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The Cost Of Failed Peace Negotiations

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the road to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse is littered with failed peace initiatives. Forcing negotiations between the parties and laying out frameworks is not a cost-free exercise, particularly when the parties are not prepared to engage.

Nonetheless, it appears that the White House is preparing to release its plan on Middle East peace, and last week, President Trump’s senior advisor Jared Kushner and special envoy for Middle East peace Jason Greenblatt met in Washington with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammad bin Salman to brief the prince on the plan’s status. The administration is engaged in all this effort, despite knowing that its proposal will likely be dead on arrival.

Rather than marching ahead with this vanity project, Trump should hold off and recognize that the ramifications of failure will extend far beyond his White House.

It is unclear what outcome Trump expects once the plan has been released. But another failed attempt at making peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians will only harden each side’s narratives and positions, making any future progress that much more difficult.

Moreover, remaining stuck in the peace process quagmire is having serious consequences on the ground that can only intensify. The weekend before the Saudi Crown prince’s meeting, an Israeli was stabbed to death in Jerusalem’s Old City, two Israeli soldiers were killed in a vehicle attack in the northern West Bank, and a bomb was found along the Israel-Gaza border.

And events over the next two months, starting this Friday, could provide the sparks igniting wide-scale violence. Mass protests backed by Hamas are planned along Israel’s border with Gaza for Friday, Palestinian Land Day, which coincides with the beginning of Passover. Israel’s 70th Independence Day celebrations on May 14th, the ribbon-cutting ceremony heralding the move of the American embassy to Jerusalem that same day, and Palestinian Nakba (disaster) Day on May 15th add more potential for violence.

This president came into office extolling the “ultimate deal” as a policy priority that only he could deliver, yet he has abandoned any pretense of even-handedness, thus comforting the Israelis while enraging the Palestinians. Trump’s announcement recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and stating his intention to move the embassy caused the Palestinian leadership to cut off all communications with the U.S. and demand that any future mediation role between Israelis and Palestinians have international involvement, similar to the P5+1 model utilized for the Iran deal. Whether or not this is realistic, the Trump administration cannot oversee any talks involving a party that refuses to engage with it.

If Trump releases a peace plan that is tilted toward the Israeli side, and the Palestinians reject it — as they have already indicated they will do -– it could also prompt a fierce Palestinian reaction. It will certainly reinforce the Israeli claim that there is no partner on the other side. And it will buttress Palestinian claims that the U.S. is not an honest broker, that Israel is only interested in consigning the Palestinians to a permanent form of statelessness, and that the only way forward is for Palestinians to leave negotiations behind and pursue a strategy of international recognition.

At the same time, powerful political headwinds in Israel are pushing the government to reject the two-state formula and to annex portions of the West Bank, which would end any possibility of a future contiguous Palestinian state. Another Palestinian rejection of a peace deal, no matter how one-sided and out of sync with mainstream Palestinian positions, will only add more fuel to the Israeli argument that it is time to abandon the two-state paradigm.

On the Palestinian side, the nationalist movement to establish a Palestinian state is also giving way in some quarters -– particularly among younger Palestinians -– to a movement for full political and civil rights as citizens of Israel. Increased evidence that the strategy of negotiating with Israel for a state has been and will continue to be a fruitless enterprise will only push more Palestinians into the one-state camp, setting back the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace by decades.

Even the reported design of the Trump peace plan is destined to make things worse, not better. If the two sides are ever to agree on the core issues, it will be because they have gone through a process of negotiation by which each side must compromise on some items as they build mutual trust from the ground up. Presenting a list of fully formed proposals on specific issues, crafted by an outside party, takes away the back and forth of a negotiation between the two sides and provides countless opportunities for each side to reject components entirely. Not only is this a recipe for rejectionist gridlock now, it sets up the next effort to fail as well. Mutual trust and bilateral compromise are essential to a successful outcome. This plan obviates both.

Trump should recognize that his well-intentioned efforts are destined to fail, because the two parties to the conflict are not prepared for what he wants to achieve. A better approach would be to work on improving security for Israelis and improving the Palestinians’ quality of life rather than rushing into the peace process breach.

Rolling out a plan that everyone, including his own aides, expects to be a nonstarter as soon as it sees the light of day, does a huge disservice to Israelis and Palestinians. The costs of failure will be borne by them long after Trump himself has moved on.

Susie Gelman is board chair of the Israel Policy Forum, a non-partisan American organization founded in 1993 that supports a viable two-state solution consistent with Israel’s security.


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