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Monday, 19 August 2019

Trump cannot push his Mideast 'peace plan' because of coalescing Arab rejection, experts say

Ahmed Eleiba examines the odds of accepting the US administration’s plans for the peace process

Ahmed Eleiba , Thursday 25 Apr 2019
Sisi - Abbas
Sisi and Abbas at the presidential palace this week in Cairo
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Palestinians have often been accused of rushing to US-prepared negotiating tables that lacked frameworks that respected the established principles of the Palestinian cause and the historic rights of the Palestinian people, such as the right of return for Palestinian refugees and East Jerusalem as the capital of an independent Palestinian state.

This time is different. Ramallah is not willing to deal with the plan prepared by US President Donald Trump’s senior advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner and US Mideast Envoy Jason Greenblatt. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made this explicit during his visit to Cairo this week to take part in an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers and to meet President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi.

According to sources in Cairo, Abbas is not just acting pre-emptively before the US plan is revealed in detail. He has begun to prepare the steps he will take after he formally declares his rejection of the plan when it is officially proposed two months from now, as Kushner said it would be. In his speech in the emergency Arab ministers meeting, Abbas stressed the need for a “safety net” as he expects the US to impose sanctions when he rejects the plan. Some US officials have already hinted at this scenario.

Major General Mohamed Ibrahim, who was formerly in charge of the Palestinian desk at the Egyptian General Intelligence, believes that it would have been wiser for Abbas to wait until the plan was unveiled as this would enable the formulation of a more comprehensive stance. Ibrahim pointed out that when Palestinian Prime Minister Mohamed Shtayeh said that the plan would be “stillborn”, Greenblatt rebuked him for condemning a plan he hadn’t seen yet. “Greenblatt’s message was intended to reach others,” Ibrahim added.

However, Ibrahim also believes that the policies of the current US administration may have pushed Abbas into taking this stance. Referring to Abbas by his nom de guerre, he said, “Abu Mazen always used to see the US administration as a full partner. At the time when Ehud Olmert was prime minister, [former US secretary of state] Condoleezza Rice went into considerable detail on the issues of concern. In the Obama era, President Abu Mazen told me that when he met Obama when he was running for president he had felt that he had been speaking with a fellow Palestinian rather than a potential US president.”

Ibrahim said that presidents Bill Clinton, George H W Bush and George W Bush had shown similar levels of understanding in Madrid, Oslo, Wye River, Camp David II and other such processes. “But now, since the outset of the Trump era, Washington has taken the opposite course as could be seen in Kushner’s and Greenblatt’s first tours of this region and in the recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. On top of this came Washington’s stance towards UNWRA which gave a negative signal with regard to the question of the refugees. In other words, the US has acted pre-emptively on certain final status issues. In addition, there is its obvious bias in favour of [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu as evidenced in its successive gifts to him and support for him during the elections.”

According to Ibrahim, recent developments and leaks suggest that a broader Arab rejection of the plan is beginning to coalesce. Jordan has begun to show resistance to the plan. Despite good US-Jordanian relations and Jordan’s need for the US, Amman fears that reactions to the plan will generate instability in the region. Cairo prefers to wait until the plan is officially announced before declaring its position, but it has reiterated its commitment to the essential principles of the Palestinian cause and the rights of the Palestinian people.

But the Palestinian affairs expert also predicted that an ultra-right wing government will be formed in Israel and that it would probably refuse to make the necessary concessions. “Therefore, the rejection will come from the Israeli side and they will be responsible for the plan’s failure.” 

On the nature of the plan itself, Major General Ibrahim holds that if it is exclusively an “economic peace”, as some rumours have suggested, it would be unlikely to work. The plan needs to address the political concerns that are central to the Palestinian cause.

Sinai is not part of the plan, according to Greenblatt. On 19 April, he tweeted: “Hearing reports our plan includes the concept that we will give a portion of Sinai [which is Egypt’s] to Gaza. False. Please don’t believe everything you read. Surprising and sad to see how people who don’t know what’s in the plan make up and spread fake stories.”

Said Okasha, director of the Israeli Studies Unit at the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies, told Al-Ahram Weekly, “Some days ago, Greenblatt began to respond to speculation and rumours. At first, he didn’t do that. This means that the plan is complete and waiting for Netanyahu to form his government.” Okasha added that he believes that there had been no written plan until recently. “There was a concept being formulated and it included Sinai. But in the end, Sinai will not be in the plan,” he said. “I can’t imagine that anyone in Egypt could have approved of such a notion without putting his career at risk and without triggering a wave of instability in Egypt,” Okasha said, adding that “the US also realises that the military establishment in Egypt would strongly oppose it. Egypt’s national borders are something sacred in Egypt. Egypt stretches beyond its borders; it does not shrink inside them. Also, consider what Sinai symbolises to the military establishment and to the Egyptian people.”

Another military expert also believes that Sinai had originally been included in the plan. “I think that their concept had initially included the notion of a statelet in Gaza that would be expanded at Egypt’s expense. However, the US team realised that such a notion would be impossible to achieve and, therefore, dropped it when it was no longer an option.”

THE PLAN’S PROSPECTS

In an interview with The Atlantic on 19 April, outgoing French ambassador to the US Gérard Araud assessed the prospects of the Kushner plan: “[I]t will be a proposal very close to what the Israelis want. Is it doomed to fail? I should say 99 per cent yes, but one per cent, you never forget the one per cent. Trump is uniquely able to push the Israelis, because he is so popular in Israel.”

According to Araud, Kushner does not know the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but he is “extremely smart” and “so rational”, but also “so pro-Israeli”. Araud, who admits being close to Kushner, told The Atlantic that the White House strategy rests on three factors, the first being Trump’s popularity in Israel. “He is more popular than [Benyamin] Netanyahu in Israel, so the Israelis trust him. That’s the first bet, Kushner told me.” The second factor “is that the Palestinians may consider it is their last chance to get limited sovereignty and the third element is that Kushner is going to pour money on the Palestinians.” However, Araud adds, “the problem is that the disproportion of power is such between the two sides that the strongest may conclude that they have no interest to make concessions.”

Will it be an opportunity lost for the Palestinians if they reject the plan or a “last chance” according to Kushner’s logic as related by Araud? Sources in Cairo wonder what chance can there be if it is so detached from the basic issues.

Sobhi Asila, editor-in-chief of Mukhtarat Israiliya (Israeli Selections), published by Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, told the Weekly that there is not just a Palestinian rejection but a mobilisation of rejection. “This is what Abu Mazen was doing at the emergency meeting at the Arab League. This position, in itself, could be a kind of pressure card. An indication of this is that Greenblatt has begun to speak not so much of a ‘deal’ but of a ‘plan’ that will be proposed for negotiation. This wasn’t the case before. We’re therefore moving from generalities and absolutes to the realm of negotiations over a fully-fledged plan with concrete features.”

Asila agrees with the conjectures that the plan has undergone numerous changes at various stages in its formation, the exclusion of the Sinai option being one of the changes. He also thinks that economic pressures are part of the plan. Washington’s decision to cut funding to UNWRA and the Israeli government’s decision to withhold tax transfers to the Palestinian Authority, for example, are intended to compel Palestinians to approve a plan that will “pour money” on them and finance the reconstruction of Gaza.

Okasha believes that the US will use the “last chance” card as another means to pressure the Palestinians. “Trump will say, ‘we made you a proposal and you refused’. If he’s re-elected, no one in his administration will bring up the subject of negotiations again. He’ll shut the doors. It will probably also be hard to ensure that certain issues, such as Israeli settlements, will remain on the negotiating table. In 1978, when Egypt initiated the negotiations, there were about 7,000 settlers. Today, there are more than 700,000. Abu Mazen will be offered part of the West Bank now. Later on, he might not find even that. He might even be surprised by a US recognition of an Israeli annexation should he reject the plan. Will the opportunity be to avert the US threat and its repercussions in the event of a Palestinian rejection? We will see.”

So, what will be offered to the Palestinians? According to reports from a meeting that Kushner held with 100 diplomats and according to an Arab source who had met Greenblatt and Kushner during their Middle East tour, there definitely is a written plan and it is over 50 pages long and therefore contains a lot to talk about. But despite this, “the central idea that needs to be discussed is whether the financial advantages surpass all other aspects from the Palestinian perspective,” the Arab source said, adding that Washington “is banking on a regional solution and an economic peace”.

In the opinion of Major General Ibrahim what is on offer for the Palestinians so far is not enough. “Trump does not see the PA or Palestinian principles as we do or even from the perspective of previous US administrations. But in the end, the plan cannot be forcibly executed and there will certainly be negotiations. As they say, ‘you can force a war on us, but you can’t force a settlement on us.’ I believe Trump is governed by a businessman’s mentality and the group around him complies with him.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: It's not the end until it's the end. 

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