Rayhan Ahmed Topader:
Recent violence and rising tensions in the West Bank are fuelling a climate of hatred and fear, driving both Israelis and Palestinians further away from a resolution to the conflict, the United Nations envoy for the Middle East Peace Process has said. The steady deterioration of chances that a lasting peace can be negotiated between Israel and Palestine as two States live side by side, reflects a collective failure of leadership across the region and the world. A senior United Nations official has called on the global community to remain committed to the two-state solution in the Middle East peace process, urging efforts to establish an environment conducive to the return of negotiations to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The political process, which began in Madrid and continued in Oslo has been stalled since 2001. Meanwhile, the conflict has intensified, positions have hardened, and the possibility of an agreement remains elusive. More of the same will not produce different results. So, Kushner decided to start with economics, not politics. He seeks to improve the economic lives of the people of the region, not just among Palestinians, but also young Jordanians and Egyptians. People need hope and progress before debating where to draw border lines. No one has tried this promising approach before. Kushner’s Bahrain conference got far less attention in Western media than it deserved.
While some noted the absence of Palestinian Authority officials and some missing Arab government representatives, almost none noticed that Kushner won real funding commitments to build infrastructure and fund local reforms to speed job creation and jump start Arab economies. This has the benefit of transforming Middle East peace’s biggest stumbling block a growing, restive army of unemployed youth into a driver of cooperation. Prosperity thins the number of protestors while promoting peace. The Palestinians, therefore, face a choice between an unsatisfactory compromise and a continuous (and soon irreversible) deterioration of their situation. Perhaps they will conclude that taking a deal will be a good first step. That, at least, is the calculation of Kushner, who repeatedly says that his plan will be “better for the Palestinians than they think. At the same time, both sides would be relieved not to have to answer to US pressure. The Palestinians fear having a quasi-Israeli diktat imposed on them. And Israel knows that Trump, who has a purely transactional view of diplomacy, expects it to repay his generosity by making concessions toward a peace deal. Above all, the status quo favours Israel, which can keep the West Bank without having to decide whether to make Palestinians Israeli citizens or foreigners on their own land. Moreover, Israel may conclude that its overwhelming regional military superiority ensures its security at least as well as any peace agreement would if not better.
US President Donald Trump talk as the president meets with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in Washington, US, on March 25, 2019. By with-drawing American troops from northern Syria, US President Donald Trump has once again signalled that his administration recognises only two national interests in the Middle East: containment of Iran and Israel’s security. Regarding the former, the United States recently sent more troops to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main regional adversary. As for the latter, Trump has repeatedly said that he will present a plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Because such an initiative could become a factor in the 2020 US presidential election campaign, Trump will have to decide soon whether to fulfil this commitment once a new Israeli government takes office following the country’s parliamentary election held last month. These considerations help to explain the Trump administration’s numerous recent favours to Israel, including the transfer of the US embassy in the country from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and US recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. Kushner’s goal is to show the Israelis that they can trust Trump when he puts peace proposals on the table. To the extent that Trump is now more popular in Israel than Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the US approach has clearly worked. Kushner’s plan is now ready. It is 50 pages long, he told me a few months ago. Although the plan’s contents are a well-kept secret, they are likely to be close to Israel’s position.
The US proposal might, therefore, offer the Palestinians a large degree of autonomy rather than a full-fledged state, and maintain most of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Is the Kushner plan, therefore, doomed to fail? That is arguably the safest bet, given the inability of previous US presidents to bring peace to the region over the last 20 years.
But we must not rule anything out. In June, the Trump administration put forward a separate proposal for massive economic aid to the West Bank and Gaza, including some USD 50 billion in investments over ten years. Such a package may well appeal to people in dire economic need. Moreover, it is “five to midnight” in the West Bank: the continued expansion of Israeli settlements will soon render impossible the territorial compromise necessary to establish a viable Palestinian state. An arbitrator could, in theory, overcome these obstacles. Moreover, Kushner’s close ties to Israel may paradoxically be a further asset. History shows that winners of geopolitical confrontations almost never voluntarily give up the fruits of their victory. Israel, a regional superpower with a post-industrial economy, nuclear weapons, and an unwavering alliance with the US, clearly has the means to impose its will on a weak Palestinian adversary. No Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement could fail to reflect this power imbalance. Moreover, no external party, whether the major European powers or even Arab governments, will affect that balance: the Europeans are divided on the subject, and the Arab Gulf states have largely become de facto allies of Israel against Iran.
Therefore, Israel, holds the key to resolving the conflict. But that means persuading the Israeli public to accept the establishment of a foreign country, possibly an enemy, just 15 kilometres (9.3 miles) from its capital. Everything now depends on Trump, who has publicly promised to transmit his son-in-law’s peace plan to both parties. But whatever Trump decides, and whoever wins the 2020 US presidential election, one thing is clear: Israel and the Palestinians are unable to reach a peace agreement by themselves, as even Israel’s most ardent US supporters now acknowledge. Any subsequent attempt to mediate the conflict will have to be based on recognition of that reality. Like US presidents before him, Trump may well fail to secure an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. But by proposing an agreement instead of merely trying to broker one between the two sides, he could yet establish a model for his successors to follow.
Trump has tasked his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, with developing a detailed peace plan. While that represents a departure from previous US diplomatic efforts, which had always aimed to lead Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate a peace treaty between themselves under American auspices, this new approach is not necessarily a bad idea, because both sides seem incapable of moving forward on their own. The Palestinian Authority disavowed at the ballot box in Gaza in 2006, run by aging leaders, and undermined by corruption has lost the legitimacy that it would need to make concessions.
Israel, meanwhile, has drifted so far to the right that no government could propose to the Knesset a peace plan acceptable to both sides. Therefore, America remains the only power that can secure a peace plan between Israelis and Palestinians. Its leaders should not be too distracted by domestic issues to seize a rare possibility for peace presented by Israeli elections. Kushner’s plan deserves to be tested and evaluated now, while Israel’s Arabs and Jews are open to listening. To do this, it must first succeed in the first stage of its plan, economic empowerment. New roads, port facilities, schools, hospitals and factories, backed by private investors and multinational aid agencies. The lives of ordinary Israelis of differing faiths will be slowly knit together through work and trade. Eventually, this will form the foundation for political compromise and, from that, peace.
Writer and Columnist