As President Trump’s May 21-25 trip to the Middle East approaches, we can expect endless speculation as to what he will broach with Israel and the Palestinians by way of trying to bring about new negotiations.
Certainly, how he views his own and America’s role will be critical. A major focus will doubtless be on what has come to be known as the Trump negotiating style and how it might impact a process that has heretofore enjoyed scant success. Given his experience in the business world, it would be foolish to question his prowess in forging deals. Yet the failures of past administrations in brokering a Mideast peace deal should give the president pause while acting as signposts as to what to avoid.
For one thing, while the notion of being an evenhanded broker may be appealing as a way to gain the confidence of both sides, applying it in this instance would be a grievous error. What we have said many times bears repeating. The two sides do not come to the table as equals and cannot be treated as such if a successful outcome is the goal.
Israel has earned enormous territorial leverage over the Palestinians by virtue of its having successfully fought back in several wars of intended annihilation launched by the Arabs. And Israel has developed into a world-class military, economic, agricultural, and technological power. So it is simply an unreasonable proposition that Israel must make grand, unilateral concessions at the expense of its hard-won security.
Prior negotiations broke down because the United States sought to neutralize the Israeli advantage at the insistence of the Palestinians, who not only demanded negotiations that ignored the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict but that also reflected the Palestinian narrative.
We continue to believe that progress is impossible unless the reality of what has occurred over the past several decades – and how Israel came to be in possession of lands the Arabs insist is theirs – is introduced early on. It would be nothing if not counterproductive if the Palestinians were to learn what they are up against after they agree to sit at the table and feel they have been hoodwinked.
This is not to say the U.S. should conduct the negotiations or make demands. But it is to say the U.S. must make clear from the outset that it will not force Israel to do anything it doesn’t want to do. Thus, for example, if Israel insists on retaining settlements with large Jewish populations, the U.S. will go along with it.
If that kind of approach becomes a given, the natural course of negotiations could lead to realistic Palestinian positions and to possible solutions. An approach like this will set early parameters – parameters the Palestinians would have to deal with if they wanted Israel to remain at the table.
It’s also important that Mr. Trump not back off from his campaign promises to promptly move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and, implicitly, recognize Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel. Both actions are required by American law but have been ignored by previous administrations.
If there is to be any chance for a successful conclusion to negotiations, the U.S. cannot be seen as acting in response to Arab and world pressure.
Nor can the fundamental question of who speaks for the Palestinians be papered over. Artificially propping up Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah cohorts vis-a-vis Hamas solves nothing. Israel has to know that the promises the other side makes will be enforced.
Finally, a realistic assessment has to be made as to how the general Iranian threats to Israel, and the presence of Iran and Hizbullah on the Golan, are to be factored into the negotiations. Seeking Israeli agreement to an artificial resolution is a fool’s errand.