The Deal to End All Deals

Can Trump Start a New Chapter in the Middle East?

US President Donald Trump (L) shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R) ahead of their meeting in New York, United States on September 21, 2017. (Getty)
US President Donald Trump (L) shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R) ahead of their meeting in New York, United States on September 21, 2017. (Getty)

The Deal to End All Deals

The Trump Administration continues to say that it intends to come out with its peace plan soon, presumably after the April 9th Israeli election. How soon may depend on the outcome of the election.  I say that because while the Administration has held discussions with Prime Minister Netanyahu on its ideas on peace, it has not had any discussions with Benny Gantz who could emerge as the Israeli prime minister. Regardless, the representatives of the Administration say the plan will be presented soon.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated this again in recent testimony before the Congress, also repeating a basic theme:  the old parameters did not work in producing peace so the Administration’s plan is trying something different.  Without revealing the specifics of the plan, Administration officials have indicated two areas of potential difference from the past.  First, that the plan will be detailed; they speak of a fifty-page document so that everyone can see what peace would actually look like.  The officials say that past efforts have been about principles or parameters and no one could really say or judge what they might mean in practice.  The Trump plan is apparently designed to show what would happen and how people would actually benefit.  Second, and related to this point, there is a serious economic component to the plan, designed not just to help the Palestinians but the Jordanians, Lebanese and Egyptians. There would be a heavy emphasis on infrastructure development, with the aim of producing significant economic benefits over a period of time.

Do these new elements really represent a profound change from the past efforts?  Having an economic component is not new.  The size and scope of the investments the Administration has in mind may well be new.  The question, however, will be can the Trump Administration deliver on its economic targets.  There have been plenty of donor conferences where the pledges or promises were rarely fulfilled.  Moreover, if Trump is not prepared to provide serious American monies, no one else is likely to provide much—and this president does not relish providing foreign assistance, whether in direct dollars or credit or risk guarantees.  In other words, while the economic component may well have interesting potential, it will not be easy to persuade skeptics that it will actually materialize.  It will be up to the Administration to show very tangibly how its economic objectives are actually going to be implemented.

How about the impact of a much more detailed plan?  This, too, might have potential, particularly if it portrays a picture of addressing genuine needs in a realistic fashion.  There is something to the argument that with parameters on borders, security, Jerusalem and refugees, the parties might not fully grasp how they would be fulfilled in practice.  That said, having helped to draft the Clinton parameters, I can say that they certainly provided guidelines that the parties could judge.  Still, I take the point that spelling out everything in more detail leaves less to the imagination and interpretation.

Of course, much will depend on what the detail actually is.  Knowing the parties as I do, I have a strong expectation that they will have comments and questions on nearly every sentence in the 50-page plan when they get it.  That, alone, could produce long discussions on the preferred meanings of each sentence, necessitating negotiations that surely will take time.  Perhaps, that is part of what the Trump Administration intends; after all, while President Trump may speak of the “ultimate deal,” the aim of the plan seems to be to get the Israelis and Palestinians to resume negotiations and a diplomatic process on this basis. 

That would be an achievement but it does not mean an agreement would emerge any time soon.  Even more to the point, the notion that the 50-page plan will let both Israelis and Palestinians see what an agreement could look like might be worthwhile—but no one should think that either side is going to dispense with what they think is essential.  For the Israelis, security is the key.  Is it still in their hands?  Will they retain overriding security responsibility until such time that the Palestinians have demonstrated that they can fulfill all their obligations—and that their state will not be a failed state where Hamas or even al Qaeda could take over? That suggests criteria of performance and not a specific timeline of withdrawal or for Palestinian assumption of the Israeli role. Of course, there is also the issue of Jerusalem, will Israel accept anything less than sovereignty over the Temple Mount/Haram?  And, what about the Palestinians and the Arabs, can they accept anything less than sovereignty on the Haram/Temple Mount?  Similarly, can the Palestinians accept anything other than a state?  Can Arab leaders?  And, won’t they insist on a capital for the state in Arab East Jerusalem? 

My point here is not to outline the bridging proposals on each of these issues.  (For example, on the Temple Mount/Haram at Camp David in 2000, I suggested this was a unique site on the planet, with it being holy to two different faiths, and as a result, sovereignty should belong to God with the day to day jurisdiction divided.)  Instead, my aim here is to show that no matter the plan and its length, there is no getting around what each side defines as essential.  Yes, they should evaluate everything in terms of what they are getting and the benefits of that, but in the end, they will still want to be able to say they got they believed what was necessary on core issues.   

In short, I agree that no one should prejudge the plan before it is presented.  It may well have innovative features, but in the end it will still be judged on how it deals with the core issues of borders, security, Jerusalem and refugees.  And, by definition, both sides will have to compromise on some of what they want and even believe that they need.  Sticking to slogans will mean little and not serve either side, while being able to get enough to justify compromises will remain the key to an agreement.     
font change