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Thursday, 15 November 2018

Trump's deal of the century: In the doldrums

Ahmed Eleiba examines Cairo’s take on the “deal of the century” on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict proposed by the United States

Ahmed Eleiba , Thursday 5 Jul 2018
Al-Sisi, Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi meeting with US peace process envoys Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt in Cairo two weeks ago (Photo: AP)
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US President Donald Trump’s claim in his remarks before his meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah in Washington on 25 June that “a lot of progress has been made in the Middle East, a lot’’ does not jive with the results of the Middle East tour undertaken by his peace process envoys Jared Kushner and Jason Goldblatt, judging by the official statements issuing from Cairo, Riyadh, Amman and Doha.

Kushner also told the Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds that the Arab leaders he had met remained committed to the established principles of the Palestinian cause, which inherently conflict with the new US proposal for a “deal of the century” solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Kushner’s and Goldblatt’s five-stop tour to present this new US vision included Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar. It by-passed the Palestinian Authority, which lashed out against the Trump administration for attempting “to bury” the Palestinian cause.

Top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that Kushner was trying to put the second phase of the deal of the century into effect “after they thought that they had taken Jerusalem off the negotiating table and that the time had come to put paid to the Palestinian cause.”

Jordan was the scene of considerable diplomatic activity related to the White House plan. A Palestinian delegation arrived in Amman to inquire into further details concerning the Jordanian position towards the American proposal, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also visited Amman a few hours before the US delegation arrived.

Although the official Jordanian media portrayed the visit as related to Jordan’s current difficult economic circumstances and unconnected to the American visit, the Israel Today newspaper cited a source as saying that the visit, “which was not photographed and was only announced after Netanyahu returned, signifies that the deal of the century has entered a critical phase.”

The Israeli Ma’arev newspaper reported that Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman had taken part in the Netanyahu-King Abdullah meeting, but Jordanian sources denied this.

In Cairo, the Kushner-Goldblatt visit to market the deal of the century was not greeted with enthusiasm. A statement released by the Egyptian presidency reasserted the established principles of the Palestinian cause and President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s official spokesman stressed that the peace settlement must be based on “agreed-upon international frames of reference and on the two-state solution” that provides for the establishment of a Palestinian state within the pre-June 1967 borders with its capital in East Jerusalem.

A source familiar with the details of the Cairo meeting told Al-Ahram Weekly that in Cairo’s opinion, the Kushner-Goldblatt tour revealed that Arab opinions overlap on some points and intersect on others.

Cairo’s stance is consistent with alleviating the humanitarian plight in Gaza, and it is contributing to this in a practical way by opening the Rafah crossing and widening it.

Cairo took pains to put the Palestinian authorities in the picture regarding the details of the US delegation’s visit. The source stressed that the meetings in Egypt did not even remotely broach the idea of a land swap that would cede part of Sinai to Gaza in exchange for an equal portion of the Negev, as Cairo had already ruled out such a possibility long ago.

The source agreed that Cairo was not as enthusiastic about the project as it had been. This, he said, was because some US policies on the issue had diverged from previous policies and understandings.

Responding to an Al-Quds reporter’s question on “the points that are most important to the Arab leaders in a peace plan”, Kushner said that “they conveyed that they want to see a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem. They want a deal where the Palestinian people can live in peace and be afforded the same economic opportunities as the citizens of their own countries. They want to see a deal that respects the dignity of the Palestinians and brings about a realistic solution to the issues that have been debated for decades. They all insist that the Al-Aqsa Mosque remain open to all Muslims who wish to worship.”

Tarek Fahmi, an Israeli affairs expert, observed that at every stage of the visit the US delegation encountered reservations to some part of the US plan.

“Cairo rejected the imposition of the de facto reality on the ground in Jerusalem, and it converged on the Gaza question, which, however, it insisted should not be isolated from other Palestinian issues,” he told the Weekly.

“Jordan was troubled by the idea of an ‘alternative’ homeland. Qatar is looking to establish a strong presence in Gaza and is utilising its relations with the Israelis towards this end. Saudi Arabia is interested in becoming more open to the surrounding region and establishing good relations with all, including Israel, especially since it will be funding this project.”

Fahmi attributed the feeble Egyptian enthusiasm towards the visit to the negative messages coming from Washington, most notably on the questions of Jerusalem and on UNRWA (the UN refugees agency), the Palestinian Authority and the PLO, all of which it appears to be bent on destroying.

There was also a perception that the US envoys were in Cairo to push their plan forwards rather than to obtain the approval of major stakeholders. There was concern over the role played by US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, the most dangerous player in the proposed deal.

Friedman has joined ranks again with US diplomats Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross whom Fahmi described as “a more dangerous lobby than the other Zionist team led by Kushner”.

A sizeable body of Palestinian and Arab opinion believes that the so-called deal of the century is actually in the process of being carried out and that the purpose of the US diplomatic tour was merely to confer a stamp of legitimacy on a de facto reality.

Former Palestinian minister Hassan Asfour, who was a member of the Palestinian negotiating team in Oslo in the 1990s, supports this view and holds that many aspects of the deal had begun to emerge long ago. “We are not looking at a new deal in substance or in essence,” he said in an interview with the Weekly. “This is a proposal that first surfaced in the mid-1990s. That it has been taken out of the drawer and is being implemented today is a historic victory for Israel.”

“We have tangible indications that the plan is moving forward with regards to Jerusalem, such as the transfer of the US Embassy there with all its political implications and repercussions for the Palestinian cause. Then there is the talk about using the village of Abu Dis as an alternative for Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital by means of a ruse that would involve administratively annexing the village to Jerusalem.”

“In addition, the West Bank is being eliminated as the territory for a future Palestinian state by the unprecedented expansion and legitimisation of Israeli settlement construction. UNRWA, which was created to help the Palestinian refugees, is being abolished, and its funding is being diverted to countries that host Palestinian refugees. They are trying to erase all the Palestinians’ internationally established rights, such as the right of return,” he said.

On prospects for a two-state solution to the conflict, Asfour said that “neither the horizons nor the geographical foundations for it exist.”

Said Okasha, an Israeli affairs expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, agrees that the plan is not new. It was essentially a version of the Clinton plan put together by former US president Bill Clinton in the 1990s, he said.

 It keeps the Palestinian Territories divided between the West Bank and Gaza with no land bridge between them. It divides the West Bank territories into three parts: a 60 per cent chunk under Palestinian sovereignty, 20 per cent “reserves”, and 15 per cent “rented” (to settlements). The remaining five per cent would be traded, probably for areas on the Israeli side of the 1967 boundaries.

As for Jerusalem, the main source of dispute in the Clinton proposal and the current one, the US plan proposes annexing the three old quarters of East Jerusalem to Abu Dis through underground tunnels. A series of ring roads and tunnels would serve as links to the holy sites, which would remain under Jordanian administration.

The Arab states do not approve of this proposal, especially where Jerusalem and above all the holy sites such as the Al-Aqsa Mosque are concerned.

Maged Said, a political analyst from the West Bank, agrees with former Palestinian minister Hassan Asfour that a prefabricated plan has simply been dusted off, modified, and set in a framework known as the “regional solution” that has some background in the Saudi initiative adopted at the Arab Summit in Beirut in 2003.

Neither the US administration nor Israel are interested in the Palestinian Authority, according to Said. It was important to note that for the first time since it had established direct relations with the Palestinians in the late 1980s in Tunisia the US administration had marginalised the Palestinians as it moved to negotiate with regional powers while also pushing unilateral solutions to final-status issues that conform with the Israeli vision and serve Israel’s expansionist designs, he added.

Israel has begun to put into effect its plans to annex large areas of the West Bank, using its Separation Wall and settlement expansion towards this end, he said.

“Its aim is to confine the Palestinian state to Gaza, from which Israeli forces unilaterally withdrew earlier this century. This is why Israel is so enthusiastic about the deal of the century, as it is informed by the Trump administration’s decisions on Jerusalem, settlement construction and the refugees, all of which Netanyahu views as personal victories,” he said.

There remain questions related to the role of Gaza and how Hamas and the ongoing Palestinian schism are being used to promote the deal. Sources indicate that Cairo is working to rescue that situation by alleviating the difficult conditions in Gaza.

Many in Cairo are troubled by fears that the “deal” is in fact contingent on creating a “Gazan statelet” as the centre of a future Palestinian state and on excluding the West Bank, 16 times the size of Gaza, apart from provisions to provide access to the holy sites in Jerusalem.

In a related development, it is noteworthy that Israel has agreed unilaterally in principle to the creation of a special port in Cyprus to facilitate the delivery of food and other goods to Gaza in exchange for Israeli POWs and the remains of Israeli soldiers.

Tel Aviv has also approved the construction of a solar-powered electricity generating station for the Strip located at the Beit Hanoun-Erez crossing financed by Israeli and foreign funds.

Details of these projects were reportedly discussed during the meeting between Kushner and Netanyahu.

In addition, Israeli Minister of Defence Avigdor Lieberman said that the US administration is expected to pump large amounts of money into Gaza for humanitarian purposes.

If the “deal”, at least in some parts, is in the process of being carried out, the Arabs still have some cards to play to restrain the Trump administration’s pro-Israeli policies at the expense of the Palestinians.

The Israeli Haaretz newspaper columnist Jack Khoury told the Weekly that Zvi Bar’el, the paper’s Middle Eastern affairs analyst, had circulated the idea that Trump’s deal of the century for the Middle East “might live or die in Cairo” because of Egypt’s influence over Hamas.

However, ultimately Egypt is primarily interested in halting the deterioration of the situation in Gaza because of how this reflects on Egypt’s fight against terrorism in Sinai.

At the same time, Khoury noted that even if the Arabs responded positively to the American proposals behind closed doors, their public stances could only reaffirm established principles in defence of the Palestinian cause. If some concessions were made in favour of Arab and Palestinian principles, the deal could stand a chance, he said. 

Otherwise, it will run aground, the Americans will have to acknowledge another failure, and the Arabs will need to come up with some alternative, he concluded.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Deal in the doldrums

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