse he was looking for to refuse negotiations.
Then came Kerry, whose theory was that both sides would bow to what Washington sees as the inevitable terms of a settlement. They just needed someone, such as him, with the political skills and tireless dedication to make them do it. An exhausting year later, the experts were proved right again: Neither Netanyahu nor Abbas accept the U.S. outline, even as a vague basis for further negotiations.
Now it’s Trump, who like Obama seems to think that the United States should pare back its global commitments and stop trying to nation-build — except when it comes to the Israelis and Palestinians. Once again the seasoned experts are sounding their warnings: “Today, unfortunately, the conditions are not set for a peace agreement, given an unprecedented gulf between the two sides,” report Mideast veterans David Makovsky and Dennis Ross. “Neither Israelis nor Palestinians at this moment believe that peace is either possible or desirable,” writes another, Martin Indyk.
Never mind, says Trump: He has a new concept! Actually, it’s an old one rewarmed by Netanyahu, who last year proposed that Israel build on its common interests with Sunni states such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which also are focused on containing Iranian expansionism and destroying Islamic jihadists. Along the way, they might agree on a peace deal in which Muslim regimes finally recognize Israel in exchange for concessions to the Palestinians.
“It is something that is very different, hasn’t been discussed before” was Trump’s naive account. “And it’s actually a much bigger deal, a much more important deal, in a sense. It would take in many, many countries and it would cover a very large territory.”
In reality, the idea dates to 2002, when a proposal by Saudi Arabia for relations with Israel in exchange for its withdrawal from occupied territories was adopted by the Arab League. That it has gone nowhere since then is telling: Arab governments are not prepared to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians, much less endorse terms for a settlement that Abbas would reject. The process would work only if Israel and the Palestinians simultaneously reached agreement — which, for now, they can’t and won’t.
Makovsky and Ross have a sensible suggestion: Instead of aiming for a Mideast home run, perhaps this administration should try for a few solid singles. One could be persuading Netanyahu to limit settlement construction to areas inside the security barrier Israel has built near its border with the West Bank; another would be getting Palestinians to stop paying subsidies to the families of militants who carry out violent attacks against Israelis. A few such steps might gradually create a better diplomatic climate and at least preserve the option of Palestinian statehood for the future. Of course, Trump would gain no peace prizes or boasting rights — but he would avoid becoming another Middle East loser.
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