Soon after the April 9 elections, the White House is
expected to unveil US President Donald Trump’s long-anticipated plan to advance
peace in the Middle East. Critics aren’t waiting to read the actual text.
They’ve already declared the effort doomed from the start. Yet such cynicism
could very well prove wildly off the mark.
Senior US officials are quietly meeting with Arab, Jewish and Evangelical leaders to prepare them for the spring rollout. Earlier this month, Jared Kushner – the plan’s chief architect – traveled with White House colleague Jason Greenblatt to the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to brief them on what’s coming and to seek financial backing for the plan’s more ambitious features.
“We are hoping when this [plan] comes out that people will look at it with a fresh perspective and say... this is the right package of compromises for both sides to take, in order to leave the past behind and try to start a new chapter where there can be tremendous hope and opportunity in the region,” Kushner told Sky News Arabia.
Last Thursday, Greenblatt held a “listening session” at the White House with prominent Evangelical leaders, such as the Rev. John Hagee, founder of Christians United for Israel, Paula White-Cain, Jentezen Franklin and others to field questions and address concerns regarding the plan. I was grateful to be included. Later that day, I also had a private lunch with Vice President Mike Pence and then an Oval Office meeting with the president to discuss Jerusalem, the Iran threat and other vital matters related to the peace process.
Such outreach efforts by the White House are vitally important because the sniping is well under way and intensifying.
“Kushner’s Peace Plan Looks Dead on Arrival,” declared Politico.
“Kushner’s Peace Plan Is a Disaster Waiting to Happen,” insisted Foreign Policy magazine.
“Trump’s pursuit of his ultimate deal is almost certain to turn into the ultimate failure,” concluded Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official.
Palestinian leaders, meanwhile, have been publicly blasting the plan for months, while adamantly refusing to meet with administration officials.
Last July, Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian ambassador to the UN, vowed the Trump plan would be “dead on arrival.”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said in November “the deal of the century is... the slap of the century” and “will not pass.”
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, recently denounced the plan as “a ridiculous and doomed-to-fail attempt at normalizing Israeli crimes.”
Despite such a barrage of criticism, there are, however, two reasons why such conventional wisdom may prove entirely wrong.
First, the Trump team could stun everyone by including provisions in its plan that the Palestinians would find far too attractive to dismiss, drawing them back to the negotiating table despite all their trash talk.
Remember what Trump said after announcing he would move the US Embassy to Jerusalem? “If there’s ever going to be peace with the Palestinians, then this was a good thing to have done... Now Israel will have to pay a higher price... The Palestinians will get something very good, because it’s their turn next.”
Such a prospect has some in Israel quite concerned, especially on the Right.
“It seems that everybody is in the loop, planning the Palestinian state right over our heads: the Americans, the Saudi prince, the Palestinians, the Jordanian king – even Erdogan of Turkey, blatant anti-Semite! Even he’s in the loop!” warns Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the New Right Party. “Everybody’s in the picture. Everybody but us, the people of Israel.”
There is, however, a second and potentially more compelling reason why the conventional wisdom could be wrong. The Trump team may not be worried in the slightest that the Palestinian leadership will reject its plan. Indeed, it may actually be counting on it and hoping that one Gulf Arab state after another will become so fed up with perennial Palestinian rejectionism that they will decide to finally take bold steps toward full peace with Israel.
Imagine a scenario in which the US plan contains language indicating that Trump “could support a two-state solution if both Israelis and Palestinians can find a way to reach a mutually acceptable agreement,” and that Trump is “open to east Jerusalem neighborhoods becoming the capital of a Palestinian state.”
Such language would infuriate the Israeli Right. It might also initially upset many American Evangelicals, who deeply love Israel and don’t want to see Jerusalem divided.
Yet what if the inclusion of these two points – which Trump has actually already said publicly – paved the way for the leaders of Bahrain, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt and Jordan, to publicly declare that the Trump plan, “while far from perfect,” is nevertheless “serious” and “credible” and “an acceptable basis for immediate direct negotiations,” in keeping with “the spirit of the Arab Peace Initiative”?
Such positive statements about the Trump plan would be the geopolitical equivalent of the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” from the Arab states. Might Abbas still stubbornly refuse to enter peace talks with Israel even after such qualified endorsements? Perhaps, but the media throughout much of the Gulf (except, of course, Al Jazeera) would cover Palestinian intransigence extensively. Arab journalists, think tank analysts and former government officials might begin to ask hard questions:
Is there no peace plan the Palestinians will consider seriously? Isn’t 70 years of saying no to peace enough? Are we really going to let the leaders in Ramallah hold the rest of the Arab leaders and their national interests hostage forever? Facing the incredibly dangerous prospect of the Persian bomb, shouldn’t we forge a security and economic alliance with the US and Israel to contain and neutralize the Iran nuclear threat before it’s too late?
Such a conversation would be healthy, and could lead to public opinion in the Gulf states becoming increasingly favorable to normalization of relations with Israel.
At this point, I concede that it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which Abbas says yes to any American peace plan. Tragically, he risks going to his grave as the man who deprived generations of Palestinian men, women and children of the freedom, opportunity and economic prosperity they crave and rightly deserve.
Yet, given the seriousness of the Iran threat, and the rise of a new generation of Arab leaders who think very differently from their predecessors, it’s actually no longer difficult to envision a scenario in which Abbas’s rejection of a reasonably structured Trump plan could actually breathe new life into a regional peace process. Indeed, it could create the very conditions that Gulf Arab leaders need to allow them to fly to Jerusalem – or invite an Israeli prime minister to their capitals – to negotiate their own peace treaties, thus hyper-accelerating regional trade, investment and economic growth, and making history.
Arab leaders showing such courage and boldness would see their stock rise sharply among the American people, including among Evangelicals. And by not letting Abbas hijack the peace process, the Gulf Arab leaders might actually persuade their Palestinian brethren over time to return to the negotiating table, once they’ve beheld the beautiful fruit of peace.