Trump Should Demonstrate Concern for Palestinians to Improve Prospect of ‘Ultimate Deal’

Until now, the Administration Has Responded to Israeli Symbolic Needs but Ignored Symbolic Needs of Palestinians

White House US Senior Advisor Jared Kushner attends the conference on Peace and Security in the Middle East in Warsaw, on February 14, 2019. (Getty)
White House US Senior Advisor Jared Kushner attends the conference on Peace and Security in the Middle East in Warsaw, on February 14, 2019. (Getty)

Trump Should Demonstrate Concern for Palestinians to Improve Prospect of ‘Ultimate Deal’

 After developing their peace plan for more than two and a half years, there are now reports that the Trump administration intends to present it in the near future.  Presumably, it will wait until after the Israeli election.  But if the reports are to believed, and they seem to be growing out of Jared Kushner’s visit to the region, the plan is for President Trump to present the outlines of the plan at Camp David to a number of key Arab leaders. 

    At this point, those Arab leaders who are likely to be invited are probably more nervous than hopeful about what is in the proposed plan.  Until now, the Egyptians, Jordanians, Saudis, and Emirates, have been told very little about the content of the political part of the plan.  They may believe that the economic part of the plan offers some genuine possibility, but also know that if the political part is not defensible, it is unlikely to ever materialize.  Moreover, the context for the presentation of the plan is not particularly favorable.  The Palestinians won’t come to Camp David and will reject the plan without reading it.  The Saudis and Emirates are facing increasing threats from Iran at a time when the Administration seems to have no answer for those threats other than imposing more sanctions.  And no doubt that the Iranians will seek to exploit Palestinian rejection of the plan to mobilize popular opinion against their leaderships. 

    Egypt and especially Jordan are not immune to similar concerns.  And, all of them have reason to be concerned that the plan will not put them in a position to be responsive.  Until now, the Administration has responded to Israeli symbolic needs but ignored symbolic needs of Palestinians, not even being willing to support statehood as a way of making clear it recognizes Palestinian national identity. Worse, the Administration has seemingly punished Palestinians by cutting assistance both to the Palestinian Authority, including to hospitals, as well as zeroing out its support for UNRWA and Palestinian refugees.  Even if there was logic to end the funding of UNRWA, why not at least phase out support and at the same time take monies cut from UNRWA and fund schools, food aid, and work-programs in Gaza; that would have at least demonstrated a genuine desire to respond to real needs of Palestinians.  

     All this suggests that there is probably not a great deal of enthusiasm for the Camp David meeting among the likely Arab invitees.  It would help if Arab leaders could see the plan in advance of the meeting and know that the Administration would take some of their comments on its content and the way certain issues are described or framed.
In this June 25, 2019, photo released by Bahrain News Agency, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner talks to the audience during the opening session of the "Peace to Prosperity" workshop in Manama, Bahrain. (AP)

    Of course, from their standpoint, it would be better if they knew that even if the plan had problematic parts, it would cross two essential thresholds needed to address Palestinian national aspirations:  statehood and a capital for that state in a significant part of Arab East Jerusalem.  If it fails to cross those thresholds, the best the Administration can probably hope for is silence from Arab leaders on the plan and calls for the Palestinians to engage the Administration to address their concerns.  Even that may be a reach.

    There is something else the Administration could do to improve the context and environment in which the plan is presented.  Since the context is currently unfavorable in no small part because of Palestinian opposition, why not take a step that could demonstrate concern for Palestinians and that is practical.  Why not in discussions with Arab leaders focus not just on the plan but on a stabilization package for Gaza and the West Bank.  The risks of explosion in both are going up; while conditions in Gaza have improved slightly, with electricity up to 16-18 hours a day, getting it up to 24 hours a day, saving Gaza’s water supply, and ensuring sewage treatment remain basic needs.  Funding the work program that UN peace process coordinator, Nicolai Mladenov has formulated would not transform Gaza but could create new baseline and a sense that life could get better—and that would put public pressures on Hamas to avoid another blow-up and not to add to the hardships of the Gazans.  The needs in the West Bank are different but there is a financial crisis.  True, it is caused by President Abbas refusing to accept the duties or taxes that Israel collects and transfers each month to the Palestinian Authority.  Israel’s Knesset passed a law in February that requires the government to withhold from the monthly transfers the amount of money that the PA gives to the families of those who are in Israeli jails for committing acts of terror or violence against Israelis. 

     The facts here are worth mentioning.  The PA continues to provide the money to these families, giving them priority over other expenditures.  Israel, in turn, is withholding about 6% or $11 million a month from the $187 million they typically transfer.  Meaning that Abbas is turning down $176 million a month that is still available—money which makes up more than 2/3 of the PA’s budget.  The net result is a financial crisis in the West Bank and sooner or later something has to give—and a blow-up in the West Bank will not only further sour the environment in the region but the Iranians are sure to exploit it. 

    But there is a way out.  Why not have the Administration suggest to the key Arab players that they go to President Abbas and offer in private to make up the $11 million a month that Israel is withholding in return for his taking the $176 million a month that is available.  The Arab leaders could say to Abbas that you are already defying the Israelis—take the money that is yours, recognizing that we can’t make up for that amount.  They can offer to provide him some cover by publicly saying that they believe that Israel has no right to withhold Palestinian money; that they make up what the Israelis are withholding and they support Abbas’ responsible position of receiving the remaining Palestinian money to address the real needs of the people. (At this point, there is roughly $1 billion sitting in banks waiting for the PA to take it—obviously monies that would make a huge difference for Palestinians.) 

     Producing something for the Palestinians, even indirectly, could build the Administration’s credibility at a time when it has little, while also having the virtue of preventing an explosion.  The Administration will still face an uphill battle in selling its plan.  But should the Administration act to change the landscape, it might yet get a hearing on its plan—and that is the best it can hope for now. 
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