Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, the Trump administration’s Middle East peacemakers, just completed another round of Middle East visits. Their most important interlocutors were Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu and Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), the revolutionary new Saudi leader. Together, the four appear to be launching a project to create a Palestinian Islamist mini-state in the Gaza Strip.
Wait. What happened to the “ultimate deal,” the “deal of the century” that President Trump promised would end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Why is this now boiling down to leaving militant Islamist Hamas, an ally of Iran, in charge of Gaza? And funding it to boot! Why invest a billion dollars of Saudi and United Arab Emirates money in electricity and desalination infrastructure intended to serve Gaza but located in neighboring Egyptian Sinai, currently torn by a seemingly unwinnable war against ISIS?
And how do Jared & Jason, J & J, manage their Palestinian peace file while visiting five Middle East countries but neither Gaza nor the West Bank?
It all goes back to President Trump’s electoral campaign promises.
First, Trump offered the ultimate deal without having the slightest idea of what makes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so intractable. His emissaries, J & J, soon learned that the economic incentives they have to offer cannot solve what is essentially a territorial, political and religious conflict. So they turned to Gaza, where no one is even looking for a peace deal.
Trump’s second Middle East promise, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the U.S. embassy there, was easier to make good on. But that just made it harder to bring the Palestinians to the table. Their leader, West Bank-based Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) cut off all negotiating ties with Washington. He had already cut his financial support for the two million Gazans. Trump’s decision (another promise) to cut U.S. financing to UNRWA, which helps keep Gaza’s majority refugee population afloat, exacerbated the crisis.
None of this has fazed J & J. On the contrary, economic crisis in Gaza and a Gaza-West Bank severance are part of their playbook. In consultation with Bibi and MbS they have a more workable plan. Never mind that it is unacceptable to West Bank Palestinian leaders. No one is asking them because solving their problem is no longer high priority.
The building blocks of this plan are the Iranian threat; Israel’s willingness to lead a regional coalition against Iran; and the Arab world’s loss of faith in the Palestinians’ capacity to unite, lower their expectations and accept an achieavble deal. Strangely, only now have the West Bank Palestinians, who don’t like either Hamas or Israel, figured this out. “Its purpose is to bring down the Palestinian leadership,” roared PLO Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat with reference to the Trump plan. “I am not sure President Abbas has the ability” to make peace, responded Kushner, by way of explaining why the ultimate deal has turned into a dubious Gaza bailout.
Indeed, what will emerge if the U.S., the Saudis and Israel have their way is an Islamist emirate in Gaza propped up economically by Egypt but ideologically still opposed to any Israeli state. It will be complemented by a rump Bantustan in the West Bank with a symbolic capital in a suburb of Jerusalem and no links to the Arab world because Israel surrounds it.
This won’t work. Not only the PLO but also Jordan and Egypt and even MbS’s father, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, still insist on a two-state solution in which Gaza and the West Bank constitute a single political entity. Moreover, Egypt does not want even economic responsibility for the Gaza Strip, which it insists should be Israel’s problem.
Then too, this scheme won’t work because everything MbS touches or endorses regarding regional strategic issues fails spectacularly. He has failed to win the war in Yemen at a huge cost in human suffering. He has failed to isolate Qatar, and he failed last year to force the prime minister of Lebanon to resign by jailing him. He has apparently survived at least one coup attempt. MbS is a loose cannon that J & J invest in at their risk.
And when the new “deal” doesn’t work, matters will get worse for both Israel and the Palestinians. Herein lies a lesson that J & J and President Trump clearly have not paid attention to: If you mess with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without a winning strategic plan and an overriding commitment, the resultant failure will make matters worse. Better not to have tried.
Secretary of State Kerry learned this the hard way in 2014 when his ill-conceived peace plan collapsed and the ensuing unraveling ended up in a war between Israel and Gaza. That solved nothing, and briefly paralyzed life in Israel and amplified the suffering of Gazans. Have J & J noticed that Trump’s Jerusalem recognition, whereby he contributed to peace by “taking Jerusalem off the table,” has already severed U.S.-PLO ties and catalyzed the current violence from Gaza?
Worse will come: war with Gaza or a U.S.-induced West Bank collapse that will cause us all to miss the hapless Abbas, who at least prevents violence.
Finally, lest we be misunderstood, a few self-evident truths. Helping Gaza economically is vital for alleviating the Strip’s humanitarian crisis. Closing down UNRWA could, in the course of decades, be helpful for laying to rest the Palestinian refugee issue. Arab pressure on the West Bank leadership to abandon outmoded demands like the right of return is a good development. And Jerusalem should be acknowledged by all as Israel’s capital.
Just don’t confuse any of this with progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian solution. That requires good will and flexibility on the part of both Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Those qualities don’t exist. The Trump administration, which thinks it can buy peace with Arab money, is doing nothing to cultivate them. It will make matters worse.
Yossi Alpher is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and the author of “No End of Conflict: Rethinking Israel-Palestine.”