According to a New York Times article, published on Monday 12 March, the White House is expected to wrap up its much-awaited peace plan for the Middle East. The plan would deal with the major questions of borders, security, refugees, and the status of Jerusalem. According to three senior officials in the United States government, President Donald Trump’s administration is actually adding the finishing touches to this plan, and Trump is expected to present it. However, no date has been set for the announcement thus far. But it will be sooner rather than later.
The Trump administration has been working on this plan for a year now, although few details are known about its general contour and the specifics, if any. Absent is the basic notion of a two-state solution unless the Israelis and the Palestinians would adopt it.
Last week, Benjamin Netanyahu was in Washington DC to attend the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) where he delivered a speech that was meant to save him, politically, in Israel in light of legal problems and talk, on and off, of snap elections. Similarly, he used the speech to relegate the Palestinian question to a low level of priority compared to the “existential threat” that Iran poses to Israel according to his vision of the Middle East today. In this respect, he had nothing new to say that he had not said early this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos and the Munich Security Conference last month.
He met Trump during his visit to Washington and the question of Iran and the Iranian nuclear deal signed between the P5+1: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in July 2015 and going into effect six months later, was the topic of the hour. The two sides agreed to cooperate in order to convince the European Union to go along with the American position, supported by Israel, to introduce amendments to the JCPOA. In an interview with Fox News television channel on Sunday 11 March, the Israeli prime minister reiterated that the major threat to Israel in the Middle East is “Iran, Iran, Iran.” He even went as far as alleging that Israel is defending the world from Iran, which he accused of seeking to dominate the world.
This confluence of developments both within Israel and across the Middle East, with a looming confrontation between Israel and Iran in Syria and Lebanon, as well as pro-Iranian groups, like Hezbollah in Lebanon as an example, does not augur well to a strong start for the American peace plan when officially presented. In the meantime, the spectre of early elections in Israel would surely complicate matters for American negotiators when they begin pushing the Israelis to accept the plan.
The three senior American officials who drafted the plan, Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and the American ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, had met with Netanyahu on Sunday 4 March to discuss, in general terms, the basic elements of the plan. In the weekly cabinet meeting of the Israeli government on Sunday 11 March, the Israeli prime minister told his cabinet that there is no “concrete” American peace plan, a statement that leaves many perplexed on the true intentions of Netanyahu and his governing coalition vis-a-vis this plan.
On the other hand, the Trump administration will have a difficult time selling its peace ideas to the Palestinians, who have been touring world capitals in an attempt to find a new mechanism for peace that would not be, solely, dependent on American diplomacy in the peace process. In the wake of the Trump decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the later announcement by the US Department of State last month that the American embassy would move to its new premises in Jerusalem next May, the Palestinian Authority is in no mood to appear as an appeaser of the Trump administration. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the Palestinians declined an official invitation from the United States government to participate in a conference organised by the American administration on the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and how to ease it. Of course, boycotting such a conference would not help the Palestinian question. On the contrary, it would complicate further the already tense relations between the Palestinian Authority and the Trump administration. Regardless of the reasons, Palestinian engagement with the White House is still important and relevant. On receiving Netanyahu on Monday 5 March at the White House, President Trump said the Palestinians “are wanting to come back to the table very badly.”
The Gaza conference aims at stabilising the situation after many serious warnings from United Nations officials that the humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip have become humanly unbearable. In an op-ed article in the Washington Post, Jason Greenblatt emphasised that Hamas is responsible for the deterioration in living conditions in Gaza, but such a responsibility does not “absolve us of the responsibility to try to help.” He added, “we are beholden to find a path to a brighter future for the Palestinians of Gaza.” Palestinian participation in such a conference would have provided the Palestinian Authority to present its case to the White House directly on the Palestinian and Arab positions with regard to any peace deal between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Being absent could be good domestic politics in the West Bank and Gaza but is no substitute for serious diplomatic engagement with the United States and the European Union. All the more so, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has heard from European leaders that the American role in the peace process remains indispensable.
In explaining Palestinian absence from the Gaza conference, a senior Palestinian official, Ahmed Majdalani, was quoted in the New York Times, on Monday 12 March, saying that the Palestinians turned down the American invitation because the American role was to “liquidate the Palestinian national project.”
Against this background, the American administration has serious homework to do before presenting its peace plan to the Israelis and Palestinians. Timing is of utmost importance. The present times are not, I am afraid, most opportune to submit peace proposals to Israeli and Palestinian leaders who are not certain to remain in charge, and with unstable political situations both in Israel and in Palestine (the West Bank and Gaza).
Hussein Haridy is a former assistant to the foreign minister