After nearly 18 months of behind-the-scenes political consultations and unpublicized diplomatic exchanges, senior members of the Trump Administration’s Middle East peace team have just completed a five-country tour of the region to discuss, with close allies, the much-anticipated US draft plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Dubbed by President Donald Trump as the “Deal of the Century,” the blueprint allegedly proposes to bring about peace between Israelis and Palestinians, a US national objective that has eluded Democratic and Republican administrations alike for the past seventy years.
The team was headed by President Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, who was handpicked as far back as November 22, 2016 to broker Middle East peace—despite his personal lack of qualifications, even though Trump insisted that Kushner “would be very good at it … he knows the region.” Kushner was accompanied on this trip by White House Middle East Envoy Jason Greenblatt. The two members of the Trump team and their staffers have been quietly drafting the yet-to-be-released plan since the inception of the administration.
A series of brief and similarly worded statements were issued by the White House summarizing the meetings that took place June 19-21 in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, and Israel. The statements were uncharacteristically short on detail, simply confirming the meetings with King Abdullah II of Jordan, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
According to White House statements, members of the US delegation and their hosts discussed continued bilateral cooperation on regional issues, the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and the Trump Administration’s efforts to facilitate peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The trip to the region was preceded by a courtesy visit on June 15, 2018 to the United Nations in New York to coordinate the regional tour with UN Secretary General António Guterres and US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley.
The Purpose and Timing of the Trip
Although the Trump Administration has not announced publicly the objectives or timing of this trip to the region, the tour seems to be motivated by five basic factors.
First, after a lengthy and unwarranted delay approaching a year and a half, the administration felt the time was ripe to finally deliver on the highly publicized “ultimate deal” it promised in 2016. The trip was meant to update Arab and Israeli stakeholders about certain details of the plan, assure them of the administration’s commitment to move forward with it later this summer, and solicit their enthusiastic support for its unveiling before they begin to lose interest in it.
Second, the administration was concerned about signs of increasing tension and regional instability emanating from the ongoing conflict in Gaza, the recent economically motivated upheaval in Jordan, and growing alienation between Ramallah and Washington. Some at the White House were worried about the potential negative impact of such festering regional problems on the eventual launch of the plan.
Third, the administration was prompted to begin unveiling its plan to take full and quick advantage of the preoccupation of key Arab countries with Iranian security threats, real or perceived, causing several of these countries—particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—to reshuffle their strategic alliances and distance themselves quietly but significantly from their traditional commitment to Palestine and public opposition to Israel. This shift has become the source of serious concern among Palestinian Authority (PA) leaders, who “have grown increasingly uneasy as some Arab leaders have shifted their attention to Iran, fixating on Tehran’s involvement in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria.”
Fourth, projects like Middle East peace come at a cost. This administration is led by a transactional president who knows that very well because he envisions a significant economic component to generate public support for the plan as it unfolds, particularly in Gaza, including the construction of a new port, desalination plants, industrial zones, and a solar energy grid aimed at solving the severe energy crisis in the besieged strip. Therefore, the team is seeking to raise $1 billion from Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar, to avoid saddling American taxpayers with the sizable bill for such ambitious plans.
Fifth, the Trump Administration has also been influenced by a historic tendency in US foreign policy and military strategic thinking toward the Middle East, one that has been followed on a bipartisan basis by successive administrations. The trend stems from the long-held belief in American policy circles that attempts at resolving protracted disputes, like the Arab-Israeli conflict and specifically the Palestine issue, become significantly easier to manipulate when you take advantage of some limited and more manageable clashes between the parties that result in a local stalemate or alter the conventional balance of power between them. In other words, the United States would like to use Israel’s ongoing and brutal confrontation of Palestinian demonstrators on the border with Gaza as leverage to rescue Israel from the international predicament it has created for itself by its disproportionate response, to guarantee Palestinian participation in its scheme, and to use it as a segue (by focusing on “Gaza first”) to embark on implementing the first phase of its “Deal of the Century” under the guise of an economic rescue package for the impoverished Gaza Strip.
Based on these fundamental factors, the five stops selected for this trip were chosen deliberately. According to the architects of the Kushner plan, each country has a specific role or sets of roles to play to ensure the success of the overall project of marginalizing the Palestine issue. Some, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are expected to offer the financial resources and practical expertise in terms of their many years of experience in emergency reconstruction and revitalization of the Palestinian economy in the Gaza Strip under difficult conditions. Egypt and Israel are crucial in terms of facilitating and hosting some of the large projects in the areas of energy, infrastructure, and accessibility for the free flow of goods and people in and out of Gaza. Jordan, the closest country to the Palestinians in terms of cultural and political ties, is expected to play a crucial role in assisting the Palestinians, particularly in the West Bank, in the next phase of institution building, refugee rehabilitation and resettlement, and open access to Arab markets.
What is the Substance of the Plan?
Although details of the Kushner-Greenblatt plan are yet to be made public officially, several general characteristics of the scheme have been leaked to the media over the past few months. The following are piecemeal items mentioned by various media sources1 as part of the package deal included in the plan:
- Jerusalem is off the table. Instead, the United States is proposing Abu Dis, a Palestinian suburb of Jerusalem, as a potential capital for the future state of Palestine.
- Although the plan seeks Israeli withdrawal from three Palestinian populated suburban areas of Jerusalem, north and south of the city, the historic Old City itself, which the Palestinians expect to be part of their future capital, will remain under Israeli control.
- The issues of the refugees and their right of return are ignored by the US plan, as illustrated by Washington’s recent steps to defund UNRWA and distribute its funding to neighboring countries hosting Palestinian refugees.
- In its vision, the United States is not insisting on Israeli withdrawal from Jewish settlements, including the large settlement clusters.
- The Jordan Valley will remain under Israeli security control.
- The envisioned Palestinian entity will be demilitarized and prevented from having armed forces or heavy weaponry.
- The plan proposes to focus in its initial phases on negotiating a Palestinian-Israeli ceasefire to defuse the tense situation in Gaza, raising fears among Palestinians about the possibility of limiting statehood to Gaza or seeking to render permanent the current separation between the West Bank and Gaza.
Even if the US-proposed plan includes all these provisions, it clearly does not satisfy the minimum requirements for independent statehood for Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital and a just solution to the refugee problem—a formula demanded by the Palestinians for the past four or five decades in return for a negotiated peace settlement with Israel.
Palestinian Concerns and Objections
The timing of the Kushner-Greenblatt trip was tragic as far as the Palestinians are concerned. First and foremost, it came at a time when diplomatic relations between Washington and Ramallah were at their lowest ebb in recent months due to the abrupt and startling change in traditional US policy on Jerusalem. In response to Trump’s formal recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moving the US embassy to the city, the PLO responded swiftly by recalling its representative in Washington and freezing diplomatic ties with the United States. The Kushner-Greenblatt team knew in advance that Abbas and his advisors would not receive them in Ramallah; however, the US officials put their trust in dubious Arab promises to pressure Abbas to drop his opposition and resume cooperation with Washington. That wish did not come true. Indeed, the last official Palestinian meeting with the United States took place in April when the Palestinian Authority’s security and intelligence chief, Majid Faraj, met in Washington with then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo on the eve of assuming his current position as US secretary of state.
The Palestinians were not receptive to the Kushner-Greenblatt visit in principle and rejected it before it even started. Palestinian spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh accused the US administration of “changing the rules of the game” with regard to the conventional parameters of past peace processing in the region. He declared that the “Deal of the Century” would not amount to anything if “the proposal skip(s) over the issues of Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees.” He emphasized that “Without the agreement of the Palestinian people, the fate of the series of meetings will be a total failure.” In another statement on behalf of the PA, Abu Rudeineh accused the US administration of working with Israel to separate Gaza from the West Bank under the guise of “humanitarian aid or rehabilitation,” and directly warned countries in the region against “cooperating with the move.” He quoted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as saying, “There is no state in Gaza, and there is no state without Gaza.”
PLO Executive Committee Member Hanan Ashrawi further explained that “The U.S. has… gutted the core requisites of any solution, let alone an ‘ultimate deal’.” She charged that “The American administration has enabled the military occupation and the most extremist and racist government coalition in Israel’s history by providing Israel with rewards, inducements and incentives while using blackmail and extortion against the Palestinian people. There is no peace deal to be had,” she concluded, “unless it is firmly embedded in international law and United Nations resolutions and effectively applies the principles of justice and human rights.”
Kushner’s Disastrous Interview
Although the US administration knew well in advance that the Palestinians were not willing to engage under the current circumstances, they decided purposely to proceed with the visit despite the high risk involved and the warning of Arab leaders that “disclosing a plan that doesn’t meet Palestinian expectations could disturb regional stability.” To make a bad situation worse, Kushner followed the wrong advice from certain Arab and American supporters and planned to confront Mahmoud Abbas publicly by going over his head and directly addressing the Palestinian people. He totally underestimated the reaction of his incensed Palestinian audience and consequently failed to garner their support.
The official Palestinian reaction to Kushner’s interview in Al Quds newspaper2 on June 24, 2018 was swift and quite indignant at the condescension he showed toward the Palestinians in general, and the accusations he leveled at Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in particular. In a statement issued by the PLO Negotiations Affairs Department, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat characterized the interview as “an attempt to push forward a plan that consolidates Israel’s colonial control over Palestinian land and lives while telling the Palestinian people that money will compensate for our inalienable rights. Plain and simple,” the PLO official asserted, “Palestine and Palestinian rights are not for sale.” Erekat countered Kushner’s doubts about Abbas’s ability or desire to conclude a peace deal by emphasizing that “Kushner represents a policy of dictation rather than negotiations. It is the Trump Administration that has walked away from the negotiations, from international law and UN resolutions.”
The Kushner interview was disastrous in terms of substance, timing, and delivery. First of all, despite repeated assurances by various US officials that the Trump plan is intended to serve as a basis for talks and not as a “take it or leave it deal,” the actual interview was viewed as a diktat. The statement made by Kushner, “If President Abbas is willing to come back to the table, we are ready to engage; if he is not we will likely air the plan publicly,” might be a polite invitation to join talks in Manhattan or New Jersey but not in Ramallah, or anywhere else for that matter.
Second, the interview reinforced the Palestinian official and public fear that the United States is indeed seeking to divide Palestinians in the West Bank from those in Gaza with all the political, ideological, and social implications of that division. By proposing “Gaza first,” Kushner became a party to an unpopular internal Palestinian dispute and reinforced the fear prevalent within Palestinian society that “Gaza first” could become “Gaza alone” as a diminished Palestinian state.
Third, the condescending tone used by Kushner did not necessarily strengthen his argument before the Palestinian people. His reference to “the dignity of the Palestinians” and his arrogant claim that he knows “what they actually want” rang hollow in Palestinian ears, coming particularly from an administration that humiliated the Palestinians as a people only few months ago with its decision on Jerusalem and its adamant refusal to recognize the human price that they are paying daily on the Gaza border.
Finally, and most insulting to Kushner’s Palestinian audience, is his attempt to wittingly or unwittingly reduce their political aspirations and yearning for national independence into a crude desire for personal material gain that he could satisfy simply with “new opportunities to have a much better life.” Indeed, and as Max Boot and Sue Mi Terry opine, “The ‘deal of the century’ that Trump seeks…is likely to remain out of reach.”
1 Source is in Arabic.